What's a Good Seer Rating?  The Truth About High SEER Air Conditioners.

What's a Good Seer Rating? The Truth About High SEER Air Conditioners.

We are often asked, what is a good SEER rating?  But, there is more to a good SEER rating than than meets the eye.  Those of you who have read our articles before, know that we are a small, U.S. Veteran-Owned air conditioning and heating company in Southern California, and have built our reputation on giving people honest answers to their questions, and straight evaluations of their air conditioners.  We typically base our posts on the questions we get asked most often by our customers, and figuring out the right SEER rating is up there in the ones we get asked most often.  Unfortunately, there are plenty of salesman out there who will tell you outlining claims, like a 21 SEER air conditioner will pay for itself.  Today we will figure out the right SEER value for you and your family by first explaining what SEER is, then we will address why a high SEER air conditioner might not be worth the extra money, examining the most common high SEER myths, and finally, we’ll discuss what a good SEER rating is for you and your home.

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What is a Good SEER Rating?  A Brief History of SEER, and What it Means.

Before we can discuss what a good SEER rating is, we need to understand SEER itself – feel free to skip this section if you’re already familiar.  SEER stands for “Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio,” commonly referred to [incorrectly] as, “Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating.”

A SEER rating is the ratio of the cooling output of an air conditioner over a typical cooling season, divided by the energy it consumed in Watt-Hours.  It is important to distinguish, that it is the average calculated over a cooling season, and is figured using a constant indoor temperature and a variety of outdoor temperatures, ranging from the 60’s to the 100’s, thus simulating a typical season.

Modern air conditioners have a SEER value ranging from 13 or 14 SEER as a minimum (depending on your state’s requirements), to a maximum of 21 or 25 SEER (based on modern technology limitations).  California, for instance, has a minimum SEER requirement of SEER 14.  Unfortunately, people often equate these SEER values to being “low efficiency,” or the “bottom of the line.”  But this couldn’t be further from he truth – older air conditioners, like the one you probably have in your house right now, were rated at around 8 or 9 SEER.  So in actuality, modern 14 SEER units are still drastically more efficient than your older unit.  So if you are buying a new air conditioner, your efficiency will already be going up noticeably.

Plus, a SEER rating is not a constant value – it’s a maximum rating.  Here is something that I want you to remember, even if you forget everything else from this post:

  • A SEER rating is a maximum rating, meaning it should be read as: this unit’s rating can be as high as 21 SEER.  That doesn’t mean that it is ALWAYS 21 SEER.

Think of SEER as being kind of like Miles Per Gallon (MPG) for your car.  You can get a high MPG car, but if you drive it like you’re Lewis Hamilton, you’re not going to get a high MPG rating.  Likewise, if you are constantly changing the temperature of your house, or if it is cool in the evening, and hot in the middle of the day (ahem…Southern California…cough, cough), then you will not net the full potential of your SEER value.  The SEER value is that unit’s maximum potential.

“But Tim!  My HVAC guy said the 21 SEER would pay for itself in 10 years!”  If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you in lower Manhattan…half price for my friends.  Remember, a SEER rating is a maximum rating, it does not mean that it is always running at 21 SEER…but we will discuss this in more depth later.

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For more on SEER and what it means, take a look at:

what is a good seer rating?

Is High SEER Worth the Money?  SEER Myths Debunked.

Remember, if we were just trying to make money off of you, we too would be pushing high SEER equipment.  But is high SEER a good SEER rating for you and your money?  Maybe not.  Think about it…high SEER equipment is typically twice as expensive as the base model, and our profit mark-up is based off of equipment plus labor.  But I’m not really interested in getting more money, I’m interested in making my customers happy…so they use me next time too. Besides, I hate high-pressure, dishonest sales tactics…which is why I drive a vehicle manufactured in 1998…I deal with car salesmen as seldom as possible.

So what is a good SEER rating, and is high SEER worth the money?  To answer these questions, we should first discuss some of the common myths associated with high SEER units.  Here are some of the common myths that you will encounter when shopping for your high SEER air conditioning units:

Myth #1: Buying a High SEER Unit Will Pay for Itself!

what is a good seer rating - energy savings graph

Example – energy savings graph promises huge savings from upgrading your air conditioner’s SEER value – is it true?

If you Google SEER savings calculator, you will be swarmed by posts about how much you can save by updating your SEER value.  Here’s one from Kobie Complete: SEER Savings Calculator.  Play around with it a little bit – it is very well done.  Now I must say, they did a terrific job making this calculator.

But I must, respectfully, disagree with their conclusions.  Is it true that you can save this much with a high SEER unit?  I’m interested in what a good SEER rating is for you, not which SEER value will give them the highest profit margin.  It’s nice to believe…but if it’s too good to be true, as my father taught me, it usually is.  Let’s investigate why this might be so:

Contention 1: You can’t predict energy usage by using the SEER value.  So where does this myth come from?  The answer is simple – they calculated the energy usage by looking at the SEER value, and multiplying it with the energy cost over time.  But as you read above, SEER is a variable!

There is more that goes into calculating a good SEER rating (discussed more later).  The SEER value is constantly changing, just as the MPG changes on your car.  It is fallacious reasoning to use the maximum SEER value to calculate average energy usage over time.  Contrary to these estimates, our clients that have opted for the 21 SEER equipment typically report about a $50-$75 difference in their electric bills.  So, is this a good SEER rating for you and your family?  Keep reading…

Contention 2: High SEER units cost more…a lot more.  High SEER equipment will typically cost you $2,500-$4,000 more than base model equipment, putting the total installation cost, including ductwork, at well over $13,000…so you are telling me, that by paying $4,000 more, over 15 years, you will be able to pay for $13,000 worth of equipment?

Read more on how much a new air conditioner should cost in: Air Conditioner Installation Cost

I’m interested in what a good SEER rating is for you – so is a 21 SEER air conditioner worth the money?  Let’s see…we have done studies (article to come in the near future) on how much peoples’ electricity bills actually change after installing high SEER equipment, and the difference is typically around $50-$75/month in Southern California for a SEER 21 unit.  So let’s do the math:

  • $75/month X 12 months = $900/year
  • $900/year X 15 years (typical life expectancy) = $13,500 total savings
Carrier high SEER diagram - what is a good seer rating?

Carrier High-SEER Diagram

I know what you are thinking…”Tim!  Look!  $13,500 saved with the 21 SEER!”  Hold your horses, sparky, we aren’t finished yet.  Let’s ask a couple of questions:

  1. Why do you live in California?  “Because the weather is nice,” is typically the answer.
  2. So, if the weather is nice, do you run your air conditioner year round…?

Of course not.  Most people in Southern California run their air conditioners four months out of the year, and use it sparingly during another two months out of the year, split evenly between Spring and Fall.  So, given this fact, in actuality, the math should look something like this:

  • [($75/month X 4 months) + ($75/month X 0.5 X 2 months)] = $375/year
  • $375/year X 15 years = $5,625 total savings

So our actual savings so far, are right around $5,625 over 15 years…still a little bit ahead of where we’d be with the base model equipment, right?  But we aren’t finished!

  • High SEER air conditioning components are typically two to three times more expensive than their base-model counterparts.

So, for argument’s sake, let’s just say that you have a relatively routine repair done…what would be a $300 repair on a standard 14 SEER air conditioner, becomes a $900 repair on your high SEER model, and that’s just if one thing goes wrong.

At ASM-air, we pride ourselves on our workmanship, but to say that an engine that will run for fifteen years straight, is never going to need servicing, is just plain unrealistic.  It will need to be repaired a few times over the lifetime of the unit; that’s just the reality.  So, being the eternal optimists that we are, let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that it only breaks down once, at a repair cost of $900

  • $5,625 – $900 = $4,725

But wait!  Those of you who are mathematicians out there have been chomping at the bit for this one…we never accounted for the other unit!  Remember?  We calculated what a 21 SEER unit would save you, but we are actually comparing it to a 14 SEER unit, which would be what you’d get had you not chosen to upgrade to the 21 SEER unit.

I’m getting lazy now, but if you do the math, it actually ends up that the 14 SEER saves you some money too, because if you remember, your old unit only had a SEER rating of a round 8 SEER, maybe 10 if you are lucky.  By getting a 14 SEER unit, you are actually upgrading anyway, whether you realize it, or not.  If you just trust me and do the math, you actually save a little over $2,000 over your old unit by going to 14 SEER.

  • $4,725 – $2,300 = $2,425 actual savings with the 21 SEER over 15 years.

This is LESS than what you paid for the upgraded equipment.  As you can see, in reality, the amount that we really save with a high SEER unit is already approaching the additional price we paid for this equipment, and this is an extremely optimistic example.

But, not to be a Grinch (also my callsign when I was a Naval Aviator), your situation might be different.  Maybe you run your AC year round, or you just like the idea of saving electricity for the sake of the environment!  Those are questions that I can’t answer; I’m just giving you the facts: your high SEER unit probably won’t even pay for the additional cost of the upgraded SEER value, let alone pay for the whole system, as the salesmen would have you believe.  You get the point…

Trying to save money on your installation, try our article: The Best Time of Year to Buy an Air Conditioner

energy savings graph by seer value

Example – higher SEER means lower energy bills – but is it true?

 

Myth #2: Upgrading Your Condenser to SEER 21 Makes Your Entire System SEER 21.

Many of the people who ask us, “what is a good SEER rating?,” also wonder how they can save money when upgrading their SEER value.  One of the biggest fallacies out there is that you can increase your SEER value by purchasing a high SEER condenser.

The answer is NO.  You can’t just increase one component at a time – it’s a package deal!

Contention 1: Adding a high SEER condenser to an otherwise normal system will not increase its SEER value.  Some sales people are either dishonest, or just don’t know what they are talking about.  Either way, they tell people that changing out the condenser will increase their SEER value and save energy.  This just isn’t true…it is the equivalent of dropping a 1.5L engine into a truck that was designed for a 6.0L engine.  Would you get better gas milage?  Wrong…that little thing can’t even get the truck up a hill, let alone pull a rig, and as it strains, it will be burning tons of gas.

Perhaps this example wasn’t the best, but I’m trying to illustrate the point: upgrading your SEER value is a package deal.  You can’t drop a random engine into a truck made for a large engine – it just won’t work properly.

  • Likewise, to increase your SEER value, you need to upgrade everything as a package: condenser, evaporative coil and furnace, to increase SEER and for them to work together efficiently and in conjunction with one another.  

 

Myth # 3: High SEER Equipment is Better Made.

No, it’s not.  All companies build their units to required specifications.  Period.  A good SEER rating is more about whether it is worth the extra money you will spend for the upgraded efficiency, not the quality of the equipment.  The quality will typically be the same.

Contention 1: All of the equipment is the same quality – you are paying for increased efficiency.  One of our favorite companies, Day & Night, uses the same type of coils in each unit; only changing the size of the coil and the type of compressor as the efficiency rating goes up.  Each of these coils is also made by the same company, Aspen coils, which, as luck would have it, also makes the coils for Carrier and Bryant too.  Imagine that…I’ll save you my usual rant about how all brands are basically the same, and the differences are actually a result of proper (or improper) installation.  Don’t skimp on your HVAC contractor – I’ll leave it at that for today.

Second, I hate to say this, but I really haven’t been all that impressed with the high SEER units, as far as reliability goes.  They utilize two-speed or variable-speed compressors to get their SEER values up.  What this essentially does, is allow them to lower their speed on the compressor, which basically allows them to change from a 5-ton unit, for instance, to drawing the same electricity as a 2.5 ton air conditioner, thus saving energy.  The problem is that this technology is relatively new, and the reliability isn’t quite there.  Plus, when it comes time to fix them, as previously mentioned, it can be three times as expensive for replacement parts!

  • Simply put, you are paying for higher efficiency, NOT higher quality.

More on the different air conditioner brands can be found here: Top 10 Air Conditioner Brands

Don’t Overpay…Calculate the Ideal SEER Rating for Your Area, and More; Watch This Short Video:

SHOW ME THE IDEAL SEER RATING FOR MY HOME

How to Calculate the Best SEER Rating for Your Home

Look, you don’t want to pay for a high SEER unit if you don’t need it, right?  You might end up paying $1,200 more than you need to.  So, in this section, we will take a moment to calculate what the best SEER rating is for your home.

For this, we will need to do a few calculations, so we’ll draw on our own online program, the HVAC Design & Consultation Program.  Start by entering in information about your home and where you live.  For this example, we’ll suppose that we live in Southern California:

Step 1: Enter in Information About Your Home, Where You Live, and Your Climate:

What Size Central Air Conditioner Do I Need?

Note: Click, “Submit” to generate your custom report.

 

Step 2: Continue to Answer Additional Questions:

  1. How hot does it get in your area during the summer?
  2. How about the winter?
  3. How much shade is usually on your house?
  4. Do you have a basement, or a slab?
  5. What color is you roof?
  6. ….and so on…

Questions like these need to be factored into your decision on what SEER value is best for your home.  For our example, we live in a mild-climate and have an 1,700 sq/ft. home.  Again, for our example calculation, we’ll just use our own program since it’s available to you if you need it, but you can use any program that you want:

HVAC D&C Program Use - SEER Value Calculation

Step 3: Read the Results of the Final Report

In this particular example, as you can see below, we wouldn’t benefit much from buying more than a 14 SEER air conditioner, ASM’s recommended efficiency based on the information provided.

What’s good about this particular program, is that it also allows you to look up specific equipment that you might be interested in, like a Goodman or Carrier 14 SEER air conditioner, and get the exact contractor pricing for it, see a fair installation price for your specific project, and avoid the tricks and traps of predatory contractors.  Let’s take a look:

 

 

SEER Value Calculation

Excerpt Page 2 of 12 – Sample HVAC Design & Consultation Program Report

 

Watch a Short Video on How The Program is Designed to Save You Money:

 

SHOW ME THE IDEAL SEER RATING FOR MY HOME

 

What SEER Rating is Best? ASM Calculator Results

 

What is a Good SEER Rating?  The Real Deal.

So, we’ve discussed what SEER is, and we’ve discussed some of the common myths associated with the high SEER units; now let’s delve into the question: what is a good SEER rating?

Target a SEER 14 or SEER 16 Unit

14 SEER is the standard for Southern California on all new units, and for the aforementioned reasons, I just have a hard time justifying going much higher than that.  The 14 SEER units are a good SEER rating for most people…they are our work-horses; rugged, tough, and most importantly, reliable.  As the SEER rating goes up, just as with any new technology, you trade off a bit of your reliability.  I don’t like that.

  • A good SEER rating for most applications is  14 or 16 SEER.

Look, we install whatever our clients want, but not without a good fight – sometimes we have to save them from themselves, and it is a bit of an awkward conversation when you, as a salesman, are actually trying to get someone to spend less money.  Perhaps it’s the Irish in me – what’s right is right.  All joking aside, reliability is very important to us.  Think about it – this is what we built our reputation on – honesty and reliability.  I’m not interested in high SEER units if they are less reliable, and in my opinion, the technology just isn’t there yet – especially with the variable speed compressors.  Stick with 14 or 16 SEER…they are a good SEER rating for most people, and most importantly, they are reliable.

 

what is a good seer rating - how to read an energyguide label

How to read an Energyguide sticker.

 

16 SEER is a Usually a Good Compromise

If you’re looking for a higher SEER unit, then one viable option is to upgrade to a 16 SEER unit.  The 16 SEER units are slightly more efficient, but still avoid using variable speed compressors, which in this instance, is part of what affects the reliability of the unit.  16 is a good SEER rating for those looking for a bit higher efficiency without the ridiculous price tag.  Plus, they typically run only around $600-$700 more than their 14 SEER counterparts.

Find out what a fair price for your new air conditioner is, avoid the tricks and traps of predatory contractors, and accept or reject bids with confidence:

Final Thoughts on a Good SEER Rating for You and Your Family.

There are a lot of parts that go into figuring our what a good SEER rating is for you and your home.  It may have seemed like I was bashing the high SEER units in today’s article a bit, and in a way, I was.  But it is important to me that you have all of the information before making your decision.  The bottom line is that, for most people, especially in Southern California (where it can swing from 32 degrees at night to the 90’s during the day), it probably isn’t worth the money for a high SEER air conditioner.  14 or 16 SEER is a good SEER rating for most applications, so be wary of some of the sales tactics that are out there.  It won’t pay for itself unless you run it 24 hours a day for 15 years.  That being said, a 21 SEER unit might a good SEER rating for you if you live in the middle of the desert, run your air conditioner year round and keep it relatively cold inside, or if you’re just a proponent of minimizing energy usage and going green.  These are all reasons that you might consider purchasing a high SEER unit.  In the end, high SEER is going to be less reliable than a sturdy 14 SEER or 16 SEER air conditioning system.  I hope this has helped answer your questions on what a good SEER rating is for your new air conditioning unit.  If you live in Southern California, you are probably in our service area!  Click below to see – we’d love to hear from you.

SEE IF YOU’RE IN ASM’S SERVICE AREA

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Timothy Kautz
About the author
Timothy Kautz

The University of Virginia - 2005 / The Wharton School of Finance - 2016 / U.S. Naval Aviator 2005-2015. At All Systems Mechanical air conditioning and heating, we believe that the experience our clients have is every bit as important as the products they receive. Simply put, our results speak for themselves, and we'd be happy to help. If you're in the market for a new AC or furnace, make sure that you get a fair price! Try our online calculator; click the tab on the top of this page for more information.