13 SEER is Here, Now here's the rest of the story

The Department of Energy (DOE) is excited about the 30% increase in efficiency that a change from 10 to 13 SEER will bring on January 23, 2006.

However, the DOE has simply glossed over some other changes that will accompany the energy savings.


The DOE says that technological improvements and economies of scale will result in costs that are similar to those being paid for 10 SEER products today.

As I recall, 10 SEER products had cost more than the 8 SEER units they replaced in 1992. Correct me if I’m wrong, but consumers are still paying more for the baseline 10 SEER product than they did 14 years ago, aren’t they? The price never went down, even though it was only a 20% increase in efficiency. Perhaps the reason is that, to quote a knowledgeable friend in the manufacturing sector, “We’ve got to put more stuff in the units.”

Steel, copper, and aluminum qualify as “stuff” in most peoples’ books. Evidently, not in the eyes of the DOE. In addition, these metals have been increasing in price recently, most notably since the surging Chinese economy has spiked demand.

The Timeframe will be too Short For Some Manufacturers to Build Efficiently

The last efficiency change came with a nearly five-year lead time. This one comes with less than two. Of course, one may argue that the 13 SEER movement started in 2001 when a DOE ruling first initiated the increase. However, when that was withdrawn a year later, manufacturers began gearing up for the change to 12 SEER. It’s now 2004.

It’s not a question of whether industry manufacturers can build 13 SEER products — they all can. The question is whether baseline efficiency products, which represent nearly 80% of total sales, can be cost-effectively produced for consumers at affordable prices.

Could there have been any different outcome if the industry’s manufacturers had been unified on this issue? It’s a moot point. They weren’t. So, we’ll never know.

Equipment Will Be more difficult to service

It’s no surprise that 13 SEER systems built today are typically larger than 10 SEER systems. Some combination of either more evaporator or condenser coil surface is usually part of the construction.

It’s nothing new, but multi-row coils on outdoor units are commonly more difficult to clean during servicing. If done correctly, the multi-row coil should be taken apart and washed with an appropriate coil cleaner.

Many 10 SEER units have single-row coils and don’t require as much preparation before cleaning. Unfortunately, multi-row coils are seldom separated. That means most installed 13 SEER products won’t perform at the rated efficiency. Because service isn’t mandated, many units aren’t serviced at all, and don’t perform as efficiently as they should.

Perhaps the DOE should think about mandating proper equipment servicing. Environmental and performance checks are common for automobiles in most states. Maybe it’s time.

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