If you're like most Americans, you probably just ignore your air conditioner -– at least, until it breaks. Then, you just want it fixed -– like, yesterday.
But taking the time to understand certain air conditioning terms before you fix your air conditioner can make all the difference in your long-term electricity bills. Knowing (and using) these four terms could also save you thousands of dollars next time you replace your unit.
1. Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER)
SEER is a measure of a system's efficiency. The more efficient the system, the cheaper it is to operate. (And more energy-efficient systems are also better for the environment, so it's a win-win.) The U.S. Department of Energy states that 13 is the minimum SEER rating for systems produced today (some older ones have ratings of six or less). According to Ed Purvis, vice president of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning company Emerson Climate Technologies, a unit with a SEER rating of 16 or more could save you about $415 a year (compared with an older, low-efficiency model).
As you might guess, higher-SEER models are also more expensive. The ideal balance for your home will depend on where you live and how often you use air conditioning. "For example, having a 25 SEER system for a home in Minneapolis, where you would turn on your unit just a few days of the year, doesn't make much sense," Purvis writes in an email, "but a high-SEER system makes perfect sense if you live in Dallas."
Modulated, or variable-speed, air conditioners are less expensive to run. Basically, they vary the amount of energy used to power the air conditioner. So instead of feeling like your house is freezing when the air conditioning is on, and feeling too warm when it kicks off, you'll get an even temperature.
Modulated systems also help control humidity, which is one of the main factors in how hot you feel. When humidity is better controlled, you may get away with setting the A/C at a higher temperature. Because of this, a modulated system could save more than $870 per year, according to Purvis.
Again, indoor humidity can make you feel warmer, even if you're constantly running the air conditioner. So choosing a unit with humidity control -- even if it isn't modulated -- will make your home more comfortable and save you up to $300 per year, Purvis notes.
4. Heat Pump
A traditional air conditioner uses a refrigerant cooling system. The coolant in the coils cools down the air, which is then forced into your home. As you might imagine, this takes a ton of energy.
A heat pump, on the other hand, actually pulls heat out of the air inside your home and dumps it outside. (It can also be used for heating by gathering warmth from outside and funneling it into your house.) This is a much more efficient way to transfer heat and can save you up to $750 a year, according to Purvis.
Heat pumps are efficient enough for both cooling and heating in milder climates. If you live in an area with colder winters, you may need a duel-fuel system, which uses the heat pump in spring, summer and fall, but runs a gas furnace backup in the winter.
If you do choose a heat pump, do your research, as there are different types. A geothermal heat pump, for instance, uses the relatively stable temperature underground to provide heating and cooling, but these systems are quite pricey and are more difficult to retrofit.
"In general, retrofitting an air-conditioning system or heat pump shouldn't be complicated in a building with a forced-air gas furnace," Purvis writes. Still, you'll want to talk with a local heating, ventilation and air conditioning professional to determine the cost of retrofitting your home with a heat pump.
"For some," Purvis points out, "a high-efficiency, conventional air system could be a more practical, cost-effective solution."
Repair, Don't Replace
What if your existing air conditioner is relatively new? Can you make it more efficient? Yes!
"Up to a third of systems installed today are running well below their rate of performance because of duct leakage, improper charging and other maintenance issues," Purvis explains. "Ensuring your system is running right can sometimes be more beneficial than investing in an air conditioner with a higher SEER."
So as summer approaches, call your local HVAC company for an air-conditioning tuneup or replacement. Ask about having your whole system -- duct work included -- checked to ensure it's running as efficiently as possible.
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