Inefficient central air conditioning systems make it difficult to achieve optimal indoor comfort and cause energy bills to soar. Like most homeowners, you'd probably like to stay cool and comfortable throughout the summer without breaking the bank. Even if your AC system was functioning efficiently a few years ago, that may no longer be the case. Fortunately, you don't have to put up with it.
Signs of Inefficient Air Conditioner Operation
How can you tell for sure whether or not your air conditioning system is functioning efficiently? There are a few telltale signs that should clue you in to a problem:
- High Energy Bills - Does it seem like your energy bills are constantly on the rise? Do you seem to get more expensive electric bills with every passing summer? While electricity rates tend to go up rather than down, the increases shouldn't be terribly dramatic. If your energy bills seem to be out of control, the odds are high that your air conditioning system is at least partially to blame.
- Uneven Cooling - Do you tend to prefer hanging out in one particular room or part of the home because it seems to stay a lot cooler? Are there rooms in your home that don't seem to get cool at all? Uneven cooling is a clear sign of inefficient AC operation. It's true that direct sunlight and second-story areas tend to be warmer than other parts of the home, an efficient air conditioning system should still be able to make them comfortable.
- Inadequate Dehumidifying - Does the air in your home seem to be clammy and moist while you're running the air conditioning? This is problematic for many reasons, and it's also a clear indication that your cooling system isn't doing its job. Air conditioning systems are supposed to pull moisture from the air; it's a big part of how they make a home cool. If that's not happening, efficiency must be suffering for some reason.
SEER Ratings: Why They Matter
Noticing that an air conditioning system isn't operating efficiently is one thing; knowing its actual energy efficiency rating is another. The rating that is used to define the energy efficiency of air conditioning systems is known as a SEER rating, or seasonal energy efficiency ratio rating. It equals the cooling output of an AC system during a typical season divided by the total energy that it uses in watt-hours. The higher the rating, the more efficient the equipment.
Current SEER Standards
Standards concerning SEER ratings have been in place for a few decades. By law, equipment must meet certain minimum efficiency thresholds in order to be sold in the United States. Not too long ago, the threshold ranged from SEER 7.5 to SEER 10.0. In 2006, however, it was raised to SEER 13. The jump from SEER 10 to SEER 13 is significant and equals an improvement in efficiency of about 30 percent.
The Benefits of Upgrading to a More Efficient Air Conditioning System
Most people want to hold onto their existing AC units as long as possible. Replacing a central air conditioning system is a costly proposition. However, if the upgrade will bring a vast improvement in energy efficiency, the amount that's saved over time can more than make up for the upfront cost. In addition to being dramatically more efficient and more affordable to operate, a new AC system will cool a home more effectively. There are also tax credits and rebates that help reduce the cost of new equipment substantially.
What Makes Air Conditioners Lose Efficiency?
Just because an air conditioning unit has a high SEER rating when it's purchased doesn't mean that will continue to be the case. AC units lose efficiency for a variety of reasons, including:
- Dirty Evaporator Coils - Without occasional cleaning, an AC system's evaporator coils will slowly but surely accumulate dust, dirt and other debris. When they get too dirty, their ability to transfer heat becomes hampered. In turn, the unit's ability to cool a home is also compromised. The equipment will work harder and harder, but the results will be less and less noticeable. Meanwhile, energy bills increase.
- Inadequate Refrigerant Levels - During air conditioning installation, technicians should periodically check and confirm that the refrigerant pressure matches the manufacturer's specifications. If the refrigerant charge is too low, the unit will be unable to operate at peak efficiency. If refrigerant levels are correct after installation but drop later, there is a leak. It's crucial to locate and repair the leak as quickly as possible.
- Wrong Motor or Fan - During AC repair, technicians should be absolutely certain that the replacement parts they use are designed for use with the unit in question. Experienced, highly trained technicians do this as a matter of course.
- Leaking Ducts - Like many homeowners, you may give little or no thought to the ducts that deliver cooled air around your home. After all, they are hidden from view. If your air conditioning system is relatively new and not very efficient, the problem may involve leaky ducts. It's amazing what even a few small leaks can do when it comes to the efficiency and effectiveness of an AC unit.
- Lack of Maintenance - Air conditioning systems are complex. You can't expect them to keep working properly for years and years without occasional maintenance. In fact, it's best to have them tuned up at least one time per year. During a service call, HVAC techs will inspect, clean and perform minor repairs. It is estimated that the average heating and cooling system loses about 5 percent of its efficiency per year when it's not properly maintained.
How to Improve the Efficiency of Your AC System
The fastest and easiest way to improve the efficiency of your air conditioning system is by replacing it entirely. Of course, this option still won't work if the ducts in your home aren't in great shape or if the system is improperly installed. A few ways to improve the efficiency of an AC system include:
- Confirm that Ducts are Properly Sized - If you hear popping noises whenever your AC unit turns on or off, the ducts in your home are probably undersized. In addition to being noisy, they are less able to deliver cooled air where it needs to go. The only way to resolve this issue is by replacing them with larger ducts, which can be pretty expensive.
- Seal and Insulate Ducts - Leaking ducts are extremely common. The good news is that this issue is a lot cheaper and easier to resolve. With mastic tape and duct insulation, you can seal up leaks and drastically improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your entire heating and cooling system. It may be better to have an AC repair company do the work for you, though. Sealing and insulating ducts can improve efficiency by 10 to 15 percent.
- Improve Airflow and Refrigerant Charge - If airflow or refrigerant charge is not up to the manufacturer's specifications, the efficiency of a unit will suffer. These things should be assessed during air conditioning installation, but they can degrade over time for various reasons. Recharging an AC system can improve its efficiency by up to 20 percent. Correcting airflow can further enhance its efficiency by another 5 to 10 percent.
- Additional Fixes - A few extraneous things can affect the efficiency of an air conditioning system and make you think you're in need of AC repair. If the thermostat is near a window that gets a lot of direct sunlight, for instance, the system may not be able to properly gauge the temperature inside the home. Before air conditioning installation, load calculations should be performed to ensure the system is the right size. If the system's capacity is too high, it will cycle on and off too frequently, which reduces efficiency and make the home moist and clammy. Finally, this equipment is the most efficient when its evaporator coils and condenser coils are compatible. This is why it pays to buy a matched system all at one time.
Consider the Options for Improved AC Efficiency
As you can see, there are two main options when it comes to improving the efficiency of an air conditioner. You can either replace the unit entirely, which is especially wise if it is more than 10 years old, or you can have service performed on it. A home energy audit may also clue you in to other issues that are affecting the efficiency of your heating and cooling system. No matter how you handle the situation, your efforts should pay off in less expensive energy bills and improved indoor comfort.
Our network of HVAC professionals at Air Conditioning Southeast is eager to answer any questions you may have regarding air conditioning products, service and maintenance. Contact one of our dealers in your local area and give them a call today.