If you’re looking into replacing your current cooling system, chances are SEER ratings have come up a few times.
You may know that a SEER rating refers to a central air conditioner or heat pump’s efficiency. But you may not know what that means for your cooling needs.
An inefficient cooling system can drive up your energy bill or may not adequately cool your home. SEER ratings can help identify options that meet your needs.
A higher SEER rating isn’t everything. But a cooling system that’s more efficient than your current system can certainly help.
In this article, we’ll discuss what a SEER rating is, what a good SEER rating is, and what systems with higher SEER ratings can offer you.
What’s a SEER Rating?
A SEER, or Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, rating scores the efficiency of a central air conditioner or heat pump.
To calculate SEER ratings, manufacturers divide a system’s cooling output during a typical cooling season by the energy it used. The higher the rating, the more efficient the system can be.
Cooling systems can fall into three categories based on SEER:
· Baseline, or entry-level, efficiency: 13-16 SEER
· Mid-efficiency: 16-18 SEER
· High efficiency: 20+ SEER
National SEER Standards
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) requires modern cooling systems to be at least 13 SEER, but your state may have increased requirements.
In northern states, the DOE requires air conditioners manufactured in 2015 or later to be a minimum of 13 SEER. But in southern states, the DOE requires air conditioners installed in 2015 or later to be a minimum of 14 SEER.
And the DOE is raising those standards: Beginning Jan. 1, 2023, the minimum rating for residential air conditioning systems will increase to 14 SEER in northern states and 15 SEER in southern states.
This won’t affect your current air conditioning system, but it will affect your options if you’re due for a replacement air conditioner in 2023 or later.
With these standards, the DOE estimates that homeowners across the U.S. will save a total of $2.5 billion to $12.2 billion on energy between 2023 and 2052.
What’s the Difference Between SEER And EER?
Manufacturers use SEER ratings for central air conditioners and heat pumps.
An Energy Efficiency Ratio (EER) rating measures the efficiency of room air conditioners, usually smaller, window-mounted air conditioners.
To calculate an EER rating, manufacturers divide a system's cooling output by its power input. Like SEER, the higher the EER rating, the more efficient the system can be.
EER ratings are more constant because they don’t factor in a range of seasonal temperatures like SEER ratings do.
Of the two, SEER ratings are used more frequently to score efficiency.
What’s a Good SEER Rating?
A “good” SEER rating depends on you and your home. For example, to someone in a large home in a warm, humid climate, 20 SEER might be “good,” and any other rating could be less ideal.
I can’t put a specific number on your satisfaction with your home’s comfort, environmental impact, and utility bills. Only you can do that – and your HVAC partner should be able to help.
Fortunately, there are a lot of options that can meet a variety of budgets and comfort goals.
Air conditioners and heat pumps can reach ratings as high as 26 SEER and above depending on the brand and model. But the system with the highest SEER rating may not be the best system for you and your home.
Though we typically recommend systems with a SEER rating of at least 15-16 SEER, the best system for you depends on your needs and goals.
All air conditioners and heat pumps cool your home to a set temperature regardless of their SEER rating. But higher-SEER systems can get the job done more efficiently, which can save you money.
If your current air conditioner or heat pump is below 13 SEER, you could see even more savings.
I’ve seen 20- to 35-year-old air conditioners that were likely 6 SEER when they were installed. By the time we replaced them, they had deteriorated and were even less efficient.
Homeowners who replace old systems will see drastic savings, even if they go with a 13-SEER system.
SEER Ratings for Heat Pumps
Heat pumps have both SEER and Heating Seasonal Performance Factor, or HSPF, ratings because they both heat and cool.
Efficiency is even more important for heat pumps since they run during both heating and cooling seasons. And since heat pumps use electricity, one of the more expensive energy sources, a less efficient system can cost you more money.
Because of the amount of time heat pumps run throughout the year, a higher-efficiency heat pump will pay for itself more quickly than a higher-efficiency air conditioner may.
SEER Ratings for Ductless Mini-Split Systems
Ductless mini-split systems can reach 30 SEER or more depending on the brand and model. But ductless mini-split systems are more commonly 20 SEER or higher.
Some ductless mini-splits can both heat and cool. Like central heat pumps, ductless mini-split heat pumps have both SEER and HSPF ratings.
Ductless mini-splits are typically used in spaces, such as attics or garages, without adequate ductwork for central air conditioners and heat pumps.
Contractors may also use ductless mini-splits in structures like guest homes, where it may not be cost-effective to install a full-size HVAC system.
Ductless mini-splits can also pose less of a safety risk than window-mounted air conditioners.
A ductless mini-split system has a higher initial cost than a window-mounted air conditioner. But ductless mini-split systems can offer homeowners more solutions to their cooling – and heating – needs.
Other Important Factors: Proper Installation and Equipment Matching
A 13-SEER system and a 20-SEER system, for example, both cool your home to a set temperature. But a 20-SEER system has the potential to do the job more efficiently if it’s installed correctly.
A proper installation is an important factor in your system’s efficiency. If improperly installed, a system that’s rated 20 SEER will not operate at 20-SEER efficiency.
Though contractors typically recommend that homeowners replace heat pumps and air handlers at the same time, a new air conditioner must also match your existing equipment if you aren’t replacing your furnace.
An air conditioner relies on equipment located in your furnace to cool your home efficiently. If the blower motor in your old furnace doesn’t match your new air conditioner, you won’t get the efficiency you paid for.
Other factors can affect an air conditioner or heat pump’s efficiency, which means that there are multiple reasons a new air conditioner or heat pump isn’t running at its peak efficiency. Systems also become less efficient over time.
A SEER rating doesn’t guarantee that an air conditioner or heat pump will always operate on its SEER level. For example, a 20-SEER rating means that the system can operate up to 20 SEER.
What Are the Benefits of a Higher SEER Rating?
While SEER ratings won’t be the only factor in your decision, let’s discuss some of the benefits that come with higher-efficiency systems.
Cooling systems with higher SEER ratings can also provide more comfort than, say, 13 SEER systems.
Mid- and high-efficiency systems typically offer two-stage and variable-speed cooling, respectively, which can increase your comfort.
Entry-level equipment like 13-SEER air conditioners and heat pumps only have one setting – 100% capacity, which means that your system can only be 100% on or 100% off. This is called single-stage cooling.
Single-stage systems can struggle to cool homes with multiple stories due to their decreased runtimes.
Single-stage systems are also the noisiest of the modern options, which some homeowners may find annoying.
With two-stage cooling, the system has two settings: 100% capacity and a lower setting that’s typically around 70% capacity.
This second, lower setting allows two-stage systems to better maintain the temperature in your home, which results in fewer temperature spikes.
Two-stage systems typically fall into the mid-efficiency SEER range.
Variable-speed systems can have up to 700 distinct settings, generally between 30% and 100% capacity.
This range allows variable-speed systems to adjust their output to precisely maintain your home’s temperature.
Variable-speed systems are typically 20 SEER or higher, which can make them the most efficient.
Lower Energy Costs
The difference in efficiency between single-stage, two-stage, and variable speed cooling options may seem counterintuitive at times, especially since two-stage and variable-speed systems spend more time running than single-stage systems. But two-stage and variable-speed systems’ additional settings are key factors in their higher SEER ratings.
A single-stage system is sized for the hottest day of the year. During the rest of the cooling season, a single-stage system can over-cool your home and kick on and off much more frequently, which uses more energy. This is why single-stage systems have lower SEER ratings compared to other modern options.
A two-stage system may run on its lower setting for 75% of the cooling season in places like Columbus, OH. A two-stage system uses less energy than a single-stage system.
Since a variable-speed system has a range of settings, it can adjust its energy usage. A variable-speed system may have a longer runtime, but its lower settings result in fewer spikes in energy usage and thus lower energy bills. This is why variable-speed systems have the highest SEER ratings.
Other Cooling Benefits
Two-stage and variable-speed systems also decrease your home’s humidity levels more than single-speed. The longer an air conditioning system runs, the more humidity it pulls out of the air.
A system that runs longer also distributes air better, which helps if your home is more than one story.
When single-stage systems run, they provide the best cooling for the ground floor, which is typically closest to your HVAC system. But single-stage systems may not run long enough to adequately distribute conditioned air to upper floors and attics.
Other Financial Incentives
With some systems, you can save on more than your energy bill. High-efficiency systems can also offer opportunities for you to save money through rebates and tax credits.
Manufacturers and utility companies often provide incentives for high-efficiency systems that aren’t available for entry-level equipment.
These offers will vary by state, region and year, but your HVAC partner should be able to tell you what incentives are available.
How to Choose the Best SEER Rating for You
Cooling systems with high SEER ratings won’t be the best systems for every home or homeowner. Not only will more efficient systems have a higher initial cost than entry-level equipment, but a 1,100-square-foot home and a 7,000-square-foot home, for example, will have different cooling solutions.
In fact, it’s often not as cost-effective for the average homeowner to buy a system with the highest SEER rating. You’ll notice a decrease in energy costs when you replace your old system with any modern system.
While your budget will ultimately help you make a final decision, here are a few other questions to consider when you’re looking at replacing your air conditioner or heat pump:
1. What are your goals for a new air conditioning system? If you’re comfortable with your current energy costs and want to keep your initial costs down, you probably don’t need an air conditioner or heat pump with the highest SEER rating. But if your goal is to decrease your energy costs or decrease your impact on the environment, a system with a higher SEER rating can help with that.
2. How long do you run your air conditioner in the warmer months? If you only turn the air on and only turn it off during colder weather, you could benefit from the increased savings a higher-efficiency cooling system can offer. If you try to use your air conditioner as little as possible, you won’t see the same savings.
3. Are you replacing your furnace too? If not, it’s important to make sure that your existing equipment matches your new air conditioning system. (Typically, it’s best to replace your heat pump and air handler at the same time.) No matter your air conditioner’s SEER rating, if your equipment doesn’t match, you’re not going to get the efficiency you paid for.
4. How long do you plan to stay in your current home? If you plan to move in the next five years, you may not see the full savings a higher-efficiency system can offer. But if you plan to stay in your current home for the next decade or more, you can benefit from both the increased savings and comfort a higher-efficiency system can offer.
5. How many stories is your home? If your home is more than one story, you may want to consider a mid- to high-efficiency cooling system. But there are other options too, like ductless mini-split systems.
6. How much space do you have available for a new cooling system? The more efficient an air conditioner or heat pump is, the larger the indoor and outdoor units are.
If you’re ready to take the next step toward a more efficient air conditioning system and you live in the greater Columbus area, we’d love to sit down with you! Enter your zip code below to see if you’re within our service range.