Energy savings come at a cost

Air conditioning is more complex


With the return of hot weather, and with electricity rates set to jump sharply this summer, Marylanders are becoming painfully aware of how expensive it will be to cool their homes from now on.

If their old central air-conditioning systems have been limping for years, many are likely to be ogling the new, high-efficiency systems that promise to cool their homes with up to 30 percent less electricity.

Not so fast.

Industry experts say the new, more-efficient models mandated by the federal government since January might indeed deliver the promised energy savings.

But they also come with a list of caveats.

The new systems are not only 20 percent to 25 percent more expensive, manufacturers say - they're also physically larger. And that, in turn, can make them more difficult and costly to install properly on those pads outdoors, as well as in the closets and furnace rooms indoors where the old components hummed happily for years.

"My air conditioner space is constrained. I can't put [a larger unit] in unless I take out a wall, and my wife doesn't want to take out the bathroom," said Glenn C. Hourahan, vice president of research and technology at the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, an industry group based in Arlington, Va.

The issue has prompted an industry campaign urging homeowners not to cut corners, lest they cancel out the higher efficiency they're paying for, or even worse, condemn their new system to early failure.

"Consumers should be cognizant, if they need to buy a system, of what they are being offered," said Raymond A. Granderson, training manager for Rheem Heating and Cooling Co., in Fort Smith, Ark.

"It doesn't take much, if [the system] isn't matched properly or put in properly, to see the SEER rating drop dramatically."

And with it, your energy savings.

SEER stands for seasonal energy efficiency ratio. It's a measure of the unit's cooling output (in British thermal units) for each unit of energy input (in watt-hours).

On Jan. 23, the U.S. Department of Energy imposed a new minimum SEER efficiency standard - first proposed by the Clinton administration - on residential central air conditioners and heat pumps. (Window units are not affected.)

The new rule raises the minimum SEER from 10 to 13. For equivalent systems, the change should provide a 30 percent savings in power consumption.

It's the AC equivalent of the government's 1.6-gallon flush rule - which lowered water usage in new toilets by an even greater margin.

Eighty percent to 85 percent of the residential central-air systems installed since 1992 are rated at 10 SEER. Systems older than that could be rated at 8 SEER or lower.

That's because most builders keep costs down by using the cheapest systems available, and few homebuyers ask to spend more for a more efficient system - even if they're available. Central air systems typically cost $2,500 to $6,000.

By 2030, the government believes, the installation of 13-SEER systems will save the equivalent of a year's electricity consumption by 26 million U.S. households. The changeover could also result in reduced power plant carbon dioxide emissions equal to the annual output of 3 million cars.

Industry changes

The impact on manufacturers has been huge.

Carrier Corp., the world's largest manufacturer of heating and cooling equipment, has spent $250 million to redesign its product line and retool its Tennessee factory to meet the new standard.

Texas-based Lennox International took 18 months to find ways to squeeze greater efficiency out of its old 10-SEER line.

"We certainly had units that could meet the [new] minimum," said Bill McCullough, director for Lennox's cooling product management. The company sells systems as high as 19 SEER, he said, "but they weren't designed for the entry-level market."

So, company engineers designed bigger heat-transfer coils and added higher-efficiency condensers and motors to achieve 13-SEER efficiency.

Homeowners can continue to operate their old equipment. And dealers can keep selling their remaining stockpiles of 10-SEER systems, manufactured before Jan. 23. Industry observers say some dealers are boosting prices on their diminishing stock of the smaller, cheaper units.

After the old units sell out, however, all homeowners faced with replacing an old or worn-out central air conditioning or heat pump system will have to grapple with the complexities imposed by the new regulations.

Costs and savings

On the surface, it seems cut and dried. In theory, if you're paying $100 a month to cool your home now with a 10-SEER unit, replacing it with a 13-SEER system should cut your bill to as little as $70.

Manufacturers say the higher-efficiency equipment might cost more than a 10-SEER model - say, $6,000 instead of $5,000. But some observers say prices won't be that high.

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