Breakdown of SEER
The SEER rating on an air conditioning unit is one of the most important factors you should take into account when purchasing a new unit for your home. SEER, which stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, is a number that indicates the maximum energy efficiency of a central air conditioning (AC) unit while it operates over a typical “cooling season.” The higher the SEER rating, the more energy efficient it is, but also the more expensive up front. Yes, a more energy-efficient system will save you money on your monthly utility bills, and a less-than-honest sales person may convince you the savings are well worth it, but there are a few other things you need to consider in determining your ideal SEER number, in addition to that.
First, it will be useful to understand how a SEER rating is calculated. The total amount of energy output (measured in BTUs) used over the cooling season is divided by the total amount of electrical energy input (measured in watts) that is used. In other words, the amount of energy produced to cool a room to a specific indoor temperature is measured against the amount of energy consumed by the AC unit to create this cooling. This measurement is done under a variety of outdoor temperatures ranging from the 60s to the 100s, with variable humidity levels, while maintaining an indoor temperature of 80°F. The resulting average number is what determines the SEER rating.
Every AC system is tested by the manufacturer according to guidelines stipulated by the U.S. Department of Energy. The whole point of performing a test over time like this, with varying temperature conditions, is to try and gauge how much energy an HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) unit consumes when used during a typical summer season in the U.S. However, not all climates are similar across the nation, and a 13 SEER in an arid, hot climate may not be as efficient as a 13 SEER in a milder, moderately warm climate. Similarly, an AC unit’s efficiency will fluctuate based on different weather conditions; how efficiently it runs when it’s 101F outside will differ from how efficiently it runs when it’s 85°F outside. The SEER number is not a constant—rather, it’s the maximum amount of energy efficiency an AC unit can achieve, which means a 16 SEER can reach a maximum operational efficiency of 16 but will sometimes operate at a lower efficiency as well, depending on varying weather conditions.
It’s important to remember that the SEER rating is not a constant value but changes often, much like the MPG of your car changes based on how you drive it. Keep this in mind when you come across a SEER energy savings chart, or one of the many SEER savings calculators you’ll find online. These tools use the maximum SEER number to show you how much energy is being saved, as if an AC unit is going to work at its maximum efficiency 100% of the time, which just isn’t accurate. Also, many of these charts and calculators base their savings percentages on an 8 SEER or a 10 SEER, when you may have a 12 SEER. So, if you see a chart with 50% savings listed above a 16 SEER, then that means a 16 SEER is 50% (at the most)more efficient than an 8 SEER only. If you have a 12 SEER and upgrade to a 16 SEER, you’ll see closer to 25% in energy savings, which is still pretty good.
Determining what is best for your home and budget
Higher SEER units cost more than lower SEER units, but perhaps you like the fact that higher SEER units will not only save you money on your utility bills, but will also reduce energy consumption all around, which is good for the environment, and a higher energy efficient model will reduce your own personal carbon footprint. Now you need to determine the best SEER for your home, your budget, and your lifestyle.
In order to do this, you’ll need to ask yourself a few questions:
- How long do you plan to stay in your home? Higher SEER models will provide better efficiency, but it could take nine, ten, or more years to recoup the initial cost of the unit. If you plan to move within the next five years, a higher SEER may not be worth it.
- What is the climate like where you live? If you live in a climate where there are several months that you don’t run your AC, then the yearly savings won’t be as great as if you lived in an extremely hot and humid climate where your AC is constantly running. So, if you use your AC only part of the year, it will take longer to recoup the initial investment of a higher SEER model.
- What’s your budget? Not just for the cost of the unit, but for the projected costs of maintenance and repair as well? Higher SEER units have components that are usually two to three times more expensive than those used in base models, therefore, repairs will be quite a bit more expensive as well.
- How important is it to you that your appliances are energy efficient in order to benefit the environment? If this is something you value, then a high SEER unit may be right for you.
5 simple steps to determine your ideal SEER
- Repair or Replace: First, determine whether you need a replacement, or if your AC unit can just be repaired. The average life span of an HVAC unit is 15 years (eight-ten years in hotter climates), so if your unit is nearing or has passed that mark, then it’s probably time to replace. Other signs your unit may need replacing include frequent repairs, rising utility bills and inadequate cooling of your home during the summer.
- Know the Essentials: Educate yourself on the process of buying an AC and get to know the common terms used when talking about them, especially as it relates to cooling. Besides SEER, other terms you should know are:
- Air Handler: The part of the central air conditioning system that moves the cooled or heated air through the ducts.
- Load Calculation: Measurements taken within a structure (such as square footage, insulation, ductwork, etc.) to determine its heat loss and gain so a properly sized unit can be installed.
- Compressor: Located in the outdoor unit, the compressor circulates refrigerant throughout your AC system.
- Condenser: A component of the outdoor unit that keeps the refrigerant cool.
- HVAC: Refers to Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning.
- EER: Energy Efficiency Rating. A measurement of an AC unit’s energy efficiency under a single set of temperature conditions. The higher the EER, the more efficient it is. Visit our post on SEER to learn more and to read about how SEER and EER differ.
- Evaporator Coils: Allows for the evaporation of cooling agents from a liquid into a gas, which absorbs heat from the surrounding air in the process.
- Refrigerant: A chemical used in an air conditioning system that absorbs a lot of heat when it changes from a liquid to a vapor.
- Tonnage: The cooling capacity of an air conditioner based on a measurement of how much heat an AC unit can remove from a home in one hour. The higher the tonnage, the more cooling capacity a unit has.
- Search Online for Your Model: Look at your current equipment and write down key elements like model number, manufacturer, SEER rating, etc. and perform a Google search on comparable equipment. Read reviews, compare costs, analyze guarantees and research manufacturers to get a better understanding of the investment costs involved and expected energy savings.
- System Choice: Is your current system or was your current system operating at a satisfactory level? If you don’t feel your current system is cooling your home adequately during the summer months and your utility bills seem particularly high, then replacing your old unit with a higher SEER unit will save you money and provide better cooling. Even if your unit is a 10 SEER and you upgrade to the minimum-required 13 or 14 (depending on where you live), you will still benefit from significant cost savings.
- Review Your Cash Flow: Look at your cash flow – determine whether you want to invest now or spend the money over the lifetime of the equipment. Spending more money upfront on a high SEER unit will result in lower monthly utility bills over the lifetime of the unit, but it could take years before the initial cost is recouped. If you’d rather pay more now to save more later, than a high SEER unit is a wise choice.
Common questions/FAQs about SEER
- Are higher SEER units better made?
Base models, such as 13 SEER and 14 SEER systems, are made with the same quality equipment as higher SEER units. When you pay extra for a high SEER system, you’re paying for increased efficiency only, not better quality.
- Will the minimum-required SEER rating continue to increase?
As technology improves and manufacturers continue making higher SEER models, it’s likely that every several years or so, the minimum SEER rating will increase. In fact, there is a proposal to increase the current 13 and 14 SEER minimum to 14 and 15 by 2023. Increasing the energy efficiency of all appliances is a move in the right direction for the environment and for consumers.
- How can I find out the minimum SEER rating for my state?
Click here for this informative brochure by the U.S. Department of Energy.
- Are there rebate incentives for higher SEER units?
Yes, higher SEER units typically come with incentives and/or rebates offered by federal, state, and local governments. Many utility companies offer rebates as well.
- Do I have to upgrade my unit to the minimum SEER now?
No, if your older model is still working fine, then you do not need to replace it. However, it’s important to note that your old unit is likely going to cost you more to operate than a newer, more energy-efficient model would.
- What is a good SEER rating?
14 and 16 SEER are good ratings for most people. Of course, everybody is different and certain factors such as personal lifestyle choices, concern for the environment, budget, and local climate should be considered. You can find 14 and 16 SEER systems that are well-made, energy efficient units that are both good for the environment and good for your wallet.