The HVAC industry did a magnificent job adjusting to the 13-SEER mandate. But it doesn’t change the fact it was a stupid regulation imposed on the public because not enough consumers were buying 13-SEER air conditioners. Too many people looked at the installed and energy costs, and concluded that 10 SEER was a better deal.

For example: Kansas has 1,000 cooling load hours. At $0.12 per KWH, a 3-ton, 13-SEER air conditioner saves $100 a year compared to a 10-SEER system. Gee, that’s exciting!

No one is opposed to higher efficiency when consumers choose it. The problem is, most didn’t choose it. While the industry caved on higher efficiency, it fought to limit the increase to 12 SEER. This would have delivered 72% of the energy savings at a much lower incremental cost (there was a cost stair step from 12 to 13 SEER).

The 13-SEER standard was forced on the public to “decrease national energy consumption, lower summertime utility bills for millions of households, reduce pollution from power plants, and improve public health,” according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI).

The EESI is the same group that proclaimed 13 SEER would only cost 3% to 8% more than 10 SEER. The American Council for an Energy- Efficient Economy estimated a premium of $171 for 13 SEER. “It would seem unlikely that droves of consumers will decide to repair rather than replace an old broken-down energy-hog system over such a small price differential,” said the EESI.

As it turns out, installed prices are 35% to 40% higher than a 10-SEER installation. Confronted with sticker shock, more people are opting to repair old systems they would have replaced before the mandate. In 2007, shipments of service compressors sold as replacement parts increased 40% over 2005. There goes a big chunk of the projected energy savings.

The 13 SEER mandate was “Twilight Zone” regulation. Using Twilight Zone logic, if 13 is better than 12, wouldn’t 14 be better than 13? Or why not 18? Or why not get rid of residential air conditioning altogether? After all, the Europeans don’t seem to need it. This would save around 200 billion KWHs.

Of course that notion is far-fetched. Banning air conditioning is about as ridiculous as outlawing the incandescent light bulb, as ludicrous as state bureaucrats wanting to control consumer thermostats by radio, as… Wait-a-sec! Maybe this is going too far.

If the government was serious about reducing residential air conditioning energy consumption, they’d focus on installed system efficiency from the field, rather than nameplate efficiency from the testing lab. Good design and installations, proper duct systems, and good maintenance do far more than an extra SEER point. Jacking up SEER minimums is like driving 10 miles out of the way to fill up your gas tank at a station charging a nickel a gallon less.

If we were serious about energy supply and prices, we’d open up oil exploration across a mere 8% of the frozen Arctic wasteland, misnamed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We would start extracting oil shale from the Green River Formation in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. According to the Rand Corporation, 800 billion barrels of oil are economically recoverable using a new technology developed by the Shell Oil Company. This is three times Saudi Arabia’s proven reserves and sufficient to meet U.S. demand for more than 400 years!

If the concern is power plant carbon emissions, the answer is to build, rather than decommission nuclear power plants, and to build, rather than remove, hydroelectric projects.

It’s far easier to focus on superficial measures that reduce air conditioning affordability for millions of homeowners, while doing little about real home energy use. It might get worse. Recent legislation empowers the Department of Energy to set regional standards.

The great economist, Milton Friedman, wrote that “a major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that … it gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”

The Feds should back off and let consumers make their own decisions about efficiency. We’ve already gone a SEER too far.

This Rant is solely the outspoken opinion of Matt Michel, who actually supports contractor efforts to design, sell, and install green comfort systems. Matt’s company, the Service Roundtable (www.ServiceRoundtable.com), is a leader in offering green marketing solutions for HVAC contractors. For a demonstration of its air conditioning carbon footprint calculator, contact Liz Patrick by e-mail at Liz@ServiceRoundtable.com or toll free at 877.262.3341.