With more and more homeowners taking a closer look at their energy usage, air conditioners are getting the spotlight. Older, less efficient systems can be a real power drain and may not even keep up with your cooling needs. With a more efficient AC, you get more cooling for your energy dollar.
Newer AC technology gives you the leverage to boost your cooling and reduce your energy consumption. Modern air conditioners have seen major improvements in performance compared to those even just a decade ago, providing higher efficiency ratings, increased convenience, and better cooling.
Since 1983, at AC by J, we’ve been helping families stay cool and manage their energy budgets by helping them evaluate their system’s efficiency. If you’re trying to determine whether your current AC system is efficient by today’s standards, we’re here to help!
SEER Ratings: Knowing the Numbers
In 1987, legislation established SEER ratings to help compare the cooling efficiency of AC units. SEER ratings help homeowners balance their equipment budget with their monthly energy costs. Simply put – the higher the SEER rating, the more efficient the system is at cooling!
Efficiency is the key to planning for the future, as it helps you reduce what you spent on operating your system over the lifetime of the unit. In 2023, as part of new legislation pushing for much higher AC efficiency, new SEER2 ratings were created that better reflected actual efficiency in operation.
The older SEER ratings focused on the system, while the new numbers reflected the system’s results when installed and in typical operation with ductwork – a la “real world conditions”. This makes it harder to compare HVAC systems from before and after 2023, but new models meeting 2023 standards are much more efficient.
SEER Ratings Over the Years
In 1987, the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act (NAECA) established minimum efficiency standards for specific appliances, including certain types of HVAC systems like central air conditioners. In 1992, the minimum SEER rating for a central AC system was set at 10.
Over time, this minimum SEER rating – along with other minimum standards for features, design, and error reporting – has increased. In 2006, the national minimum SEER rating for all air conditioners was raised to 13.
Today, minimum standards have been divided regionally into “zones”, with some areas of the country still at 13 SEER and others at 14 for central AC systems. Regardless of region, systems that are ENERGY STAR qualified must have a minimum SEER rating of 14.
Worth noting is that these are only the minimum efficiency requirements. Many systems, especially ductless mini-split models, can have much higher SEER ratings – into the 20’s and above!
Cooling Loads and Your Comfort
When your original HVAC installer ordered an air conditioner for your home, they should have chosen the BTU capacity that fits your home. Each house’s cooling load is complex, but basically, it reflects the volume of air to be cooled and how much insulation is keeping the heat from the sun out.
A good match between the system size and your home ensures the air conditioner isn’t working too hard to keep your home cool. If your air conditioner is too big, it’s going to be doing more than it needs to in order to keep you cool. The same goes for a system that is too small – it’s going to work double-time just to keep up with cooling demand. Both outcomes are not ideal for maximum efficiency or system lifespan.
A Rough Efficiency Measurement
If you let your house warm up, turn on the AC, and note how much energy is used to reach your desired temperature, you’ll have a rough measure of efficiency. It’ll show how your system uses energy to meet your home’s cooling needs. It’s not perfect for comparison with AC ratings. It can help you see how maintenance and modifications enhance efficiency and reveal the efficiency gains of a new 2023 and later model.
At AC by J, we can also perform measurements and tell you how your system compares to others in actual results. We can also answer questions about whether coil cleaning, ductwork repairs, cleaning, compressor replacement, or other important maintenance can make a significant difference.
Updating to a new unit usually boosts efficiency further, though. Still, if you want to know how to tell if your AC is efficient, you’ll need the whole picture, not just the unit’s rating.
Things That Cut Your AC’s Efficiency
Many factors can negatively affect your AC’s efficiency, so it’s actually providing less than its rated value. Here are a few:
- Ductwork insulation and routing
- Air handling effectiveness
- Vent positioning
- Coil heat transfer efficiency
- Refrigerant level
- Compressor efficiency
- Overall system condition
All of these can be addressed during routine maintenance. In particular, if your ductwork is degraded or routed through the attic without insulation, your energy costs will reflect the cooling losses there.
Inefficient cooling because of refrigerant, compressor, and coil problems, especially dirty coils, is usually easy to address and makes a big difference. If you note these problems, the answer to how to tell if your AC is efficient starts right here. Even a great new AC replacement won’t do the work it should without a solid system distributing the cooling.
An Efficient AC Replacement, or a Really Efficient AC Replacement?
In most cases, you’ll get an efficiency boost by replacing your current system with a newer, higher SEER-rated model, but a simple direct replacement may not be all you’re looking for. New technologies have provided additional efficiency capabilities, with “adaptive” operations targeted at specific modes of operation.
For instance, a variable-speed compressor system pours on the cooling when it’s time to cool down a hot home, but it adjusts to other situations. If you’re just keeping the home cool, it throttles back and uses less energy. You get a cool home, right to the thermostat setting, with a whisper of cooling to maintain it. Older systems would crank up to cool, then stop, then crank again, a less comfortable and less efficient mode of operation.
If you’re ready to upgrade your air conditioner to something more efficient, let us know! We’d be more than glad to walk you through your options, showing you an honest comparison of different models and their efficiencies, performance, features, and how well they’d work for your specific home and needs.
Key Signs You Can Observe That Reflect Efficiency
How hard your AC works is reflected in its operation, such as the cycles it follows to keep your home cool. Here are a few key ones:
- Frequency of cooling cycles
- Temperature variations
- Vent air temperature
- Maintenance frequency
Kind of like driving, when your AC keeps hitting the gas pedal to keep you cool, or your temperature keeps dropping and getting picked up, this “jerky” behavior isn’t right. It shows that your air handling system isn’t bringing you all the cool air you need.
In the worst case, with no cooling, the system will just keep running to push lukewarm air, hoping it will cool your home. Your AC will not only be very inefficient but also wear out much faster. If it’s in great shape, you’ll find the vent temperature is lower, and you’ll probably have had a recent maintenance visit to keep everything in shape.
If your AC has had a good tune-up and isn’t “running rough” by cycling too quickly, you’re probably getting the best efficiency out of the main unit. When the rest of your HVAC equipment is also clean, insulated, and in good repair, you’ll have even greater efficiency.
Once You Know, How Do You Choose to Improve Your Efficiency?
2023 legislation sent a message that improved efficiency in HVAC equipment and other products is essential for the future. How that applies to your home and budget is up to you. You have many ways to look at it, including insulating your home, updating your ductwork and other equipment, and/or choosing a new, high-efficiency AC.
At AC by J, we can help you with calculations to determine the HVAC efficiency you’re living with and what is possible with adjustments. Regardless, an equipment update with new technology will likely meet your needs better now and into the future.
If you’d like to get your home’s best AC energy efficiency, AC by J can help. We’re here to help you stay cool in no matter what the Phoenix weather may bring. Contact us today to learn more!