What is SEER rating, and what does it mean for my AC?

What is a SEER rating? It’s a question we get from homeowners all the time. After all, every modern air conditioner comes with this rating, and every manufacturer boasts about their system’s rating on their website. In many ways, it’s the defining feature of the product. In this article, we’ll explore what a SEER rating is and why you need to pay attention to SEER if you’re looking to buy a new air conditioner.

Understanding SEER rating

SEER stands for “Seasonal Energy-Efficiency Ratio.” At its most basic level, it’s a measurement of how efficient an air conditioner is. SEER is calculated by dividing cooling output by electricity used—the more power an air conditioner uses to generate cooling, the lower its SEER. In contrast, an air conditioner that cools a home with less energy has a higher cooling-to-energy ratio—and, therefore, a higher SEER rating.

As an industry standard for efficiency measurement, SEER is incredibly useful to you as a homeowner. While the number itself may be abstract (what is the real difference between 22 and 20 SEER?), you can use it to compare similar systems against one another and know which is more energy efficient. For example, if you are looking at two forced-air air conditioners—one scored at 18 SEER and another scored at 22 SEER—you know, right away, that the latter is more energy-efficient.

Watch: What’s the difference between 14 and 16 SEER?

In this video, two home improvement experts talk through the key difference between 14 and 16 SEER air conditioners.

How does SEER translate to my electric bill?

As mentioned earlier, SEER—at its face value, at least—can initially seem a little abstract. Here’s another way to think about it that might make it a little more “real.” With every increase in SEER “level,” you save anywhere from 7-9% on your annual cooling costs. Starting with the federal minimum SEER of 13 (0%), just investing in a 14 SEER system will save you upward of 7%. Purchasing an 18 SEER system represents a 28% savings over a 13 SEER model, which increases to a 41% savings with a 22 SEER model.

Of course, higher SEER systems are often more expensive than lower SEER models. To achieve that high level of efficiency, they often need special features—such as variable-speed compressors, which can run at lower speeds to maintain comfort while using less energy. But, as the SEER comparison in the section above shows us, this higher upfront cost can often be offset by long-term energy savings. A more efficient air conditioner can easily start to pay for itself after only just a few years.

To encourage homeowners to invest in energy-efficient air conditioners, governments and utility companies offer a combination of tax credits, rebates, and incentives, all designed to offset some of that higher upfront cost and help homeowners invest in a system that’s better for the environment, the electric grid, and their own month-to-month finances. If you have questions about what incentives are currently available here in Albuquerque, talk to our team. We can help walk you through it.

Related: What are the best air conditioners of 2022?

What are the limits of SEER rating?

As a national standard, the SEER rating is designed to work for all homeowners across the United States. But, as we all know, homeowners here in Albuquerque have very different cooling needs than those in Minneapolis or Seattle. In cities in the northern U.S., the minimum SEER is 13. However, here in the Southwest, you’re going to need a 14 SEER system at minimum. This ensures your home keeps up with hot summer temperatures.

In theory, there are no limits to how efficient an air conditioner can become. There are some AC units with a 25 SEER rating. These represent the most-efficient air conditioners on the planet. While the technology behind air conditioning is always improving, HVAC manufacturers have already picked the low-hanging fruit of high-efficiency design. From variable-speed compressors to smart home integrations, 18-22 SEER air conditioners are more efficient than manufacturers in the 80s and 90s could have ever thought possible.

The upside of this is that the high-efficiency air conditioner you buy today will likely continue to be efficient well into its lifespan. This means buying a high-SEER system is a great investment for your home. You’re not going to “miss out” by investing in energy-efficiency today. In fact, there’s no better time than the present to start saving!

What is the difference between SEER and AFUE?

AFUE, or “Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency,” is a somewhat similar fuel-to-output measurement used to gauge the relative efficiency of furnaces, heat pumps and other heating systems. Just like SEER, a heater with a higher AFUE score is more energy-efficient, using less energy—whether from natural gas or electricity—to heat your home. While older furnaces used to have an AFUE score of 60-70%, today’s high-efficiency systems can reach up to 97-98%. In effect, this means that they’re successfully converting nearly all the energy in the system into heat.

As a comparison tool, AFUE has its limitations, however. Unlike with the SEER rating for air conditioners, this measurement has to contend with two very different types of systems: gas-powered furnaces and electric furnaces. While AFUE is an effective tool for comparing two gas furnaces against one another, it’s considerably less useful for evaluating the relative efficiency of a gas furnace against an electric furnace.

By the nature of the way they produce heat energy, electric furnaces have incredibly high AFUE ratings. Producing heat using electricity is just more efficient than combusting natural gas to produce heat energy. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that electric furnaces are less expensive to operate. In most parts of the country, natural gas is cheaper than electricity. This means that even a less-efficient gas furnace can be operated at a lower monthly cost than an electric model.

The SEER rating for AC doesn’t have this issue because all types of cooling systems—whether they’re forced-air air conditioners, heat pumps, or ductless mini-splits—are powered by electricity. When you look at the SEER rating of one system and compare it to another, you’re truly comparing apples-to-apples.

Related: Are ductless mini-split systems cheaper?

Have SEER rating explained by our friendly technicians

In the market for a new air conditioner and need a technician to walk you through your options? We’d be happy to help. Wagner is Albuquerque’s top choice for new AC installation. We’re proud to install energy-efficient, high-SEER air conditioners right here in town. Contact us today to schedule a free in-home estimate with our friendly team!