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Definitions and Frequently Asked Questions

How can I compare brands?

Most people understand the idea of comparing gas mileage or engine sizes when shopping for cars of different brands. But, how can you compare quality between different brands of heating and cooling equipment? And, what are the industry-standard measures that can help you make objective comparisons? Here is some guidance in these areas:

Comparing quality

Ever heard the term, "You get what you pay for?" Choosing products of higher quality can mean longer lasting performance and fewer headaches (and expenses) down the road. Unfortunately, comparing quality between heating and cooling systems is not always easy. Here are three guidelines we suggest:

Select a brand name that you trust

As a general rule, the bigger, better known brands will have a better reputation for quality and reliability - that's how they got to be so well recognized.

Smaller companies and brand names you don't recognize may not perform these types of tests. It is in your best interest to do a little more homework about the company itself and its quality/reliability testing procedures as well as their warranty programs. All of these areas can give you clues about the quality of the products they manufacture.

Solicit recommendations

Recommendations from friends, neighbors or trusted acquaintances can be helpful as well. Ask people you trust if they've had a new indoor comfort system installed. If they're happy with what they've purchased, it may be worth you time to take a look at the products yourself, check the quality of installation, and feel the comfort. When doing so, remember that every home is different, and what may work in your friend's home may not be the best solution for you.

Look for 3rd party endorsements

Product endorsements from independent ratings companies, government agencies, or consumer groups are generally good sources for reliable information. These entities have nothing to gain by praising a particular product, so you can typically trust the information and opinions they provide. Some third-party endorsements to look for may include:

  • EPA's Energy Star
  • EPA's Green Seal
  • Consumer Digest

Understanding efficiency & operating cost

Like many other appliances, the cost of your indoor comfort system includes not only its initial price, but also the ongoing costs of operation and maintenance. This means that the cooling and heating equipment and controls that you select today will continue to impact your finances for as long as you live in your home. That's why investing in a high efficiency comfort system makes sense.

A Wise Investment
Your heating and air conditioning typically account for more than 40% of your home's annual energy costs. In effect, your indoor comfort system is the only part of your home that can actually pay for itself while also providing the added benefits of increased comfort and quieter operation.

 
    The Impact of SEER Rating on Energy Costs

For every $100 you spend to cool your home using a 10 SEER system, you would spend considerably less using a system of 12 SEER of higher. For example, if your annual cooling costs were $1,000 with a 10 SEER system, they could be reduced to $710 with a 14 SEER system.

Learn More:
Quick Guide to Energy Efficiency
Other Energy Efficiency Factors
   

Comparing Efficiency

Comparing energy efficiency of different brands of heating and cooling equipment is relatively easy. Although the rating systems are standardized, allowing you to make a fair comparison, there are three different rating systems used. Each rating is used for a specific type of product(in other words, all furnaces use the same system, heat pumps use a different system, an so on). They are:

AFUE (gas heating)

The efficiency of a furnace is measured in a rating known as AFUE (Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency). A lot like your car's miles per gallon rating, AFUE tells you how efficiently the furnace converts fuel (gas or oil) into heat. An AFUE of 80% means that 80% of the fuel is used to heat your home, while the other 20% basically goes up the chimney.

The government mandated a minimum AFUE rating for furnaces installed in new homes is 78%. (In contrast, many furnaces manufactured before 1992 had AFUE ratings as low as 60%, so nearly half the fuel was being wasted.) Furnaces with AFUE ratings of 78% to 80% are considered "mid-efficiency"; those with ratings of 90% or higher are known as "high efficiency." The maximum furnace efficiency available is around 96.6%.

In general, a higher efficiency furnace usually means two things:

  • higher price
  • lower monthly operating cost
If you have an older furnace (with an AFUE of about 60%), you could save up to 60% on your heating bills by replacing it with a new high-efficiency furnace. So the cost to replace your old, inefficient furnace is paid back through lower utility bills.

Payback. 

If you live in a cold climate, you could see a payback in a few short years. If you live in a moderate climate, it might make more sense to purchase a mid-efficiency furnace. Your dealer can use heating data from your area to help you determine about how long it would take you to recover the additional cost of a high-efficiency model in energy savings. (Of course, after the payback, you continue to save on your energy bills for the life of the system.)

SEER (cooling)

Cooling efficiency for air conditioners and heat pumps is indicated by a SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) rating, which tells you how efficiently a unit uses electricity. The higher the number, the greater the efficiency.

The typical SEER rating of units manufactured prior to 1992 is about 6.0.Now, the government mandated minimum is 10.0 SEER. High-efficiency units have a SEER of at least 12.0; the maximum available is about 17.

HSPF (heat pump heating)

Heat pumps also have heating efficiency ratings, indicated as an HSPF (Heating Seasonal Performance Factor). In general, the higher the HSPF rating, the less electricity the unit will use to heat your home.

The government mandated minimum heating efficiency standards for new heat pumps is 6.8 HSPF. Most heat pumps manufactured before 1992 have HSPF ratings below 5.0. Today, an HSPF of 7.5 or higher is considered "high-efficiency"; the maximum available is 10.0.

Payback. 

Higher efficiency in heat pumps and air conditioners usually means higher cost but lower utility bills. If you live in a warm and/or humid climate, you will probably see the higher cost of a high-efficiency air conditioner or heat pump paid back (through lower utility bills) in a few short years. Ask your dealer to help you determine about how long it would take you to recover the additional cost in energy savings. Of course, after the payback, you continue to save on your energy bills.

Matching Your System for Optimum Efficiency. 

There's one other factor that affects the efficiency of your air conditioning or heat pump system: the indoor coil. (Your heat pump or air conditioner is a "split system," which means that there is an outdoor unit, or condenser, and an indoor unit, or evaporator coil.) If your condensing unit is not matched with the proper indoor coil, it may not give you the stated SEER and/or HSPF ratings and could even develop performance problems. (It's kind of like putting two new tires on one side of your car and leaving the old, worn-out ones on the other side. You'd probably be disappointed with both the performance and the miles per gallon you get.) When you're replacing an existing system, make sure you replace both units so your new condensing unit will give you optimal performance, efficiency and comfort.
   

Comparing Sound Levels

One factor of comfort most people don't consider is sound. How can you relax when you have a noisy system? This section provides tips on how to make sure you are getting the quietest system available.
 


Air Conditioners and Heat Pumps

An air conditioner or heat pump sitting next to your house can create a lot of noise both inside and outside your home. To compare sound levels of different brands, ask your dealer about the bel rating of units you are considering. Bels, similar to decibels, range from 0 to 13. Most air conditioners and heat pumps operate at 8 to 9 bels; some units' ratings are as low as 6.8. That may not sound like a wide range, but consider this: 9 bels sounds 10 times louder than 8 bels. That means one 9-bel air conditioner is as loud as 10 units rated at 8 bels. So we think taking the time to compare bel ratings is pretty sound advice. Sound levels inside your home may also be reduced by matching your outdoor unit with a variable-capacity furnace or fan coil.


Furnaces

There isn't a standard sound rating system for furnaces, so it's difficult to compare models. However, models that have two-speed or variable-speed operation typically also offer lower operating sound levels, because there is less noise from the blower motor and from air turbulence at lower speeds. Some companies have variable-capacity models even have a "ramp-up" feature that gradually introduces warm air into your ducts, helping prevent the "creaking" noises that come from ducts expanding and contracting.

Since two-speed and variable-capacity models normally run on "low" speed up to 90% of the time, you'll find they're a sound solution when you want to enjoy peace and quiet.


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