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What is SEER and why does it matter with heat pumps?

Upgrading your home with energy-efficient systems like heat pumps saves you money on electricity bills while minimizing carbon emissions. And, incentive and rebate programs like those included in the Inflation Reduction Act make the decision to tap into the financial and environmental benefits of heat pumps even simpler. But between the different makes and models, various features, and technical energy efficiency ratings, it’s easy to feel lost when researching and comparing heat pump systems.

Specifically, the various energy efficiency ratings can cause confusion. Although a heat pump is capable of both heating and cooling, the different functions require different amounts of energy and therefore use separate efficiency calculations: SEER and HSPF. In this article, we’ll explain what SEER means, how cooling systems are rated for energy efficiency during the warmer months, and when investing in a highly efficient heat pump is actually worth it.


Key takeaways

  1. SEER stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio and is calculated by dividing the total cooling output of the season (BTUs/hour) by the total energy consumption during that time (Watts/hour).

  2. The higher the SEER rating, the more energy efficient a heat pump cooling system is.

  3. All new cooling systems must meet federally regulated SEER requirements. In southern states, the SEER rating of heat pumps must be at least 14, whereas heat pumps in the northern states must have at least a 13 SEER rating.

  4. ENERGY STAR is the government-backed symbol for energy efficiency; a unit that is ENERGY STAR certified meets strict guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

  5. Heat pumps pair naturally with solar panels to offer energy efficiency, savings, and emission-free heating and cooling for your home. Connect with pre-screened installers in your area on the EnergySage Marketplace to receive solar quotes today!

What is SEER?

The Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) rates the efficiency of a cooling system. SEER ratings help us to understand the amount of energy (and money) a specific system requires to cool a space effectively and comfortably. The higher the SEER, the less electricity the system needs to keep a home at its desired temperature – accordingly, a higher SEER-rated unit is typically more expensive to purchase upfront.

SEER can be calculated by dividing the total cooling output of the season (BTUs/hour) by the total energy consumption during that time (Watt/hour). Luckily, you probably don’t have to worry about this because as a federally regulated rating, most heat pump manufacturers readily display the SEER rating of a cooling system on the product page, owner’s manual, and on the actual unit itself. Additionally, products with the ENERGY STAR label are certified to have met strict energy efficiency guidelines, which include having a higher SEER rating.


What is ENERGY STAR?

ENERGY STAR provides an unbiased and credible set of standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for energy efficiency. Since 1992, ENERGY STAR has been helping people make informed decisions to save electricity, lower energy costs, and reduce harmful emissions. As an independent certification, heat pumps with the ENERGY STAR label provide purchasers with an assurance that their cooling system will save them money while protecting the climate.



Heat pumps vs air conditioners: which is more efficient?

Truthfully, heat pumps as a cooling system and central AC systems work in the same way – they both remove heat from the air inside your home and move it outside. SEER ratings for comparable heat pumps and central air conditioners are just about equal, too.

While the two are alike when it comes to the capabilities and efficiency of their cooling functions, heat pumps and central ACs are not the same. Heat pumps serve as a heating and cooling system whereas air conditioners can only remove heat from a space, not add. Central ACs must be paired with another heating system, like a furnace or a boiler, to keep a house warm during the colder months, which can be inefficient and costly! And, according to the Department of Energy, air-source heat pumps can reduce electricity use for heating by 50 percent compared to other electric heating options.

Comparing SEER ratings from top heat pump manufacturers

Overall, heat pumps are an energy efficient alternative to traditional heating and cooling systems – but some heat pumps are more efficient than others. Since heat pumps with a higher SEER rating typically come at a higher cost, most brands offer a selection of heat pumps that vary in SEER, noise level, capacity, and of course, price. Here’s how some of the leading heat pump manufacturers stack up:

Comparing SEER ratings from top heat pump manufacturers Heat pump brandSeries/lineSEER rating ENERGY STAR certified? TraneXV20i20✔ LGHSV521.5✔ LennoxSL25XPV24✔ Panasonic XE9WKUA28.2✔ MitsubishiMSZ-FS33.1✔

Why SEER ratings matter

SEER ratings measure how efficient a cooling system is. Energy consumption lessens the more efficient a heat pump is, which means reduced carbon emissions and increased savings. But in addition to saving you money and shrinking your carbon footprint, there are federally regulated minimum SEER ratings required for new cooling systems, so you’ll have to ensure that the model you install meets your region’s requirements. Currently, the minimum SEER rating for cooling systems in the south is set at 14 and 13 in the north.

Is a higher SEER-rated heat pump system always worth it?

If your goal is to maximize energy efficiency, achieve optimal comfort levels, and lower energy costs, then investing in a heat pump system with a high SEER rating is the way to go, but be prepared to pay more upfront. Units with a higher SEER ratings often come with features like lower sound levels, longer warranties, and variable stage cooling – which means that instead of the system repeatedly turning on at full capacity when a space needs cooling and off when the temperature reaches the thermostat setting, it runs continuously to maintain the desired temperature. Variable stage cooling systems run on a lower setting and ramp up and down based on how much cool air is needed, and generally do a better job of removing humidity than single stage cooling. For this reason, if you live in a climate that experiences high humidity, the enhanced comfort from a higher SEER unit with variable stage cooling may be worth the investment.

Most brands offer heat pumps with fewer features and lower (but still great) SEER ratings for a cheaper price point. Although not as efficient as the “better” and “best” heat pump models, there are certainly instances when a “good” model would make more sense for a home. If you live in a climate where humidity is low, you won’t necessarily need the dehumidifying benefits that often come with higher SEER units. So, if your goal is to upgrade to a more energy efficient heating and cooling system to cut current energy costs while also saving on initial costs, you might choose a heat pump with a lower SEER.


Do higher SEER-rated heat pumps save you more money?

Using the national average price per kWh (14 cents) and the national average of unit operation (2100 hours), a 3-ton unit with a SEER rating of 22 will save you $333 annually and $6,660 over its lifetime compared to a 3-ton unit with a SEER rating of 13. To get an idea of how much a higher SEER-rated heat pump can save you based on your local electricity rate and cooling hours, check out this SEER energy savings calculator.

Power your heat pumps with the sun

Heat pumps pair naturally with solar panels to offer energy efficiency, savings, and emission-free heating and cooling for your home. Connect with pre-screened installers in your area on the EnergySage Marketplace to receive solar quotes today! Just leave a note to let installers know you’re interested in heat pumps, too. Still have questions? When you sign up for the Marketplace, we’ll connect you with an Energy Advisor from our team (free of charge) to help guide you through every step of the way.

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