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Air Conditioning SEER Ratings Explained: 17+ Things to Know

seer-ratings-explained.jpgIn 2008, the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute defined a rating to measure the energy efficiency of your air conditioner. That rating is called SEER and it may very well help achieve better energy savings for your home. 

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What is SEER?

SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) is the ratio of the total cooling output of an air conditioner over the length of a season to the total amount of energy consumed during that period. The InspectAPedia website gives a good account of the SEER definition and its meaning in practical terms.

The cooling power of an air conditioner is normally defined in terms of BTU (British Thermal Units) per hour. A few decades ago, when energy was relatively cheap, buyers chose models for their cooling power alone. These days, with the ever-rising costs of energy, buyers are more concerned with the cost to produce the level of cooling power they want.

In other words, the operating cost.

The SEER rating of AC units allows you to compare operating costs between one model and the next. Many years ago, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to find an air conditioner with a SEER of 6 to 10.

However, from January 2015, the U.S. Department of Energy laid down minimum regional standards for split-system central air conditioners. In the Southwestern region of the country, which includes Nevada, the minimum SEER rating must be 14.

However, there are HVAC units that can reach upwards of 26 SEERs.

The Facts About SEER Ratings

How SEER Ratings Are Determined
All air conditioners are rated according to efficiency tests stipulated by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Tests assume an outdoor temperature of 82˚F, an indoor temperature of 80˚F and an indoor relative humidity of 50%.

This rating system implies that an AC unit with a SEER rating of 16 is 60% more efficient than a 10 SEER unit. Of course, this is only relevant if the conditions in your home match those of the test. It would be impossible for the DOE to rate the efficiency according to the conditions in each home.

In reality, climate varies greatly across the country. In Las Vegas, the average July maximum temperature is 106˚F, way above the 82˚F used to rate the air conditioner. This will affect the rated efficiency of the unit.

There are other factors that will affect the efficiency of an air conditioning system. These include the quality of the home insulation and the presence of any leaks in the system or associated ducting.

You Can Use SEER to Calculate Your Energy Consumption
Wikipedia gives a good breakdown of how to do this calculation. You can calculate your energy consumption just by using the ratings of your air conditioner.

As an example, let’s take a 24,000 BTU/h air conditioner unit with a SEER rating of 16 BTU/Wh operating 8 hours a day, for 125 days over the summer season.

The total cooling output over this period would be: 24000 x 8 x 125 = 24,000,000 BTU.

With a SEER rating of 16, the electrical energy usage would be: 24,000,000 / 16 = 1,500,000 Wh = 1500 kWh.

If your electricity cost is 12c/kWh, then your total electricity cost over this period would be: 1500 x 0.12 = $180.

Remember, this is based on conditions used for the SEER rating, which are an outdoor temperature of 82˚F, an indoor temperature of 80˚F and humidity of 50%.

With higher outdoor temperatures experienced in the Las Vegas summer, you would use more electricity to cool the air down.

The Minimum SEER Rating
The DOE stipulates minimum standards for split air conditioning systems in each region of the U.S. These regulations came into effect as of January 2015. Nevada falls within the Southwestern region where a minimum SEER rating of 14 is mandatory.

The Payback from Higher SEER Rated Air Conditioners
There is quite a jump in price from SEER 12 to the higher rated air conditioners. However, they typically pay for themselves through energy savings within a few years. The exact break-even point will depend largely on how many hours a day your AC unit runs.

SEER Rating in Terms of Energy
The Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) is defined as the ratio of the total cooling output of an air conditioner over a season (BTU), to the total amount of energy consumed by the unit during that period (Wh). An air conditioner with a SEER of 14 will use 1Wh of electricity to extract 14 BTUs of heat from the air in your home.

Higher SEER Ratings Help the Environment
By reducing the amount of electricity consumed, higher SEER rated air conditioners can help in the global drive to save the environment. The energy savings equate to taking a couple of vehicles off the road over the life of the AC unit.

SEER Ratings Decrease Over Time
Air conditioners become less efficient as time goes on, with a corresponding decrease in their SEER rating. The best way to prolong the lifespan of your AC unit is to schedule regular air conditioning maintenance with a professional HVAC company.

SEER Rating Myths Dispelled

There have been a number of myths regarding SEER ratings, some of which still persist. The Environmental and Energy Study Institute has a report on some of these myths.

Myth #1: The Government issued SEER 13 Standard Harms Low-Income Families
Most low-income families rent homes with air conditioning, so very few of them will have to purchase an air conditioner unit. They will enjoy the savings on electricity from day one.

Myth #2: The Cost of Moving to the SEER 13 Standard Is Not Covered by the Savings on Utility Bills
Taking the air conditioner use of most families into account, the extra cost for a SEER 13 unit will be made up through lower electricity bills within 4 years. Central air conditioners have a lifespan of about 18 years.

Consumers will have the benefit of many years of energy savings after they have made up that extra cost. These calculations on based on present electricity costs.

Prices for power are likely to go up, which would mean increased savings and a shorter payback period.

Myth#3: The Higher Cost of the SEER 13 Will Prevent People from Replacing Their Air Conditioners
It is unlikely that consumers will keep their old air conditioners when they realize the potential savings in electricity costs. The higher efficiency of the SEER 13 rated units will give them an ongoing reduction in their utility bill over the life of the new air conditioner.

Myth #4: SEER 13 Units Are Much Bigger than Older Units, Requiring Major Renovations to Existing Homes to Accommodate Them
Some of the new units are bigger, but the majority are not. Manufacturers are using latest design technology which means that, in many cases, the AC units can be made smaller.

Myth #5: The SEER 13 Standard Places a Burden on Small Manufacturers
The fact is, SEER technology has been made available to all manufacturers. There is no reason why this should place an extra burden on the smaller companies.

Myth #6: Over 75 Percent of the Models Will Be Eradicated to Accommodate SEER 13
Well, this may be true, but it is the price of progress in any sector of industry. As new technology is introduced, models using older technology will be phased out.

This doesn’t mean that your choice is limited. With SEER 13 being the minimum rating, other models with higher SEER ratings are being manufactured to meet the demand for better efficiencies.

Myth #7: Units With Higher SEER Ratings are Too Expensive and Won’t Save Me Any Money
Air conditioners with higher ratings cost more, but they pay for themselves in a few years with energy savings. You get the benefit of a lower electricity bill for the rest of the AC unit’s life.

Myth #8: Utility Bill Savings Do Not Really Cover the Cost of Air Conditioners with the Minimum SEER Rating 14
Electricity is a utility that is in greater demand and costs more to produce every year. Even industry experts are loath to predict what electricity costs will be in the years ahead.

Even though you may have to fork out the extra cost to purchase a 14 SEER air conditioner, this will be recovered within the first few years. You can then enjoy energy savings for the remainder of the AC unit’s life, which could be up to 18 years.

Myth #9: You Need a Total Home Makeover to Install a High SEER Rated Air Conditioner
The reality is that SEER 14 air conditioners are manufactured in a range of sizes. There is no appreciable difference in size, and this is made possible through advances in technology.

Myth #10: Purchasing an Energy Efficient Air Conditioner Will Automatically Reduce Your Utility Bill
This is not true. The efficiency of any AC system doesn’t only depend on the SEER rating of the unit. There are more factors that have to be taken into consideration like the size of the space to be cooled, quality of the home insulation and leak proofing of ducting.

If you’re interested in purchasing a new air conditioning unit, read up on the subject and weigh up the pros and cons. Your next step would be to call in an air conditioning professional to give you the correct advice.

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