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High-Efficiency Air Conditioners: Peak Performers

Room • Central • Ductless Split-System

New federal standards continue to drive energy efficiency in air conditioners. However, although technology is focused on energy efficiency, air-conditioner manufacturers also are increasing their use of Wi-Fi connectivity.

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At press time, new energy-efficiency standards were supposed to take effect for central air conditioners. The standards would increase minimums that were set in 2015. Portable air conditioners also were to receive a federal standard in 2017 that finally would create minimum energy-efficiency standards for those models. However, the arrival of a new anti-regulation administration has cast uncertainty on standards, and at press time, the status of both standards was unclear.

Meanwhile, although Wi-Fi connectivity has existed in premium air conditioners of all types, manufacturers tell Consumers Digest that such connectivity is as big of a technological focus of theirs today as is energy efficiency. Manufacturers expect that more models of air conditioners of all types will have Wi-Fi connectivity.

Of course, innovation comes at a price, but the good news is that we didn’t find a dramatic uptick in pricing over the past 2 years, and manufacturers expect that this will hold for the next 2 years.

REGS RULE. Manufacturers of central air conditioners had until June 30, 2016, to comply with the latest minimum-efficiency standard that was put in place by Department of Energy (DOE). The standard divides the country into three regions: Central air conditioners that are sold in the Southwest and Southeast have to have a seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) of at least 14, while central air conditioners that are sold in the North still may have a minimum SEER of 13.

Matt Barga of Ingersoll Rand, which owns manufacturer Trane, tells us that consumers who live in the Southwest or Southeast can expect to pay at least an additional 10 percent for an entry-level central air conditioner compared with a consumer who lives in the North.

The required minimum SEER was supposed to change in 2017. DOE issued a rule in January 2017 that would raise the minimum SEER by 1 point across the board. The standard was expected to take effect in May 2017, with a compliance deadline of 2023.

“The new standard represents about a 7 percent savings in energy costs to the consumer relative to the prior standard,” says Joanna Mauer of Appliance Standards Awareness Project, which advocates for energy efficiency in appliances. Such a reduction would translate to an average savings of about $20 per year for a consumer in the Southeast, Mauer says.

At press time, it remained unclear whether the standard would take effect because of President Donald Trump’s 2017 executive orders that put federal regulations under scrutiny. “The current administration is a wild card when it comes to the DOE and the [Environmental Protection Agency], so there is some uncertainty there,” Barga says.

David Yates, who is the president of contractor F.W. Behler, agrees. “We’re in uncharted waters,” he says. “With Congress being so fractured and [having] absolutely no bipartisan cooperation, I don’t see much happening unless President Trump decides the regulations are beneficial for jobs or the economy.”

However, Francis Dietz of Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute, which represents manufacturers of central air conditioners, believes that the new standard could take effect. The standard was issued as a “direct final rule,” which means that it was the result of negotiations that involved manufacturers. If the rule were to pass its April 26, 2017, deadline to receive comments and it remained intact, it likely would take effect soon after that, Dietz says.

Uncertainty also exists about the first efficiency standard for portable air conditioners, which was expected to take effect in spring 2017. DOE issued a final rule in December 2016 that had an intended compliance deadline of 2022. The final rule adopts energy-conservation standards for portable air conditioners that are expressed as a minimum combined energy efficiency ratio (CEER).