Getting a new air conditioner can be a costly proposition, but sometimes it’s the best action to take.

“It doesn’t make sense to put several hundred dollars in repairs into equipment that might already be too old or which already has had lots of expensive breakdowns in the past,” says Randy Novak, president of
Novak Heating and Air Conditioning, a 70-year-old, family-owned company specializing in residential and light commercial heating and air conditioning systems in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“It’s always better to put that money into a new unit that will save customers money on utility bills every month right away and afford them peace of mind in terms of reliability. The new units available today remove humidity better, they control indoor comfort better, and they do so much more efficiently.”

Today, explains Novak, a good contractor will gather detailed information about your house (its insulation, the type and size of the building’s windows, its total floor area, etc.) so that the right-sized equipment can be selected. In the past, most contractors simply chose oversized equipment, thinking that it would help cool down a home faster, but this was about the worst thing you could do from an air conditioning standpoint, according to Novak, because it resulted in systems that were much less comfortable and inefficient.

“These systems operated on shorter cycles, and they didn’t eliminate sufficient indoor humidity. Consequently, consumers tended to set their thermostats lower in order to feel more comfortable and, needless to say, this wasted energy,” says Novak. “The lower you can get your indoor humidity, the higher you can set your thermostat yet still feel comfortable, and this is one important reason why today’s properly sized units have an advantage over old air conditioners installed 10, 15 and 20 years ago.”

Understanding SEER
SEER stands for “seasonal energy efficiency rating” and is a measure of a central air conditioner’s efficiency and performance. To be considered a high-efficiency unit, today’s systems have to possess a rating higher than 10 SEER (this is, in fact, the lowest SEER unit AC equipment manufacturers can currently produce). The most efficient units produced today possess a SEER rating of 18 or slightly higher. If you are considering replacing an old unit, you can expect to obtain about a 5-percent energy savings for every SEER point your new unit possesses vis-?-vis its vintage counterpart.

On Jan. 1, 2006, the U.S. Department of Energy will require air conditioner manufacturers to produce units with a minimum 13 SEER rating. This increase means that, in the future, central AC systems with 14 SEER and greater will be considered high-efficiency units.

“People really need to understand SEER properly,” says Novak. “A high-SEER unit doesn’t mean that it’ll cool down a home any faster. A 10 SEER, two-ton model, for example, will put out the same amount of cold air and cool just as well as a two-ton 13 SEER unit. The only thing a high SEER number tells you is that that model is more efficient than a lower SEER model, that it requires less energy to run.”

Keep in mind that just because a high-efficiency, 18 SEER or greater unit might happen to be available on the market, that doesn’t mean that that particular model is necessarily the best unit consumers can buy given their particular climate and seasonal cooling needs.

“If you figure it solely on a payback basis, it’s very hard to justify the purchase of a very high SEER unit in particular parts of the country, especially in places like the Midwest,” he says. “We simply don’t have enough cooling hours up here to generate a payback on a 17 or 18 SEER model. If you live in Phoenix, Ariz., or if you live in Miami, Fla., though — places where you’ve got a lot more cooling hours — then, yes, you can justify the purchase of a high-SEER unit, because it’s running more throughout the year.”

That said, Novak concedes that high-SEER models can be tempting to consumers, because they generally come with better warranties, they often incorporate advanced technologies and safeguards that promote durability and longevity, they can be quieter than lower SEER models, and they tend to be better-engineered. Also, buyers might find these models more attractive than lower SEER units because many power utilities offer a generous rebate on higher SEER equipment.

“In the end, if the rebate makes a higher SEER unit only, say, $150 more expensive than a lower SEER unit, then that means that it’ll be easier for a consumer to recoup that $150 difference in price over time — and that can make the purchase worth the added expense.”

New refrigerant on horizon
Because a central air conditioner will be in service for the next 10 to 15 years, Novak advises shoppers to focus attention on equipment that is designed to work with the next generation of eco-friendly refrigerant. The air-conditioning industry will be required to use R410A (also known by the trade name “Puron”) in all cooling equipment by approximately 2010, at which time the current R22 (a.k.a. “Freon”) refrigerant will be phased out of production. While stockpiles of this older chemical compound will likely be available past that future switchover date, R22 refrigerant will inevitably become more expensive and gradually less available. That’s why R410A will be the better long-term refrigerant choice for consumers.