man holding tablet and looking at SEER rating graph

Savvy consumers concerned with energy efficiency often ask, “What SEER rating should I buy?” Simply put, no particular SEER rating is the best choice for everyone. Several factors have to be taken into consideration. Finding the balance between equipment cost and energy savings is the key.

Basic SEER Performance (14-16)

Air conditioners with SEER ratings of 14 to 16 have adequate energy efficiency. Equipment costs are the lowest, but energy costs and consumption are the highest. All air conditioner brands manufacture basic models.

These air conditioners have single-stage compressors that run at total capacity and turn on and off frequently. The result is uneven cooling throughout the house, little humidity removed from the air, and more noise.

Air conditioners within this category are sufficient for northern states but are not preferable for locations with a long, hot, and humid cooling season. In fact, air conditioners installed in the south and southwest will be required by law to have a minimum rating of 15 in 2023.

Better SEER Performance (17-19)

Air conditioners with SEER ratings of 17 to 19 have good energy efficiency. Equipment costs are higher, but energy costs and consumption are lower than units with lower SEER ratings. Most brands manufacture better-performing models.

These air conditioners have two-stage compressors that run at low capacity, 65-70%, most of the time. They are sometimes paired with variable-speed blowers for added benefit. Two-stage units cool homes more evenly, remove more humidity, and produce less noise. Many people find they can keep their thermostats set to higher temperatures than with their single-stage units because two-stage units cool and dehumidify better. Additionally, the unit turning on and off less puts less wear and tear on the compressor.

There are some drawbacks to better-performing air conditioners. Parts and labor costs tend to be more expensive. Furthermore, it takes time to offset the equipment cost with the energy savings, so homeowners selling their homes in the near future should take this into consideration.

SEER ratings of 17 to 19 are ideal for most homeowners in any region because of the numerous benefits of two-stage units. Those in the northern part will enjoy even cooling of their homes and less noise, while those in the southern region will enjoy effective cooling and dehumidifying. Of course, everyone everywhere will enjoy the energy savings.

Best SEER Performance (20-24)

Air conditioners with SEER ratings of 20 to 24 are the most energy efficient. Equipment costs are the highest, but energy costs and consumption are lower than units with lower SEER ratings. Some standard and premium brands manufacture the best-performing models.

These air conditioners have variable-speed compressors that can run at 25% to 100% capacity and modulate at less than 1% increments. They must be paired with variable-speed blower fans. Variable-speed units are the best at cooling homes evenly and removing humidity, and they are the quietest.

Still, there are drawbacks to owning one of these units. Parts and labor are exceedingly more expensive. It takes a very long time to offset the enormous equipment costs with energy savings, up to twelve years in cool climates.

SEER ratings of 20-24 are impractical for most homeowners. Those living in cool regions may never get a return on their investments. Those living in the hottest, humid climates stand to gain the most, but high equipment and repair costs may still outweigh the benefits. Owning a 24-SEER air conditioner is akin to owning a luxury car; it’s impressive but extravagant.

What is a SEER rating?

SEER stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio and measures air conditioner efficiency. The rating is calculated by dividing the total amount of cooling provided over a typical cooling season by the total electrical input. Units with higher SEER ratings are more efficient and produce lower energy bills.

The SEER rating is the maximum rating achieved when a central air conditioning unit operates at peak efficiency. Just as a car will get fewer miles per gallon of gas during city driving than highway driving, an air conditioner’s actual SEER rating may be less under certain conditions.

Central air conditioning units range from 13 to 25 SEER, with 13 SEER being the least efficient rating and 25 the most efficient.

Heat Pump Energy Guide Label showing SEER rating

The energy guide system was created due to legislation passed in 1987 that required air conditioners to have minimum performance levels.

Minimum Efficiency Standards

In 1992, the U.S Department of Energy (DOE) established minimum efficiency standards for air conditioners manufactured in the U.S. All new air conditioning units required a minimum SEER rating of 10. That minimum was raised to 13 SEER in 2006.

In 2015, the DOE modified the efficiency standards, requiring that they differ by geographical region. The country was divided into North, South, and Southwest. The minimum rating for northern states stayed at 13 SEER, while the minimum rating for southern and southwestern states was increased to 14 SEER.

In 2023, HVAC efficiency standards will increase yet again. The minimum SEER rating for the northern states will increase to 14, and the minimum rating for the southern and southwestern states will increase to 15.

2023 seasonal energy efficiency ratio SEER standards for the united states

SEER Rating Chart

Upgrading from a less efficient air conditioning unit to a more efficient one (assuming everything else is the same) will save you money. For example, if your current air conditioner is more than ten years old, it could be as low as a 13 SEER. Compare the annual cooling bill of a 13 SEER system to that of a new unit with a higher SEER. If the annual energy bill of a 13 SEER 3-ton system was $482, it could cost only $348 for an 18 SEER system or an annual savings of 28%.

The following chart shows the anticipated savings due to improved SEER efficiency based on the 1320 cooling hours and 13.19 cents/kWh average for the United States.

cost savings for higher SEER ratings chart

*Minimum efficiency established by the Department of Energy. The majority of systems installed after 2006 are 13 SEER or higher. Actual energy savings may vary depending on thermostat or control system settings, usage, maintenance, local climate, installation of equipment, and duct system in place.


The SEER rating is one factor to consider when you’re in the market for a new air conditioner. However, a higher SEER rating is not necessarily a better choice. Many other factors should be considered with the SEER rating to get the best bang for your buck.


Perhaps the most important factor to consider when deciding on a SEER rating is the climate in which you live. Homeowners in the hottest climates should consider higher-efficiency air conditioners. Even so, everyone stands to benefit from efficient, two-stage air conditioners in terms of energy savings and comfort. If you’re replacing a unit that is more than ten years old, you will still benefit from a basic, single-stage 14 SEER unit.

Air conditioning

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