What does SEER mean when you are looking at air conditioners? Is more really better, does a high SEER unit pay for itself? Why do HVAC companies push high SEER air conditioners, and is the massive price worth it?
The first thing you need to know is that the SEER rating of an air conditioner is only achieved if it is correctly installed and commissioned! The installation quality makes all the difference with an A/C system, even more so than with a furnace. The second thing to know is that what makes sense in one region of the US for SEER ratings does not make it worth it in another region (like Rochester) where we use air conditioners significantly less than somewhere like Nevada.
SEER – Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio. Basically, a SEER rating is an average rating for how efficient an air conditioner is in terms of electricity usage. Think of it like the MPG rating on the window sticker when buying a car. You may experience more or less than what it is rated at depending on a lot of conditions, it is simply an average / guideline.
Regulations – Older units are typically 10 SEER or less and decrease in efficiency over their lifespan. We use 10 SEER as a benchmark to display how much you are honestly going to save with more efficient units. Today, in the Rochester region, regulations require all new air conditioners to carry a minimum 13 SEER rating.
Do high SEER air conditioners pay for themselves? – The simple answer is that it depends on the region. In a region like Rochester, they typically DO NOT.
The reason is fairly simple. The benefit of jumping from an old 6-10 SEER system to a modern 13-14 SEER system is massive, and easily the most affordable option to install. Moving up from these to a 17, 19, or 20+ SEER air conditioner raises installation cost by thousands of dollars to gain single digit benefits per month. In the Rochester region specifically, you will likely never reach the break even point before replacing the unit. They also have a much higher break down rate, which will eliminate any possible savings.
Here is how it breaks down:
Going from a 10 SEER AC to a 14 SEER York air conditioner will be over a 30% jump in efficiency (30% drop in electricity use), and is the least expensive option to install. As a bonus, this type of system will also have the least amount of complex components and the least amount of breakdowns / repairs over time.
A 17 SEER system vs. a 14 SEER air conditioner will save you between 14% and 18% on electricity, but cost roughly $1,000 more to install. Based on the cost of electricity and average time using an A/C in Rochester, this jump would take between 15 and 20 years to pay the difference in savings, assuming no break downs!
A 19 SEER AC vs. a 14 SEER system would gain a 23%-26% advantage in efficiency, but cost $1,500 – $2,000 more to install. This would take 20+ years in Rochester to reach a break even point. Again, this is assuming no breakdowns!