Connecticut, New York, and Vermont have challenged DOE's 12-SEER rule in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
WASHINGTON, DC — The wait is over. The Department of Energy (DOE) has set the new standard for central air conditioners and heat pumps at 12 SEER. Three states — Connecticut, New York, and Vermont — have filed a challenge in federal court to keep the standard at 13 SEER.

In a rule published on May 23, in the Federal Register, the DOE established that a seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) of 12 will be the standard for residential central air conditioners and heat pumps manufactured for distribution in the United States beginning in 2006. The current standard is 10 SEER.

William G. Sutton, president of the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI), stated, “DOE’s standard is a win for consumers because it keeps this equipment affordable to everyone in all 50 states, and because higher efficiency helps reduce operating costs.” ARI represents manufacturers of more than 90% of North American-produced central air conditioning and commercial refrigeration equipment.

The rule “is environmentally responsible because it encourages homeowners to replace lower efficiency equipment which reduces power plant emissions,” said Sutton. “And it is a win for older Americans and working families because a higher national standard would have discouraged purchase of this equipment, which can save lives during killer heat waves.”


The new air conditioning standard, according to DOE’s estimates from its rule in the Federal Register, “will save approximately 3 quads of energy over 25 years (2006 through 2030). This is equivalent to all the energy consumed by nearly 17 million American households in a single year.

“In 2020,” DOE writes, “the standards will avoid the construction of three 400-megawatt coal-fired [power] plants and 19 400-megawatt gas-fired plants. These energy savings would result in cumulative greenhouse gas emission reductions of approximately 24 million metric tons of carbon, or an amount equal to that produced by approximately 2 million cars every year. Additionally, air pollution would be reduced by the elimination of approximately 80 thousand metric tons of nitrous oxides from 2006 through 2020.

“In total, DOE estimates this standard will have a net benefit to the nation’s consumers of $2 billion over the period 2006 through 2030.”

During rulemaking proceedings, ARI advocated for 12 SEER (a 20% increase over the current standard), saying it was consistent with the law that requires adoption of an economically fair and technologically feasible standard. The U.S. Senate supported 12 SEER in a vote on an amendment to its version of the energy bill on May 25, paving the way for DOE’s final rule. Several states, however, do not agree with the new standard.


New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer stated that the federal law establishing the process for appliance efficiency rules (signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987) prohibits the federal government from lowering a 13 SEER standard initiated by the Clinton administration that was to take effect in February 2001.

“At a time when we should be doing all we can to conserve energy and achieve energy security, it is counterproductive for the Bush administration to roll back a crucial appliance efficiency standard that would save an enormous amount of energy,” Spitzer declared. “Not only is this regulatory move a step backward, it is also illegal, since federal law prohibits agencies from weakening appliance efficiency rules and mandates more aggressive conservation levels.”

Connecticut, New York, and Vermont filed their challenge to DOE’s rule in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Last year, attorneys general from California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maine, Nevada, New York, and Vermont, along with environmental and consumer groups, filed suit to maintain the 13 SEER standard. A federal district judge in New York determined that the case should be heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, where it is expected to be argued in the coming months.


The final rule on central air conditioners and heat pumps establishes minimum efficiency standards for split-system and single package air conditioners and heat pumps, and through-the-wall split-system and single package air conditioners and heat pumps, as shown in Table 1. These standards apply to units manufactured on or after January 23, 2006.

Under the rule, efficiency levels for through-the-wall units are valid for four years. After January 23, 2010, the same efficiencies as split-system and single package central air conditioners and heat pumps will apply. The rule further limits the through-the-wall classification to cooling capacities of 30,000 Btuh or less, on units which do not contain special weatherization features that would allow them to be installed totally outdoors, and which must be marked for installation only through an exterior wall.

The rule also establishes a separate product class for small-duct, high-velocity (SDHV) systems, but the DOE has not yet determined a minimum efficiency standard for these products. An efficiency standard for these systems will be the subject of separate rulemaking expected to be published by the end of the year, according to ARI.

Publication date: 06/03/2002