ARLINGTON, VA - The U.S. Department of Energy's last-minute mandate to increase the minimum efficiency standard for residential central air conditioners and heat pumps from 10 SEER (seasonal energy efficiency ratio) to 13 SEER drew fire from many hvacr industry officials.

Clifford H. "Ted" Rees, president of the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI), may have been the most vocal. By ordering a 30% increase, Rees said the DOE "is enacting a cruel penalty on millions of Americans for whom air conditioning is a necessity, indeed a life saver in heat waves. This will be a very hard blow to many Americans living on low and fixed incomes in rural and urban settings."

The action by DOE came in the final hours of the Clinton Administration, despite urging from ARI and manufacturers to adopt a more moderate 20% hike in the minimum standard. The current 10 SEER standard will jump to 13 SEER on Jan. 1, 2006, unless Congress or the courts overturn the recent ruling.

"In a desperate race to act before the Clinton Administration leaves office, DOE enacted a standard it cannot justify, ignored its own analysis for a fair standard, threatened lost jobs for several hundred thousand workers, and taxed consumers with costs that could exceed $5 billion," said Rees. "This unjust rule will be challenged in Congress and the courts because it is unreasonable, unfair, and defies the rule-making process DOE is sworn to uphold."

Long Payback Period

According to ARI, manufacturers of central air conditioners and heat pumps have increased efficiencies of units by 40% and 46%, respectively, during the past 20 years while keeping costs affordable for millions of new buyers. ARI supported enactment of the original minimum standard and its increase to 12 SEER, but it said DOE's 13 SEER requirement would eliminate 84% of all central air conditioner models and 66% of all heat pump models.

"This is sleight-of-hand rulemaking at its worst," said Rees. "DOE ignored a Justice Department warning of an adverse impact on competition and its recommendation that DOE consider a more moderate standard. Further, DOE failed to follow its own procedures to assure that analyses are done in a timely and open process."

ARI contends the rule would force consumers to purchase units with payback periods of 9 to 14 years, apparently the longest ever imposed by a new appliance standard. It says that DOE violated its Process Improvement Rule by allowing only nine working days for public comments on complex analyses that DOE had not included in its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

Further Review Next?

The change in administration could open the door for further review of the standard, according to Ed Dooley, vice president of Communications at ARI.

"The DOE rule on air conditioner and heat pump efficiency standards did not appear in the Federal Register until Monday [January 22], and does not go into effect for 30 days," said Dooley. "Thus, the rule is subject to a directive of the Bush Administration that was issued hours after President Bush was sworn into office on Saturday [Jan. 20]."

Dooley said it was common procedure for a new administration to put a hold on any regulations that have been published in the Federal Register but which haven't taken effect yet. The purpose is to scrutinize any last-minute flurry of regulations that are acted on by a lame duck administration. Rather than taking effect 30 days after publication in the Register, the effective date has been pushed back to 60 days.

"Under that directive, the effective date of the regulation is postponed for 60 days, giving DOE time to review, moderate, and even rescind the rule drafted under the Clinton Administration," said Dooley. "Thus, the status of the standards - which do not take effect until January 1, 2006 - is unclear. DOE could reopen the rulemaking process for public comment, affirm, or change the rule just as Congress could also take up the issue and disapprove the rule by a majority vote."

Sidebar: November Unitary Shipments Down, But Near Annual Record

ARLINGTON, VA - Combined U.S. factory shipments of 328,692 central air conditioners and air-source heat pumps for November declined 7% compared to the same month last year, according to Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) statistics. However, shipments for the first eleven months totaled 6,358,944 - 2% ahead of the same period in 1999 - approaching that year's record of 6,647,071 units shipped.

Heat pump shipments included in the November numbers were 88,960, which is up 4% compared to 99. The year-to-date total of 1,251,005 is also up 4% over a year ago.

November factory stocks increased 16,576 units from October, and grew by 36,856 units over November 99.

Distributor inventories in November decreased 4,979 units from October, but were up 48,289 units from last November. Distributor shipments dropped 4% from the same month a year ago; year-to-date shipments, on the other hand, were up 2%.

Publication date: 01/29/2001