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To save energy, regulators are requiring air-conditioning manufacturers to build more power-thrifty systems next year.
Central air conditioners made after Jan. 23 2006 must meet an energy-efficiency rating -- known as the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, or SEER -- of at least 13.
That's a 30 percent boost over today's minimum rating of 10.
Nationally, new systems rated at 13 will save residential customers 20 percent on their year-round electric bills compared with systems that meet the level 10 efficiency rating, said Wendy Reed, spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency's
Energy Star program.
Many home owner's started replacing older systems have save even more. Before 1979, the efficiency rating of central air conditioners ranged from 4.5 to 8.0.
But the lower electric bills will come at a significantly higher initial purchase price.
For example, the air-conditioning portion of a central heating and air-conditioning system for a 2,000-square-foot house might cost about $2,000 if it meets the current minimum standard, Upgrading to a model with an efficiency rating of 13 "is typically going to run $800 to $1,000 more, depending on the brand,"
Other estimates have placed the cost at around one-third more. Some air-conditioning installers and home builders fear the added cost will hurt business.
"We understand the need or the desire for higher-efficiency units. That end is very good. But on the other hand, every time we raise the price of a house by $1,000, we do knock some people out of the market,"
Customers must decide for themselves how much they want to spend, he said. But for those who expect to live in their homes for five to seven more years, "I think the money spent on a higher efficiency unit will well be worth it,".
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that on a national average, three-fourths of all consumers buying a typical central air-conditioning system with the higher efficiency rating would either save money or come close to breaking even in the long run through lower electric bills.
For consumers-- the payback on buying a more efficient system would depend on a long list of factors, such as how heavily they use their air conditioners, how long they keep their homes and what happens to electric rates over the next 10 to 15 years.
According to a cost calculator on the Energy Star Web site, homeowner spending $247 annually on electricity for a cooling system with a rating of 10 would save $57 a year with an air conditioner rated at 13.
The savings rise sharply for people who are replacing older equipment with efficiency ratings lower than 10. Switching from a system rated at 6 to a model rated at 13 could lower annual cooling costs from $411 to $190.
Customers who buy even higher efficiency -- some models this fall will be rated as high as 22, will see savings grow correspondingly.
Some customers say they like the more efficient systems because they operate with less noise and deliver more even, consistent cooling. Others pay more for high efficiency for environmental reasons.
"We all must be very concerned about the energy situation in our country and if your UNIT is over 10 yrs old replace it with a high-efficiency model. "I do believe we are in kind of an energy crisis."
If the air conditioner saves money, so much the better, "I'm sure you will appreciate that when my bills come."
CUT THE COST OF COOL

Check your air conditioner's energy-efficiency rating. Look for it on the unit, consult your owner's manual or ask a dealer. The higher the rating, the more efficient the unit. The rating is formally known as the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, or SEER.
If your equipment is more than 15 years old, maybe it's time for an upgrade. Ask a dealer whether a more-efficient model would pay for itself in electricity savings.
For best performance, change filters every month or two and keep outdoor condenser coils clean and free of vegetation

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