Just when you thought it was safe to count on the Department of Energy (DOE) to finally institute its long awaited new federal standard for central air conditioners and heat pumps — most likely, 12 SEER — California now weighs in with a proposed higher state standard of 13 SEER. Plus, to make the issue even more jumbled, the U.S. Senate is now debating its energy bill, which includes proposed language that would legislate 13 SEER nationally.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) recently voted to revise its Title 20 Appliance Energy Efficiency Standards to apply a standard of 13 SEER for residential split-system and single-package air conditioners and heat pumps of less than 65,000 Btuh. Commercial air conditioning and heat pump units from 65,000 to 135,000 Btuh would have a higher standard of 11 EER, with a 10.8 EER for products between 135,000 and 240,000 Btuh.

To initiate a separate and higher state standard, the CEC would have to get a waiver from the DOE exempting it from federal standards. And such an action would open the door for other states to adopt separate standards as well.

The News asked the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI), which has been at the forefront of the SEER debate, for its comments on the California complication. Ed Dooley, vice president of communications and education, responded.

“ARI has argued in comments to the California Energy Commission that federal law preempted the commission’s proposed rules for residential and commercial air conditioning equipment,” said Dooley. “This includes proposed requirements for SEER levels above federal standards, EER standards, and thermal expansion valves (TXVs).

“The state standards cannot go into effect until California is granted a waiver to federal preemption for these products. This is expected to take months, perhaps a year, with hearings to evaluate California’s claims. Granting of the waiver by the U.S. Department of Energy is by no means certain, and ARI will oppose the waiver,” he stated.

“The proposed preempted rules would impose too much of a burden, including detrimental effects on consumers and manufacturers. The United States is now served well by having one rule, not 50, with huge energy savings over the past decade thanks to a national standard that is fair and economically justified.”

Asked if other states might follow California’s lead, Dooley remarked, “A uniform national standard eliminated the patchwork of state-by-state regulations that made it difficult for manufacturers to design, produce, and market energy-efficient products for consumers. The successful model and the benefits achieved over the past decade would encourage states to not seek exemption from DOE’s national standard.”

How might this impact ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) standards? “ARI does not believe that ASHRAE will change its efficiency levels to make them consistent with California,” he said. “ASHRAE in the past looked at proposals submitted by CEC to raise the efficiency levels of commercial unitary products between 65,000 and 240,000 Btuh and rejected them on the basis that there was no analysis to justify the levels.

“The CEC proposal for 11 EER for products between 65,000 and 135,000 Btuh was flawed because they severely underestimated the cost of the products. In addition, CEC conducted no analysis to justify the efficiency levels for products between 135,000 and 240,000 Btuh. ARI commented in detail on this to CEC on Dec. 17, 2001. ARI urged CEC to conduct a life cycle cost analysis for these products.”

Regarding the impact of a 13 SEER standard on consumers, Dooley reiterated the ARI view that it would be a burden on working families and senior citizens. “Such a rule would have an adverse effect on these consumers, causing them to forgo air conditioner purchases or replacements due to cost considerations,” he said. “And, keeping older, less efficient equipment in operation would reverse the intended effect. A 12 SEER minimum would be more affordable and encourage replacement of older equipment instead of raising a cost barrier.”

Dooley also noted that a uniform national standard discourages market distortions. “There is no incentive to save by shopping across state lines. And, again, consumers are less inclined to defer replacing equipment because of unrealistically high first costs.”

The Senate energy bill introduced by Senators Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) includes a section proposing a 13 SEER standard for central air conditioners and heat pumps manufactured on or after Jan. 23, 2006. An exception is units that have a rated cooling capacity equal to or less than 30,000 Btuh.

If this section of the legislation is enacted, it would throw the situation into further turmoil, with the industry wondering whether DOE rulemaking or Congressional legislation has the final word. Appeals, and further delays, could result.

If the Senate does approve a bill with 13 SEER, its version would have to be worked out with the House version of the energy bill which rejected a proposed 13 SEER amendment. So the potential added drama of legislation trying to one-up a DOE standard is still down the road.

Publication date: 03/11/2002