Energy All-Stars: High-Efficiency Air Conditioners

Room • Central • Ductless Split-System

Thanks to new technology and new federal standards, air conditioners are more efficient than ever before and will improve further in the coming years. Of course, bumps in efficiency also mean bumps in price.

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The government is leaving no stone unturned when it comes to making sure that you have energy-efficient appliances in your home. For example, in September 2014, new federal energy-efficiency standards went into effect for refrigerators. Now, new minimum requirements went into effect for room air conditioners and in 2015 for central air conditioners. The latest: Department of Energy is considering standards for portable air conditioners—the last vestige of the consumer air-conditioning marketplace that’s untouched by regulation.

Today, energy-efficient technology that was used by only one or two manufacturers previously is widespread, and energy-efficiency ratings hit record highs. Air conditioners are getting smarter, too—from being able to sense when you’re in a room to relieving you from making a maintenance call. Contractors tell us that a malfunctioning central air conditioner now can send an email that tells the contractor the problem and which part is required so he/she can fix the air conditioner in one trip, which should cut down on maintenance costs.

That’s a good thing, because more-efficient models will cost you more upfront.

IN EFFECT. In January 2015, DOE minimum-efficiency standards went into effect that divide the United States into three territories: the north, southeast and southwest. Central air conditioners that are sold in the north still must have a minimal seasonal energy-efficiency ratio (SEER) of 13, which has been the national minimum since 2007. However, new central air conditioners that are sold in the southwest and southeast states must achieve a SEER of at least 14.

That change pushed several manufacturers to revamp their lineups. Rheem, for example, says that instead of upgrading a few models to achieve compliance, it will roll out an entirely new product lineup for 2015 that meets these new efficiency requirements, some models of which already are available. Trane, meanwhile, is bringing new models to market in addition to upgrading models that already exist in the company’s lineup.

Unsurprisingly, these new models come with updated and new (read: higher) prices. Manufacturers don’t publish MSRPs for central air conditioners, but the four manufacturers with which we spoke all agreed that, in general, the new models are more expensive than their predecessors were.

No across-the-board formula determines how much more a 14-SEER air conditioner will cost when compared with a 13-SEER model, says Dave Yates, who is the president of heating-and-cooling installer F.W. Behler. He says that, in some cases, manufacturers simply expand the size of the air conditioner and use a bigger coil to get the extra point of efficiency, which is a relatively inexpensive upgrade. Others invest in new compressors or technology. In general, we found that 13- and 14-SEER central air conditioners typically cost $1,200–$3,800.

How New Regional Standards Might Affect You

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However, Charlie McCrudden of Air Conditioning Contractors of America, which is a trade association, says making a big air conditioner can have a big effect on pricing. He recalls the last time that minimum standards went up, to 13 SEER from 10 SEER. “Suddenly, those boxes didn’t fit into trucks the way they used to,” he says. Consequently, transportation and shipping costs went up as a result of units getting bigger and trucks not being able to carry as many in a single shipment.

McCrudden says manufacturers are doing more to keep their models a reasonable size, but he and other experts with whom we spoke agree that prices will climb—at least in southern states where higher efficiency now is mandated—as a result of the new standards.

Split-system air conditioners, which consist of a compressor and condenser in an outdoor metal cabinet, an indoor cabinet that contains the evaporator coil and an air-handling unit that sends cool air through a duct system, must meet similar efficiency standards—13 SEER in the north and 14 SEER in the southeast and southwest. However, split-system models that are sold in the southwest also must have a minimum energy-efficiency ratio (EER) of 12.2. EER is calculated at a single temperature—95 degrees Fahrenheit. SEER, meanwhile, is calculated at a range of 65–104 degrees F.

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