Everything You Need To Know About SEER Ratings

Savings in Kirkland, WA

If you’re a homeowner that’s planning to purchase a new HVAC system, it may be beneficial to get familiar with SEER ratings. They’re the standard measure of air conditioner energy efficiency here in the US. The thing is, though, you may not find any explanations of SEER ratings anywhere on the HVAC systems you’re considering. All you’ll see are the numbers assigned to each system. To help you make sense of them, here’s a guide to SEER ratings. We’ll go over what they are, how they’re calculated, and how you can use them to make smarter HVAC purchase decisions.

What Are SEER Ratings?

SEER is an acronym that stands for seasonal energy efficiency ratio. It’s a standard scale devised by the US Department of Energy (DOE), originally to aid in achieving the goals outlined in the 1978 National Energy Policy and Conservation Act (NEPCA). The idea was for the DOE to set and enforce minimum standards of energy efficiency for various appliances in the US, including air conditioners.

Without going into too many details, the simplest way to understand SEER ratings is that they’re a numerical expression of how much energy a given air conditioning system uses in an average cooling season. They begin with something called an EER rating, which stands for energy efficiency ratio. It’s the result of multiplying an air conditioner’s maximum wattage by its hourly BTU rating.

However, nobody uses an air conditioner at maximum output all summer long. So, the DOE created SEER to offer an estimate of an air conditioner’s energy usage in real-world conditions. To provide the most accurate estimate, the DOE developed a model of what an average cooling season looks like. It assumes the following happens in an average cooling season:

  • You’ll run your AC at 100% for 1% of the time
  • You’ll run your AC at 75% for 42% of the time
  • You’ll run your AC at 50% for 45% of the time
  • You’ll run your AC at 25% for 12% of the time

So, a SEER rating plugs an air conditioner’s EER rating into a formula using the above assumptions to arrive at a usable real-world efficiency rating. Using SEER, the DOE intended to set minimums standards as soon after the NECPA as possible.

Political wrangling, however, prevented the DOE from actually declaring a minimum allowable SEER rating for air conditioners until 1987. And even those didn’t go into effect until 1992 and 1993. Initially, the minimum standards weren’t very stringent. For residential split central air conditioning systems, a SEER rating of 10 was the first minimum threshold set. And for packaged residential central air conditioning systems, the minimum was even lower, starting off at a 9.7 SEER rating. Those initial minimum SEER ratings didn’t change until the year 2000 when the minimum for residential split central air conditioning systems rose to 13.

The Regionalization of SEER Minimums

In 2011, the DOE decided that differences in climate in various regions of the US made a single minimum SEER standard somewhat ineffectual. So, they split the US into three regions, each with its own minimum SEER rating standards. Their purpose was to increase the minimum efficiency standers in warmer states where air conditioning remains in use for longer every year. That way, the DOE could create greater energy savings without needlessly increasing costs for the regions of the country that didn’t depend as much on air conditioning systems.

As of 2011, the Southern US states saw their minimum SEER rating for new central air conditioners rise to 14. The same new standard went into effect for the Southwest US. However, the Northern states kept the original minimum of 13 in place. And that’s where the minimums stayed, all the way until January of 2023, when both the SEER standard itself as well as the regional minimums all saw changes.

As of today, the minimum SEER standard in the Northern states stands at 14. And for the Southern and Southwestern states, the minimum rose to 15. However, you’ll no longer see SEER ratings listed on new air conditioners. Now, you’ll see something listed as SEER2. It’s an updated version of S
EER that relies on efficiency testing that takes place in conditions much closer to that of the average US home. In other words, it’s an even more accurate estimate of the efficiency of a given air conditioner.

How You Can Use SEER Ratings

Although you shouldn’t see any air conditioning systems for sale that don’t meet the minimum SEER standards described above, you will have a choice of systems with a wide range of ratings. The simplest way to factor SEER ratings into your purchase decision is to purchase the system with the highest SEER rating you can afford. The higher the SEER rating, the more you’ll save on operating costs over the life of the system.

If you’re having trouble deciding on a budget for your new air conditioning system, it may also be helpful to have some idea of what the differences in SEER ratings translate to in actual energy use. However, that’s not so easy because the difference a single SEER point makes declines slightly the higher up the scale you go. You can use the following as a ballpark estimate of the savings you might experience:

  • 6.67% energy savings between 15 and 16 SEER
  • 6.27% energy savings between 16 and 17 SEER
  • 5.88% energy savings between 17 and 18 SEER
  • 5.55% energy savings between 18 and 19 SEER
  • 5.26% energy savings between 19 and 20 SEER

All you have to do is look at the price differences between the higher and lower-rated air conditioners you’re considering. And if the savings difference seems like it’s worth it to you, you’ll know which one to go with.

Plus, most air conditioners will include an estimated yearly operating cost on the same label where you’ll find their SEER rating. You should know, however, that those estimates rely on an average electricity cost that may not reflect the price you pay at home. So, make sure to look closely at the label before you rely on the listed cost figure.

Trust the Air Conditioning Experts

Although all of the information we’ve given you on SEER ratings is a lot to absorb, it will help you to make smarter HVAC purchase decisions. Of course, you could also ask for the help of the air conditioning experts here at Black Lion Heating & Air Conditioning. We’ve been the go-to HVAC service for residents in the Kirkland, WA, area for over 20 years. We offer a complete range of heating and cooling services, including installation, maintenance, and repair. And we offer comprehensive electrical services and handle hot water heater installation and repair, too. You won’t find a more trustworthy home services partner anywhere. So, if you’re in the market for a new air conditioner for your Kirkland, WA, home, contact the team at Black Lion Heating & Air Conditioning today!