On Jan. 13, the United States Appeals Court for the Second Circuit in New York ruled that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) did not follow proper procedure when it adopted a standard to set the minimum standard for air conditioners and heat pumps at 12 SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) in May 2002. As a result, the more stringent 13 SEER standard, issued by the Clinton administration during its final weeks in office, would go into effect.

Speaking for the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI), president William Sutton said at the time, "We are disappointed that such an important decision affecting homeowners in all 50 states should be determined on process rather than on the impact of the regulation on millions of people."

Prior to the ruling, ARI had been battling the 13-SEER minimum standard since late 2000. Despite objections from ARI and members of Congress, the DOE supported the increase, which raised the minimum from the current 10 SEER to 13. However, after a 60-day review period (during which ARI and other concerned industry groups and businesses voiced their objections to the proposed increase), the DOE reversed its position in May 2002.

The opposition did not back down. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), along with 10 states and consumer groups, countered with a lawsuit against the DOE ruling, claiming the department had not followed proper procedures in the adoption of its 12 SEER rule.

In its Jan. 13 decision, the New York appeals court said, "the May 23, 2002 replacement standards [12 SEER rule] were promulgated in violation of that section [42 U.S.C. 629(o)(1)] because DOE failed to effect a valid amendment of the original standard's [13 SEER] effective date, and as a consequence was thereafter prohibited from amending those standards downward."

"The judge threw out the 12 SEER ruling because he said the 13 SEER rule was already published and it couldn't change," said Ben Lieberman, senior policy analyst for the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). "But the court did say that the separate challenge brought by ARI on the merits of 13 SEER could go forward."

Not all agreed with ARI's position in backing the 12 SEER standard. For instance, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) was one vocal association that welcomed the court's decision.

York UPG material handler transports compressors to an assembly line. (Photos courtesy of York Unitary Products Group.)

Challenge Withdrawn

In the end, after weighing the pros and cons, ARI opted to withdraw its challenge to the 13 SEER standard on March 17.

"Due to the likelihood of a long and uncertain legal process, ARI will no longer pursue litigation in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., so that manufacturers can prepare for a new, 13 SEER national minimum efficiency standard for residential air conditioners and heat pumps that will go into effect on Jan. 23, 2006," wrote Sutton. He noted that time was not on the association's side.

"Manufacturers face significant challenges in meeting the deadline for the 13 SEER standard, which is less than two years away," he said. "The industry needs to know with certainty what the standard will be in order to meet the needs of the marketplace.

"Because of the approaching effective date and the uncertainty of the court action, ARI has withdrawn its request for review of the 13 SEER rule by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va."

An outdoor coil is staged in a machine for the bending operation. Larger outdoor coils will be required for 13-SEER units. Two- and three-row coil configurations sometimes present challenges for contractors, who must separate the rows for proper cleaning and maintenance.
The current 10 SEER standard, which went into effect in 1992, remains the national minimum efficiency standard until Jan. 23, 2006. Equipment manufactured after that date must meet the 13 SEER standard.

Most unitary manufacturers sought 12 over 13, but now all are now focused on 13, as are contractors. "The manufacturing community is unified today on the 13 SEER standard and ... we have the wherewithal to meet it in a cost-effective manner," said Tom Huntington, president, York International Corp., Unitary Products Group, Norman, Okla.

In light of the court's decision, manufacturers have stepped up efforts to educate 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.

The increased amount of space 13-SEER units occupy versus lower-SEER units is a concern for distributors.
Many contractors said they do not foresee any disruption in business as the deadline approaches and less-efficient equipment becomes unavailable. This is not to say that contractors in general do not have concerns about the marketplace once the new minimum standard is in place.

For instance, the price of some high-efficiency units may drive some of those rental property owners "to shop us out at that point," noted Jerry Johnson, sales manager for retrofit residential at Wycoff Industries, Des Moines, Iowa. On the other hand, individual homeowners who plan to stay in their homes can be upsold to the 13- or 14-SEER range, he said.

Publication date: 12/27/2004