Getting Ready For 13 SEER Realities

August 11, 2005
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Rheem and Ruud assembly technicians monitor the refrigerant levels of new condensing units at a manufacturing facility located at the Air Conditioning Division’s Fort Smith, Ark., headquarters. (Photo courtesy of Rheem Air Conditioning Division.)
There has been a lot of crystal ball gazing since the 13 SEER minimum efficiency level has been mandated. When would manufacturers ask their distributors to switch their stock over? How would this affect contractors and end users?

Throughout its coverage, The News has kept track of industry trends, and this report combines information from several articles previously published in The News analyzing the changes in the market driven by the 13 SEER standard.

In general, HVAC insiders have agreed that back in the early stages of the 12 SEER vs. 13 SEER debate, the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) pointed out that in many instances, "it will be very difficult to physically fit the larger indoor coil, needed to match the outdoor 13-SEER condensing unit, without retrofitting the air handler originally designed for a smaller, lower-SEER indoor coil."

According to Ed Dooley, then vice president of communications and education for ARI, "This process is costly. The problem will exist for tens of millions of units shipped between 1985 and the end of 2000, and millions more to be shipped until 2006."

Once the 13 SEER standard was finalized, the industry had to start looking seriously at how manufacturers, distributors, contractors, and dealers would accommodate those size differences, as well as how they would make key decisions pertaining to the parts and equipment pipeline.

A production employee on a York UPG assembly brazes outdoor coils. (Photo courtesy of York Unitary Products Group.)

Filling The Pipeline

The News began its series titled "The Road To 13 SEER," on July 5, 2004. In its first installment, manufacturers reported that they were on track to meet the Jan. 23, 2006 deadline.

Speaking on behalf of competitors in the market and colleagues in ARI, Thomas Huntington, president of York International Corp., Unitary Products Group, said, "The manufacturing community is unified today on the 13 SEER standard, and ... we have the wherewithal to meet it in a cost-effective manner."

Manufacturers seemed more focused than ever on educating contractors and consumers on total home comfort systems that include not just higher-efficiency condensers and coils, but other components such as better filtration, humidity control, zoning, and control systems designed to deliver better indoor air quality.

In fact, they see the new standard as one that will level the playing field when it comes to questions of efficiency, placing the emphasis back on other aspects of system performance and home comfort.

The manufacturer said they weren't encouraging distributors or contractors to stock up on 12-SEER-and-under equipment; however, they said they would fulfill orders as needed until the cutoff date of Jan. 23, 2006.

"Specifically at York, we have already optimized our new-generation product design around 13 SEER, and we are currently building competitive 13-SEER units," Huntington said.

Ongoing efforts to build more efficient products have prepared many manufacturers for the upcoming change. "We already have lots of products above 13," said Sharon Brogdon of Trane's marketing department, in 2004. She noted that the company expects a smooth transition with production workers simply shifting to the proper product lines as the changes take place.

"We've been planning on making a major design change around the new SEER levels since about the 2000 time frame, and it's been a process of studying what are the best core technologies and the migrations to get there," reported Halsey Cook, president of Carrier's Residential Division. "We're well focused on the SEER 13 challenge and making sure that we have a product line commensurate with being the industry leader, which is what our customers would expect."

Goodman Manufacturing, which has supported 13 SEER since 2001, notes that it has been producing 13-SEER air conditioners since 1992. Its brands include Amana, Goodman, GMC, Janitrol, and QuietFlex.

Production capacities were ramped up in some cases to help fill the pipeline for higher-efficiency products. Doug Widenmann, senior director of marketing for the York Unitary Products Group, said, "We need all the capacity we can get, and we're going all out to meet the demand." However, the growth isn't related to the legislation, he pointed out.

"We're growing significantly and have been for the past two years. We don't see the efficiency standard as having an impact in the demand for our products. We're not in a retrenchment mode." He cited new plant and equipment investments in Wichita, as well as Apodaca, Mexico, and improved facilities in Norman, Okla.

Doug Young, vice president and general manager, Lennox Residential, said, "We believe there'll be an enhanced level of service to existing products on the installed base, as opposed to the replacement, which would impact the total industry volume such that the manufacturer will see less output, and so we will need to flex our manufacturing manpower to accommodate that lower volume."

A refrigerant leak test is performed prior to the final packaging of an air conditioning unit. (Photo courtesy of York Unitary Products Group.)

The Switch To R-410A

Timing is everything. One of the most potentially frustrating aspects of the switch to the higher efficiency level has been coordinating the change with an upcoming mandated change in refrigerants. However, the change in efficiency most likely will speed up the change in refrigerants from R-22 to R-410A in residential systems.

"Although we think 2006 and 13 SEER will accelerate movement to R-410A, we'll still see a lot of R-22 units until manufacturers are forced to produce alternate refrigerant products in 2010," said York's Widenmann.

"We do believe that the industry will have a swift and significant move towards R-410A as the new efficiency standard takes place because it then allows all products sold to utilize R-410A, where today that's not the case," said Lennox's Young.

ARI's Dooley said, "Logic would dictate ... an increase in the number of R-410A units shipped after 2006 for sure. It's already happening, not only on the residential but also on the commercial side."

"We will have R-22 models available in 2006," said Cooke, "but as more contractors become comfortable working with Puron, then the benefits (beyond the obvious ecological benefits) start to take hold in the industry. Such obvious benefits include focusing on one gas, and having more reliable, more efficient, and more compact units to offer."

Distributor Communication

It seems clear that communication is the key to making the transition go smoothly - communication that includes not only contractors and consumers, but manufacturers and distributors as well.

Trane distributors met with the company's execs in the Denver area in fall 2004 for the company's National Distributor Meeting. The focus was clearly on 2006 and the mandated change in minimum efficiencies.

Dale Green, vice president of marketing and sales, stated, "The change to 13 SEER is sweeping, and it will reshape the way Trane and its channel partners manufacture, market, sell, distribute, and service our products in the future. That is why all of us must go into training now."

Green outlined a three-pronged strategy for growth, urging distributors to become the primary source of light commercial replacement systems for Trane dealers.

Paul Groundwater, vice president of marketing, said the new efficiency standards would "change the rules of the game." He pointed to 2006 as a pivotal year. "It will change the pricing rules, and the rules that say efficiency and energy savings are the best reason to select a brand or trade up to a better system," he stated.

He noted that 2006 would signal a major change for Trane, its competitors, and its dealers. It will necessitate a change in focus to "the homeowners' comfort rather than energy savings."

Groundwater also announced a significantly increased emphasis on consumer marketing. "We will invest in marketing that not only builds our brand, but generates leads for our dealers."

Some said they would definitely stock some units with ratings below 13 SEER, particularly those in the 10-SEER range, for cost-sensitive builders and contractors. Others said they were essentially ready to clear out the old and bring in the new, hoping for a quick conversion of buyers to the new standard starting by mid-2005 - that is, now. They said they were encouraged by some contractors' growing sales of 13-and-higher-SEER equipment.

Recognizing the larger footprint of 13-plus-SEER units compared to those of 10- and 12-SEER equipment, distributors are expanding warehouse space and already computing the effect of trucking changes. The larger units also would mean fewer systems shipped per truckload.

A few distributors were waiting to see what the pricing will be on 13-SEER units and how builders, contractors, and homeowners would react. Joe Brandt of Nordyne said, "Some distributors seem reluctant to start getting more 13 SEER into their inventories. However, they're backing off their 10-SEER inventory."

The M coil from AllStyle Coil was on display at the Texas Furnace booth at the 2005 AHR Expo.

Inventory Questions

In February 2005, air conditioning component manufacturers reported that they were gauging the demand for new 10- and 12-SEER systems. The basic question was whether or not to keep production full steam to let wholesale-distributors build up a supply; after all, 10- and 12-SEER units can be sold indefinitely after Jan. 23, as long as they were manufactured before that date.

OEM suppliers of coils, motors, valves, and related items also have been trying to guess what their manufacturer customers would want this year. Compressor makers have been dealing with current model needs while preparing for 2006.

According to some manufacturers, stockpiling of sub-13-SEER equipment seems likely because of the cost and the increased size of 13-or-higher-SEER units compared to lower-SEER equipment. The minimum efficiency since 1992 has been 10 SEER.

Those who predicted an inventory buildup of 10-SEER equipment this year for later demand from builders and contractors included W.J. (Bill) Merritt, vice president North America sales/marketing, Tecumseh Compressor Co. Other component suppliers acknowledged that probability.

Early Dealer Preparation

Some distributors started offering specific training on 13-SEER equipment for contractors and technicians in 2004. "Our dealers are going through the transition now," said Gary Moody, vice president of Koldaire Supply Co., Dallas.

"Three of my dealers right now [2004] are trying to sell nothing but 14 SEER and up, and they've done well with it."

"We're in the process of setting up training programs to get our core customer base up to speed on the change," said Frank Raue, operations manager at Equipment Sales Corp. The Carrier and Payne distributor is headquartered in Mobile, Ala., and serves southern Alabama and Mississippi and northwest Florida. The company started taking steps in 2002, to educate contractors about industry changes to at least 12 SEER.

Raue said a lot of consumers and business owners probably would be shocked when they see the price difference between 10- and 13-SEER systems. His contention was that it would be better to "educate them now rather than getting a cold glass of water in the face in January of 2006."

Carrier Corp. and its corporate-owned brands, including Bryant and ICP, were investing heavily in contractor education and training, noted Halsey Cook, president, Residential Division.

"We want to help our customers educate homeowners about the benefits of higher efficiencies - understanding the paybacks. The higher price points associated with 13 SEER are something that consumers will have to be educated about," said Cook. "Contractors will have to ensure that the benefit they pre-sent to consumers is, in fact, a true 13-SEER system."

Boyd Pope of All Seasons Cooling and Heating, Rose Hill, Kan., said he was already selling a number of 13-SEER Puron-using units back before Sept. 11, 2001. Ever since business started picking up after slow times in late 2001 and 2002, "A majority of what we've been putting in has been 12-, 14-, up to 15.5-SEER units," he said.

He said he foresees some economic pinch for farmers and other rural customers. As the 2006 deadline passes, he may hold back some less-than-13-SEER units to help those who are hurting. "Otherwise, I'll probably sell the 13-SEER units to the majority," he said, adding that with higher-efficiency equipment, "you make more money."

"It takes you about the same time to install," he said. "I very seldom even bid 10 SEER."

Pope wondered if pricing of 13-and-higher-SEER units might come down after 13 becomes the accepted standard. He said that happened when the 10-SEER minimum went into effect. After a short period of time, "It was almost like the price dropped down to what the 8- and 9-SEER units had been selling for."

York UPG material handler transports compressors to an assembly line.

Size And Storage

Raue pointed out another impact on his company: the increased physical size of 13-and-higher-SEER equipment. His company planned to expand its warehouse space.

Doug Young, president of The Behler-Young Co., a Bryant distributor with headquarters in Grand Rapids, Mich., also studied the logistical impact of the change. "We need nearly twice as many trucks, nearly twice as much space in our distribution centers," he said. "The dealer can fit fewer units in his trucks, and installers will have to make more trips to take the same number of units to jobsites."

Manufacturers such as Copeland Corp. have said that the higher-efficiency units would be approximately 40 percent larger than older units. Copeland has been giving dealers information on how to take stock of their current size and ways to find a little more space out of what they already have; the information has been posted on The News/Emerson's Tech Tips in the Extra Edition section online at www.achrnews.com.

According to the Tech Tips, contractors need to determine how much total square footage they have or could potentially use for storage, and how much square footage they actually use for storing outdoor units and matching indoor coils. "Figure out how much space is taken up by smaller, lower-efficiency stock; add 40 percent to that figure. If your business size remains the same, that is how much space you will need to find to take care of your new stock.

"Planning for new indoor coils is as essential as planning for larger outdoor units. As many experts are warning, contractors who don't change indoor coils along with outdoor units will find themselves in Callback City."

Whether or not space needs to be added depends on many factors - "how efficiently your current space is being utilized, how much room you currently have for growth, how much you can improve the use of your space by improving shelving and other aspects of stock management, and even whether you have access to new buildings," the Tech Tip states. "If you are already outgrowing your current facilities, it may be time to look seriously into adding on or moving to a larger building.

"Another factor may affect your need to find more space: whether or not your manufacturer or distributor can deliver equipment to the jobsite for you. This kind of value-added service is well worth researching."

At this year's Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Exposition (AHR Expo), Fedders introduced a line of what it calls ultra-quiet and compact 13-SEER central air conditioners with a high-end appliance finish. The company calls its new 13-SEER models "among the most compact in the industry" - an important consideration for the 13-SEER replacement market.

Both space and time measure the impact of the approaching 13 SEER deadline for Sigler & Reeves and Air Mechanical Supply in Phoenix, said Rod Martin, Sigler & Reeves vice president/residential sales manager. Sigler & Reeves built a 140,000-square-foot distribution center in 2004. The company planned to downsize some of its multiple warehouses in metropolitan Phoenix, then put smaller satellite units throughout the valley.

Martin said his experience in previous transitions (such as the switch to automatic ignition from match-lit in the 1980s and the move from 8-SEER to 10-SEER minimums in the early 1990s) suggests that builders will immediately move to the new product line "and don't want a whole lot of the old one." Neither do consumers, Martin said. "They don't want to feel that they bought a unit that is not approved beyond 2006."

The larger size of 13-SEER units was a concern for Buckeye Heating & Air Conditioning Supply, a Comfortmaker distributor serving the northeast Ohio market from its headquarters in Bedford Heights. John Wortendyke, president, said warehousing space is a concern. He noted that fewer boxes on a truck would drive up the shipping cost per item.

Discussing Trane’s plans to meet new minimum efficiency standards are (from left) Dale Green, vice president of marketing and sales; Paul Groundwater, vice president of marketing; John Androski, a Trane district manager; and Charlie Walters of Gensco Supply, a Trane distributor from Tacoma, Wash.

Pricing

A.O. Smith spokesman Terry Glass, manager of strategic programs for that motor maker, said more efficient motors generally require more steel and copper, plus more electronics to enhance performance characteristics. The electronics add to the cost.

"When it reaches the consumer, the unit cost isn't going to be 20 or 30 percent higher (reflecting the efficiency difference between 10- and 13-SEER systems); it's probably going to be worse," Glass said.

Others have speculated that 13-SEER equipment will cost at least 50 percent more than same-capacity 10-SEER systems.

"I think most contractors will be more inclined to sell higher-efficiency product if the pricing differential is not as great as it is now," said Dan Hinchman, vice president of corporate operations and marketing, Aireco Supply, Savage, Md. "We have some price-sensitive customers who would probably like to deal sometime before the end of summer 2005 on buying a bunch of 10-SEER product to save money going forward.

"What we've found in the past, however, when the move was from 8 to 10 SEER, that [advantage] didn't really materialize because the price of 10 SEER got down close to where 8 SEER was anyway, so no one really needed to do that," Hinchman said.

A bigger issue looms with warranty concerns. "Say a guy buys a brand new 10-SEER unit in September [2005] and it fails the following February [2006]," Hinchman said.

"He can't get a 10 anymore; he has to get a 13, and the problem is, will the 13 match up with his existing air-handler unit or will it give him any other problems?"

Dave Pannier (left), president of Trane Residential Systems, discusses the company’s preparations for impending 13 SEER government regulations with Lee Force, manager of the Trane distribution center in Raleigh, N.C.

Parts And Components

Manufacturers of OEM components have been working closely with unitary manufacturers to reach their 13-SEER design requirements. Some efficiency solutions involve using existing products in new or innovative ways. Others are supplying new technologies designed to fill this mandated market.

"Many of the OEMs have put together full-blown redesign projects to address the 13 SEER challenge, and that has created opportunities and challenges for us," said John Carmack, Global Air Conditioning OEM sales manager for Parker Hannifin Corp.'s Climate business. "A lot of products are being revisited." Parker-made elements in a unitary system may include thermostatic expansion valves (TXVs), suction and liquid line driers, service valves, couplings, and accumulators.

"We've always had an excellent ball valve product especially designed for the air conditioning business," he noted. "It's certainly an opportunistic product for the OEM design groups to work with. It greatly reduces pressure drop in the system. That gives them more control and allows them to achieve higher efficiency ratings."

Carmack said production is being ramped up to meet new demands, but he was unsure how 2005 would play out. "We know that the fourth quarter is going to be a very busy time as manufacturers start gearing up to produce 13-plus-SEER equipment."

Transitioning to the 13-SEER minimum means using expansion valves rather than fixed-orifice valves or capillary tubes employed in lower-SEER systems, explained Al Maier, vice president in charge of application engineering, Emerson Climate Technologies Flow Control Division. "It's much easier to get to the 13-SEER level using an expansion valve instead of trying to get all the energy efficiency through increased evaporator and condenser coil surface," he explained. "It's much more cost effective to use a mechanical expansion valve."

Additional system protection is also important, he noted. "Our OEMs are beginning to see value in adding moisture indicators and filter-driers to the line before the expansion valve." This is especially true for R-410A systems, which are more sensitive to moisture.

Coil Configurations

Many major OEMs make their own heat exchangers, said Craig Grohman, Modine's program manager for microchannel launch in the HVAC market. "Others, including some smaller companies, are looking at an all-aluminum brazed product we make - microchannel heat exchangers."

The approaching 13 SEER deadline comes as Modine launches a product line called the PF2. It is based on parallel-flow or microchannel coils long made by Modine for the automotive and truck markets. Modine makes round tube plate fin (RTPF) coils with copper tube with aluminum fins, used in the majority of HVACR applications including residential air conditioners. Grohman said the microchannel coils will become more common in the HVACR market because of efficiency and refrigerant changes pending between 2006 and 2010.

Amos Snow III, president and chief executive officer of Bois D'Arc International, said the thick-wall copper his company uses has helped bring more demand for his coil. New refrigerants being adopted by some OEMs operate at higher pressure ranges, he noted. "We engineer coils to fit the applications, so if they need higher condensing capacity we can re-engineer the coils to achieve that." The company makes both OEM and replacement coils for HVAC use.

Bois D'Arc makes completed coil assemblies, and the company is moving to a high-pitch corrugation design that can be cleaned in the field and is more cost effective, he asserted.

Texas Furnace LLC showed its AllStyle Coil patented, Max Series high-output M coils at the 2005 AHR Expo in Orlando. The M-shaped coils (imagine two upside-down V coils) are said to help increase unitary system efficiency without increasing its height. The coils offer "maximum cooling capacity, maximum SEER rating, and maximum airflow with minimum height," the company said.

Parker serves air conditioning OEMs with service valves manufactured in its New Haven, Ind., plant. (Photo courtesy of Parker Hannifin Corp.)

Compressors

Emerson Climate Technologies won a 2005 AHR Expo Innovation Award for technology innovation with its "next generation" of Copeland Scrollâ„¢ compressors, introduced at that event in early February. The first Copeland Scroll made its debut in 1987; this next-generation version is optimized for 13 SEER, explained John Schneider, marketing director, Copeland Residential Air Conditioning.

"After this cooling season, there's going to be increased need for compressors for 13-SEER applications as our customers begin transitioning," Schneider told The News. "We're making sure we're geared up to produce those products, getting our supply base and factories ready to accommodate customers' needs."

Emerson Climate Technologies also offers the Copeland Scroll Ultra Tech compressor. The unit's two-stage modulation helps homeowners achieve better humidity control, lower relative humidity, and better temperature control, Schneider said. It enables contractors "to sell up a differentiated product to the homeowner, and we see that segment growing rapidly in 2006."

Variable-speed products in both compressors and motors will play a larger role in the quest for efficiency as the industry moves into the 13-SEER product range, said Bill Merritt, vice president North America sales/marketing, Tecumseh Compressor Co.

Dual- or variable-speed technology used to be a premium product attribute, but it's becoming more essential now, he reported. Scroll, reciprocal, and rotary compressors are all applicable in 13-SEER-and-up applications, he said, noting that rotary is an up-and-coming option because of its efficiency and cost effectiveness.

He speculated that air conditioning system manufacturers would finish out the 2005 season with a product mix not much different than that of 2004, "and then really crank up for 13 SEER for the 2006 season. I don't think anybody is going to change over early, due to the cost constraints."

Tecumseh has a number of new designs that have been under development for a while, Merritt said. His company builds compressors in Latin America, Europe, and Asia. "We're building at maximum capacity right now at our air conditioning plants, but it's that season for everyone at this point." He said he doesn't anticipate any product shortages as the year plays out.

Component manufacturers see logistics as the key to helping OEM customers meet production schedules. (Photo courtesy of Parker Hannifin Corp.)

Motor Changes

Sid Ambort, vice president of sales and marketing for HVACR motors, Emerson Climate Technologies, predicted a couple of areas of change. "On the condensing unit, we're seeing customers moving from a six-pole motor to an eight-pole motor," he said. That drops fan speed from about 1,050 rpm to approximately 800 rpm, but makes it more efficient in moving air, yielding more cfm per watt, Ambort explained. "You also get a quieter unit."

The magnitude of that change is pretty high, he said. However, "13 SEER has not really kicked in yet," he said. "One of our concerns is when the marketplace is going to transition."

Another area of change involves the efficiency level of the indoor unit, he explained.

"We see potential for an increase in the number of indoor units that use variable speed in furnace or air handler motors."

Indoor air handler improvement is achieved in some cases with variable-speed brushless permanent magnet (BPM) motors. The other approach is again to use an eight-pole motor indoors instead of a six-pole motor to achieve more air movement per watt.

He said OEMs are likely to use different approaches to achieve the 13-SEER level in the system. "We will build a lot of six-pole motors for furnaces and air handlers, and some customers won't switch to eight-pole on the condensing unit."

Others may add more coil surface, employ a TXV, or go from a reciprocating to a scroll compressor. "Every design team is doing what they think works best from an engineering as well as a marketing standpoint."

The HVAC industry consumes a lot of electric motors, Ambort pointed out. "Last year, more than 8 million condensing units were built and sold in the U.S. alone, and probably 3.5 to 4 million furnaces and air handlers."

An outdoor coil is staged in a machine for the bending operation.

Installation Questions

Glenn Hourahan, vice president of research and technology, Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), warned that the 13 SEER requirement will not only create a 30 percent increase in equipment efficiency, but "also dramatically increase the size" of those components. The inlet opening for the new coil box will probably be larger than an existing furnace or air handler opening.

Smooth duct transitions also need to be considered. These types of issues will add to job costs, Hourahan said, and space may still be inadequate.

The new coils' increased sizes could make it tempting for contractors not to replace the indoor unit, especially if it means higher costs associated with modifying the plenum.

"New 13-SEER coils are going to be larger," said Tim Hawkins, engineering manager, residential air conditioning equipment, Rheem. "It's going to be extremely tempting to use the old coils.

"Ductwork is probably OK if it was done correctly the first time, but some adaptation might be necessary for the plenum." He pointed out that some sheet metal work might be needed to do the job right.

Manufacturers also pointed out that refrigerant charge, line sizing, airflow, and overall system sizing will affect the performance of these higher-efficiency systems. If contractors are not used to installing efficiency upgrades, they may not take the steps they need to for optimum system performance and life span.

"The most important thing is to ensure that the indoor and outdoor sections are designed to work together," said Steve Hancock of Trane. "That usually means the whole system must be replaced rather than just the outdoor section, as is commonly done."

"When replacing a heat pump, it is important that the contractor makes sure the indoor section is rated with the new heat pump," agreed Craig Kersten, senior product manager, Carrier.

"With today's higher-efficiency units, heat pumps are using more refrigerant, and if you do not have an indoor coil that is properly matched, you will have performance issues. These may include things such as charge imbalance, high-pressure switch trips, low comfort levels, and reliability issues."

Hawkins pointed out that safety agency (i.e., UL) approvals on heat pumps are for matched systems. "Using a nonmatched system will effectively void the safety agency approval on the replacement unit."

Indoor airflow over the coil is another important factor, he said. "Most new systems utilize larger indoor coils; 400 cfm/ton is no longer an adequate rule of thumb as it may have been in the past. A lower airflow rate is necessary for adequate moisture removal. I've found that 350 cfm/ton, sometimes less, is appropriate." It's best to consult the system's manufacturer.

Refrigerant errors may result in a number of operational problems.

"It's easier to make an error in charging," said Hancock. "The higher-efficiency units will have a higher charge and liquid temperatures that are closer to the outdoor ambient. This means that a small error in the subcooling measurement can correspond to a big change in charge."

"Most of these systems will use TXVs instead of orifice devices," Hancock said. "Therefore, they must be charged to subcooling rather than superheat."

"R-410A systems are more sensitive to errors than R-22 systems because of the type of oil used in the system," Hawkins said. Moisture can create acid in these polyolester (POE) systems. The acid tends to eat away at compressor windings, causing compressors to fail.

"Existing lines may not be correct," he pointed out. "They don't wear out, and it's perfectly fine to leave them if they're the right size," Hawkins said.

"Most manufacturers give some leeway on line size." If the lines are too large, however, there may be improper oil return to the compressor and an improper refrigerant charge.

According to Larry Banas, director of educational services for Emerson Climate Technologies, "Errors made in airflow, equipment sizing, and refrigerant charge will cause efficiency losses on higher-SEER units, just as these same errors have caused efficiency losses in lower-efficiency units. Proper load calculation, system sizing, duct sizing, and refrigerant charge will continue to be just as critical on higher-SEER products."

The question to ask is whether the original system was sized correctly. Also, did the homeowners make any significant changes to the home that would affect its load?

Said Banas, "System ductwork size must be properly calculated to ensure correct cfm of airflow for proper temperature and humidity control."

The increased amount of space 13-SEER units occupy versus lower-SEER units is one of the concerns that distributors have about the 13 SEER standard. (Photo courtesy of York Unitary Products Group.)

Improving Installations

Doing it right the first time should always be the goal. Contractors who are less familiar with system efficiency upgrades may benefit by using checklists, double-checking manufacturers' installation data, looking closely at the existing system, and investing in training.

"Contractors and installers might want to make and follow a checklist to ensure nothing is overlooked," said Banas.

"After startup of a new unit, the system pressures, temperatures, voltage, amperage, superheat, and subcooling should be checked to ensure proper operation. A next-day follow-up to check the system might be beneficial."

"Contractors should always refer to the manufacturer's product data sheets of tested combinations," said Kersten. "These can also be verified in the ARI directory of certified combination ratings."

Confirming key parameters is vital. "Confirm that indoor airflow is correct," said Hawkins. "Confirm the refrigerant charge is correct before you leave. Confirm the accuracy of the refrigerant line sizing. Confirm that electrical wiring and breakers are correct for the new unit. High-efficiency units tend to use less current, therefore they need a smaller fuse size. Installation instructions have that information with it."

Use the proper tools to take these measurements, he said. "Digital tools are excellent."

Many things, little and big, could reduce the installed efficiency. Higher-efficiency systems have "less tolerance of screw-ups," said ACCA's Hourahan.

"Occupants really don't care about efficiency as much as they do about being comfortable and healthy," he said.

"To ensure occupant comfort and satisfaction, system sizing and zoning are most important." In order to get a high installed efficiency, it's critical that installing contractors make sure ducts are tightly sealed and well insulated.

Airflow and good air distribution, good duct design with no high external static pressure (ESP), and minimal duct leakage are all vital when it comes to making sure an air conditioner reaches its installed efficiency potential.

"Uninsulated duct and high leakage will impact the system's ability, wasting energy," Hourahan said. If the duct system is drawing in unconditioned air through a leak, it compounds the problem.

High ESP can also be a problem when the homeowners have chosen a higher-efficiency air filter, which reduces the amount of airflow. "You need to check the manufacturer's restrictions," he said.

"I think the most critical factor is stopping duct leakage," agreed contractor Dewey Neese, CEO of Neese-Jones Heating & Air Conditioning, Alpharetta, Ga.

"The typical home has 25 to 30 percent duct leakage," he said. "Going to higher-efficiency equipment, it's critical to reduce leakage, especially where ductwork is located in crawlspaces or attics."

According to Owen, codes in Georgia mandate that mastic be used at all flex duct joints. Because of this and certain efficiency programs, "I have seen a vast reduction in duct loss in homes," he said.

Home efficiency programs like Earth Craft or Build Green require that inspectors "go in and not only test leakage of homes and check for air leaks, but also on HVAC duct systems so there is minimal leakage there."

  • For contractors designing a new home system, a load calculation must be thorough and the contractor must steer clear of the temptation to bump up the unit's size. Oversized higher-SEER equipment, Hourahan said, will satisfy the load quickly and not take the moisture out.

    These systems achieve "a higher SEER at steady state," he said. "The coil is not getting as cold as it should be," which affects efficiency, "and it's not removing moisture," which affects comfort.

  • An incorrect refrigerant charge can affect installed efficiency. For new installations, "The condensing unit comes precharged, but line set length needs to be considered and modifications may be made," Hourahan said.

    For example, the installed line set may be 50 feet, when the factory thought it would be 20 or 30. The contractor needs to make sure the charge is correct for the application.

  • The addition of zoning equipment "may affect the perceived satisfaction of the customer," he said. Without it, customers may "bump the thermostat up or down to be satisfied," and this affects their energy usage.

  • Last but not least, maintenance needs to be explained to the new home's owner. Lack of maintenance can lead to "significant efficiency degradation within a year or two." Consider the application, Hourahan said.

    Encourage maintenance from a contractor on a periodic basis; once a year is suggested by most manufacturers in order to maintain the warranty.

    Publication date: 08/15/2005

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