What Does SEER Mean When Purchasing an AC Unit?

Allie Ogletree
Written by Allie Ogletree
Updated June 18, 2021
Air Conditioning Unit
Tetra Images via Getty Images

SEER ratings measure an air conditioning unit's energy efficiency

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If you’re shopping for a new air conditioner, chances are you’re facing a dizzying array of numbers. You know your AC is living on borrowed time, and you’re anxious to get a new one installed before temps reach a fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk scenario. It can feel daunting to weed through all the data, but one number deserves particular attention: the SEER rating.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, heating and cooling units use more energy than any other system in the home. If you’re hoping to save energy and money, then you’ll want to keep an eye out for the SEER rating when choosing your next AC unit.

What Does SEER mean?

Before we go into how to choose an efficient and cost-effective AC unit, what exactly is a SEER rating? 

First and foremost, SEER is an acronym for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio. You might also come across the phrase Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating on your AC unit.

Without getting too technical, this rating measures how efficiently your air conditioner unit cools. The SEER rating is calculated by taking the ratio of cooling capacity in a given cooling season and dividing it by the power used, also known as the total electric energy input. The higher the rating, the more efficient the air conditioner.

A Brief History of SEER Ratings

SEER ratings have increased in recent years, so you might find great value in replacing a system that is 10 to 15 years old with a more efficient, newer model. Even today’s entry-level models are much more efficient than decade-old standard models.

Nationwide, EPA standards require all air conditioners manufactured after Jan. 1, 2015, to have a minimum rating of 14 SEER. Previously, all systems manufactured after Jan. 23, 2006, had to achieve at least a 13 SEER rating. Compare that to older HVAC units, which tend to have a rating of eight or nine.

What Is a Good SEER Rating?

Today, a good SEER rating really depends on what you need to live comfortably in your home. Any new unit that is replacing your old, outdated HVAC unit is an improvement. However, if you live in a hot and humid region, chances are you’ll want a unit that performs above average to keep your home cool. Conversely, if you live in the northeast, you can likely get by with a lower rating.

What Do the SEER Numbers Mean?

On average, here is what the different SEER ratings mean:

  • SEER ratings of 13 and 14 are the least effective ratings required nationwide.

  • An efficient SEER rating tends to fall between 15-20.

  • Above-average SEER ratings are anything greater than 21.

Keep in mind: Some units have a high SEER rating but do not perform at that level all the time. This is because SEER ratings are the maximum capabilities for that appliance. Not all units consistently measure up to their SEER ratings, so it’s always worth looking at the average performance of an individual unit before making a purchase.

To do this, you can either directly contact the manufacturer for the specifics of that unit’s performance or contact an energy auditor to inspect your home to ensure that your new A/C unit will perform at its maximum efficiency.

How Do I Find My Air Conditioning Unit's SEER Rating?

The federal EnergyGuide label can help homeowners determine a unit’s SEER rating at a glance. It will be prominently displayed in the store, along with a range comparing it to other units.

EnergyGuide label
The EnergyGuide label helps identify high-efficiency A/C units. (Photo courtesy of Energy Star)

Should I Upgrade My AC Unit?

Now that you know your AC unit’s SEER rating and have determined if its rating is efficient, it’s time to think about whether you want to upgrade your AC unit.

Even if your older AC unit works well and you regularly service your unit, it’s a good idea to consider upgrading units that are 10 years or older. This is because older units are less efficient than newer ones and lack the enhanced technology that gives them a higher SEER rating. Not to mention, your old unit is also more prone to cooling problems. If you’re not sure, you can talk to an HVAC contractor near you to help you decide.

Though it may seem like it will cost you money to invest in an updated AC unit, a high-efficiency AC can save you money (and keep you cool) in the long run. Weigh your options by looking at how old and efficient your current AC unit is compared to brand new ones.

How Much Does an AC Unit with a Good SEER Cost?

If you decide to upgrade your old AC unit, one of the first things you might be asking is How much do AC units with higher SEER ratings cost? In short, it varies.

Let’s take a look at a few factors that will determine the cost of your new AC unit:

  • SEER Rating: The SEER rating of your new unit can affect its price significantly.

  • Features and Upgrades: While conventional air ducted systems can reach up to 21 SEER, ductless and geothermal systems can reach into the 30s, making them more efficient—and costly.

  • Installation: Another factor to consider is where you live. The market value of an AC installation contractor varies depending on the location. Pricier areas tend to have contractors who also charge more for services. Expect to pay $1,500–$12,500 for a new HVAC installation to your home.

Choosing a SEER Rating

As you determine how much you can spend on a more cost- and energy-efficient AC unit, be sure to take your budget into account. In addition to AC buying tips like considering the unit’s size, use the SEER rating as your guide when evaluating your options. 

The rating you choose can mean the difference between thousands of dollars. For example, jumping from a 14 SEER rating to a 15 can increase costs by $1,000 or more, while jumping from 14 to 17 costs as much as $1,800 more.

HVAC Cost-Saving Tips

SEER is an important indicator of energy usage. Though it can help you calculate your cost savings, it’s not the only factor. Many important HVAC terms can help you determine how efficient your next purchase might be. 

In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy offers online energy-efficiency calculators to help homeowners predict how much money they’ll save on energy costs with equipment carrying different SEER ratings. 

A home energy audit can also identify ways to save energy. Your system will last longer due to decreased wear and tear, and you’ll spend less money on electricity every month. No matter how efficient your system is, follow our energy-saving tips to use even less power. 

LEARN MORE: How Much Does Installing a New A/C Cost?

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