13 SEER? 16 SEER? What does it all mean?
New construction or home renovations bring with them the need to think about heating or cooling the home. There may be an existing HVAC system in place that could use updating, or if the home is old enough there may not be any central air conditioning system at all! When you’re looking to purchase a new system, one of the choices you’re going to face is choosing a unit with the SEER rating that makes the most sense for your situation.
In short, SEER stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio and is a measure of how efficiently a unit will heat or cool a space with a given amount of energy input. Since 2006, all units sold in the United States must meet a federal minimum 13 SEER rating. The term “minimum” here can be somewhat misleading and give the impression that these units are inefficient. This isn’t the case! If you’re upgrading from a unit that was manufactured before 2006, chances are its SEER rating is half of the current minimum. SEER ratings typically range from 13 to 25.
You might assume that you want to get the highest SEER possible, but there are pros and cons to measure. The upfront cost increases greatly with higher SEER ratings and the amount of time it takes for the energy savings of the unit to make it “pay for itself” becomes much longer. 16 SEER units are considered a good compromise for balancing upfront cost with lifetime energy savings. Some higher-SEER units make use of variable-speed compressors which increase efficiency but there are HVAC professionals who feel this comes with the drawback of being less mechanically reliable. You may ultimately get greater energy efficiency results from investing money in the thermal rating of your home (for example, improving the insulation).
Ultimately, it pays to take into account the size of your home, the state of its insulation/thermal rating, and other factors when determining what SEER rating you should choose. It’s easy to be swayed by higher specifications when you’re shopping, but you don’t need to break the bank on your HVAC system.