Law change makes older air conditioners more expensive to operate

(Editor’s note: The following is the sixth of an eight-part series designed to reduce energy costs in the home.)

Air conditioners are another energy hog during the hot summer months. An air conditioner that is over 10 years old could be costing you double the price of operating a new system.

Air-conditioning efficiency is rated by a seasonal energy-efficiency ratio, or S.E.E.R. rating. The new standard as of 2005 is 13, however most manufacturers make units with a S.E.E.R rating of 21 — or higher in some cases. A standard air conditioner installed 15 years ago is probably operating at a S.E.E.R of between 6 and 8.

While it is understood that in Michigan we may only use an air conditioner about three to four months of the year, there is still a great deal of potential savings to be had by upgrading to a newer model. Newer models are also more environmentally friendly due to the type of refrigerant (Freon) that they use.

As of Dec. 31 2009, all manufacturers were required to cease manufacturing air conditioners with R-22 refrigerant. This is the refrigerant that most air conditioners manufactured prior to 2007 were made to operate on.

Carrier was the first manufacturer to make a unit that operates on R-410A, trade named Puron. It is environmentally friendlier and causes far less damage to the Earth’s ozone layer. Most contractors have made the switch already and have been installing these units for a few years now. While units made with R-22 are still being offered today by some contractors, they may not be the smart choice.

Even though they may be a slight bit less expensive initially, they will certainly cost more when the first refrigerant-related repair is necessary. The cost of R-22 refrigerant has tripled in the last two years and is now the same cost as R-410A. The cost of R-22 will continually escalate due to the phaseout of this ozone-depleting gas.

Proper maintenance and cleaning are key when it comes to keeping your air-conditioning system operating at its peak efficiency. Have a professional inspect and clean the system annually to ensure that your system isn’t robbing you of your hard-earned energy dollars.

Things you can do yourself: Keep all plants and shrubbery at least 12 inches from the outdoor unit and rinse the outside unit with water from the garden hose once a month. This will wash away all dirt and debris, especially during the cottonwood season.

Joel Wensley is a licensed mechanical contractor in the state of Michigan and president of Mechanical Heating & Cooling in Dearborn Heights.