Washington, D.C. — This year, gasoline prices are eating into American budgets as they haven't done in decades. Cutting back on driving isn't the only way to reduce energy costs; most Americans can save on their electricity bills this summer with smart home cooling. Instead of toughing out one more season of high costs, consumers can save real money by reducing the energy they use to stay cool. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), making energy efficiency a priority is common sense that will pay off whether you are choosing a new air conditioner or trying to get the best service from an existing unit.
If you are shopping for a new central air conditioner, ACEEE suggests choosing a model with a SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating) of 15 or higher (except in colder states where a SEER 13 unit may suffice). The new federal minimum efficiency level rose from SEER 10 to SEER 13 this year, making almost all new air conditioners much better than the ones they replace-if they are properly specified and carefully installed by a top-notch contractor. New air conditioners will reduce utility bills, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other impacts associated with electricity generation, and provide a comfortable, less humid home. There is no better time to consider an upgrade because these SEER 15 and higher efficiency units now come with a $300 federal income tax credit (through 2007). For tax credit information, see http://www.energytaxincentives.org.
ACEEE provides tips and resources for purchasing and upgrading air conditioning equipment, including what to look for in a contractor. "When purchasing a new central air conditioner, finding a good contractor is as important, if not more important, than deciding what model you'd like to buy," said Jennifer Thorne Amann, the principal author of ACEEE's popular Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings. This information is available online at http://aceee.org/consumerguide. Other shopping suggestions include the following:
- Consider a unit that uses "R410A" or "R407C" refrigerants (sold under various trade names) over "R22" refrigerant, which will be phased out of new equipment by 2010.
- Select a unit with an EER (Energy Efficiency Ratio) of 11 or higher. This will ensure efficient performance on the hottest days.
- Ask your contractor for units with these qualities-they are not always specified in sales literature. The right air conditioner for you may have a somewhat higher purchase price than the commodity-grade best sellers. However, you can recoup the cost in most climates through lower operating costs while improving the comfort of your home.
- In general, replacing the outside (condensing) unit without installing a properly matched new indoor coil is a bad idea due to efficiency and warranty reasons. Most older evaporator coils weren't built with the controls and designs that new air conditioners need.
Consumers can better understand their shopping choices by consulting a list of air conditioner models that meet the SEER 15 requirement. This list is available from the Consortium for Energy Efficiency at http://www.ceehvacdirectory.org/ac.php (search under "Residential Tier 2").
Not in the market for a new air conditioner? Even an older air conditioner can be improved with maintenance and regular cleaning, according to ACEEE. A new or cleaned filter helps conditioned air reach each room, decreases motor wear and tear, and lowers electricity consumption. An air conditioner tune-up performed by a qualified contractor can give the unit a new lease on life while lowering monthly utility bills and increasing comfort. "A new, efficient air conditioner or well-maintained older unit can act as a hedge against the rising electricity prices anticipated in several regions of the country," said ACEEE researcher Katie Ackerly.
In addition, consumers can cut their energy use further by following these tips from ACEEE. "Wait until evening to take care of heat-generating activities such as running your dishwasher, and keep your windows and doors closed during the day to keep hot, moist air out. These are some low-tech, low-cost ways to get the most out of your air conditioner and keep cool," said Amann.
More information and consumer advice, along with the Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings, 8th edition ($13.95 including shipping and handling), are available through the ACEEE Web site at http://aceee.org/consumer/consumer.htm.