The new minimum federal standard for residential air conditioning systems is a seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) of 13. The tougher standard, which took effect in January, is the most dramatic change for air conditioners since 1992, when efficiency requirements were raised from 8 to 10 SEER.
The new minimum standard is a 30 percent increase above the previous level, and it raises the price tag of a minimum-efficiency system by about the same percentage. When 13-SEER units become the majority of sales, however, prices will fall, predicts Andy Armstrong, director of marketing for York International. (Air conditioners rated below 13 can be installed until inventory runs out.)
Pumping up efficiency was not a simple process. "It's not just a matter of tweaking. These are major changes," says Rachel Schmeltz, product manager for the Energy Star program. The differences between a 10-SEER and a 13-SEER air conditioner boil down to components that use less electricity. Manufacturers added expansion valves to better regulate refrigerant flow, increased the coil surface area to speed the cooling process, and upgraded indoor air-handler motors to manage air flow.
Nevertheless, systems with ratings up to 20.5 have been available for a few years and can cost 40 percent to 100 percent more than an entry-level system. These high performances are achieved by highly efficient components and the addition of two-stage or dual compressors, improved fan-blade designs that move air more efficiently, variable-speed blower motors that save energy as they remove more humidity from the air, and larger or multiple-coil surfaces.
To qualify for the Department of Energy's Energy Star label, an air conditioning system must have a 14-SEER rating.
Although most production builders won't be seeking systems higher than 13, custom builders–many of whom previously offered 13-SEER systems as a differentiator–and those building Energy Star homes will need to move up an efficiency level to maintain the benefit that they offer over the industry standard.
"In our custom homes, absolutely, we never have the standard," says Jerry Kramer, marketing manager for Goettl Air Conditioning in Tempe, Ariz.
However, installing a higher-efficiency unit may not make sense in northern states where an air conditioning system does not have to run frequently, Armstrong points out. In low-cooling-demand areas, 13 SEER may provide adequate efficiencies, especially if combined with zoning, indoor air quality accessories, compressor insulation, and variable-speed blowers to increase home comfort.
Still, says Donald O'Brien, residential operations manager of Owens Companies, an HVAC contractor, customers are asking for more efficient units where the company services homes in Bloomington, Minn.
"If we get to work directly with the homeowner, they're asking for higher efficiency," he says. "Most of the ones that are informed are trying to get anywhere from 14 to 17 [SEER]."
Many manufacturers added models to their lines to have a good/better/best structure, helping to simplify the comparison of features and benefits for customers. However, some manufacturers are focusing less on good/better/best selling strategies and more on the greater comfort features that higher-efficiency systems can provide, especially in conjunction with zoned installations, variable-speed indoor air handlers, programmable thermostats, and indoor air quality accessories.
These additional bells and whistles may drive buyers of high-end homes to pay more for a unit, says Robert Helbing, president of Air-Tro, an HVAC installer in Monrovia, Calif., but an unusually warm year has caused other homeowners to upgrade their current units to the new standard or higher.
Helbing's customers are more worried about getting better equipment than the price. "When people are miserable ? they say 'Let's just take care of this,'" he says. He attributes customers' knowledge and desire for higher efficiencies to rising temperatures and energy prices, noting his own energy bills almost doubled this past summer.
"Between the higher temperatures and higher utility rates, air conditioning is getting more expensive," he says. "People are becoming more conscious of energy efficiency."
–This story first appeared in CUSTOM HOME magazine.
Goodman Mfg. Available in 1-1/2- to 5-ton models, the GSC14 series units are rated 14 SEER and come with a galvanized steel cabinet for protection. High-efficiency condenser coils are made of corrugated aluminum fins and refrigeration-grade copper tubing, the maker says, and all functional parts come with a 10-year limited warranty. 877-254-4729.
York. Two-stage compressor technology allows the 18-SEER Affinity system to operate at 67 percent capacity for better efficiency when cooling needs aren't high. At full capacity, the compressor is still quieter and more efficient than a traditional machine, the maker says. The unit's coil panels come in seven colors or 77 college team logos. The unit features a metal coil guard and rugged steel cabinet for protection. 877-874-7378.
Lennox. With SEER ratings up to 14.29, the Elite 13 system uses environmentally friendly, chlorine-free R410A refrigerant. To reduce noise, a separate, insulated compartment houses the scroll compressor, which is up to 15 percent more efficient than piston-driven compressors, the maker asserts. It has the lowest overall sound rating in its class, the company says, and comes with a 10-year compressor warranty. 800-953-6669.
Fedders. The company says it has avoided creating larger units to meet the 13-SEER standard, using condenser coils that require less space and use about 30 percent less refrigerant. Units from 1.5 to 4 tons have quiet, top-air discharge and a coating to protect against rust. A removable top grille makes service access easy. 908-604-8686.
Comfortmaker. Available in 1-1/2- to 5-ton cooling units, the SoftSound SX 2300 system attains up to 14-SEER efficiency when paired with a high-efficiency refrigerant. Improved sound jackets and Copeland scroll compressors make for a quiet unit, the maker says, while a rigid fin design and tight wire coil guard protect it from damage. 931-359-3511.
Luxaire. The 15-SEER Acclimate 5T series system features a forward swept-wing fan design to allow air to flow smoothly off the blade, limiting noise, the maker claims. The system has an isolated compressor compartment and a rust-proof base pan for durability and quieter operation. A full-end access panel and a sliding control box make installation easy. The unit uses environmentally friendly R410A refrigerant. 877-874-7378.
Trane. The XL19i unit is available in SEER up to 19.5, and has dual compressors and a variable-speed outdoor fan motor for increased energy efficiency. The aluminum coil boasts low airflow resistance, greater heat exchanging capabilities, and resistance to corrosion and leaks, the maker says. Quick access to electrical and refrigeration components makes service easier, and the maker offers a 10-year limited warranty on all functional parts. 608-787-2000.
American Standard. The variable-speed condenser fan motor of the Allegiance 18 unit operates at 440 rpm on its low speed for reduced noise levels. It is available in SEER ratings up to 18.9 and dual compressors allow for two-stage cooling and greater humidity control, the maker says. The unit has easy access to all electrical and refrigeration components, and the compressors and coil come with a 10-year limited warranty. 903-581-3300.
Carrier. The 16- to 21-SEER Infinity system features a programmable digital control that manages six comfort functions and offers maintenance reminders. Using non-ozone-depleting Puron refrigerant, the system can manage up to eight different zone settings to eliminate hot and cold zones in the home. It is available in 2-ton to 5-ton sizes and the compressor comes with a 10-year limited warranty. 800-227-7437.
Bryant. With energy efficiency of up to 20 SEER, the 180A unit offers up to 30 times the humidity control of standard systems, the maker claims. A two-stage scroll compressor is used with environmentally friendly refrigerant, and a sound hood and forward-swept fan blade keep operation quiet. The electronic control board automatically adjusts the system for optimum cooling. 800-428-4326.
Heil. With a sound blanket to reduce compressor noise, the QuietComfort DX 1400 unit operates at the lower, quieter speed of its two-speed fan motor the majority of the time, the maker says. Available in a 13- or 14-SEER rating, it features a galvanized steel cabinet and a coated inlet grille with narrower spacing for protection. 931-359-3511.
Copyright 2012 Ronald Sauve All Rights Reserved
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