By BUILDER Magazine Staff. Things will heat up this fall," says Kit Kennedy, senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Kennedy is helping spearhead a lawsuit against the DOE and its attempt to roll back the seasonal energy-efficiency ratio (SEER) standard for air conditioners and heat pumps. The case will go to court this fall.

The NRDC and the state attorneys general of New York, Connecticut, and California, along with several other public interest groups, believe the DOE illegally delayed and weakened a final rule issued at the end of the Clinton administration that raised appliance energy-efficiency standards from 10 SEER to 13 SEER. The DOE and the Bush administration currently propose a 12 SEER standard for air conditioners and heat pumps effective 2006.

In a prepared statement, the DOE stated that it believes the 13 SEER ruling took procedural shortcuts "of doubtful legality." The DOE also believes a 13 SEER standard would have undue impact on both consumers and manufacturers because the products would cost more. According to the DOE, a 20 percent increase over the current 10 SEER standard still offers consumers significant energy savings with a reasonable increase in the cost of the equipment.

Cold facts

Regardless of the court's decision, any change in the SEER standard affects energy consumption and the cost of the product. Calculations made by the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, an agency that increases support for appliance energy-efficiency standards, found that if air-conditioner efficiency standards are rolled back from 13 SEER to 12 SEER, peak electric demand in the United States will increase 18,000 megawatts by 2030. The one point decrease in the SEER standard alone would require the construction of 60 average-sized, 300 megawatt power plants.

Chuck Russ, vice president of sales and marketing for Houston-based Goodman Manufacturing Co., manufacturers of air conditioners and heating equipment, believes in raising the standard to 13 SEER. "Every manufacturer already has 13 SEER units," notes Russ. He says the technology will be more accessible to consumers if the standard is raised to 13 SEER.

But others disagree. The Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) is a national trade association that represents U.S. manufacturers that make more than 90 percent of central air-conditioning and refrigeration equipment. It, along with members including Trane and York, have pushed in favor of a 12 SEER standard as the best compromise between an increase in price and efficiency.

According to Doug Widenmann, York's director of residential marketing, the important issue isn't necessarily the standard, it's the affordability of the technology set by the standard. His concern is that when you raise the standards too high, you move up into a technology that many can't afford.

An ARI analysis found that a typical 12 SEER unit would cost $2,817 and a 13 SEER unit would cost $3,122. Both are significant increases in price over an average 10 SEER unit, which according to the ARI costs $2,410.

Builders' eyes may light up because the price increase gives them a chance to increase profits. But what happens to low-income or first-time buyers? The increase to a 13 SEER unit may be just enough to put many buyers out of the market.

Going green

Although most buyers know that energy-efficient air conditioners help combat the increased cost of electricity, they may be reluctant to spring for high-efficiency units that cost a lot up front but offer big savings in the long run.

"People are more willing to spend their money on things they see," says Rod Cullum, owner of Cullum Homes in Scottsdale, Ariz. When buyers hear talk of energy efficiency, says Cullum, they don't necessarily care because they don't see the immediate payback. That's why he chooses to highlight things like better air quality, quieter units, and sealed ducts when selling his homes. "These differences," says Cullum, "are visible differences."

With the court's decision pending, one thing is for certain: energy efficiency is becoming increasingly important in the face of skyrocketing energy prices. Whether builders offer units with high SEER ratings, or increase energy efficiency through construction techniques, there are opportunities to help conserve energy and to increase profits.

Seer-iously efficient: The XL 1800 air-conditioner unit achieves up to an 18 SEER efficiency rating. Features include dual Climatuff compressors with sound insulation, full-side louvered panels, a Weatherguard top, and a two-row Spine Fin coil. The two-stage cooling system also comes with a two-speed fan. Trane. 888-872-6335.

Stealth bomber: The company's 16.2 SEER Stealth air conditioner is equipped with an integrated anti-short cycle delay that protects against short cycling, the maker states. A built-in, brown-out protection device guards the unit from harmful low-voltage operation during brown-outs. Also, a diagnostic LED displays four different flash codes to help monitor the unit. York. 877-874-7378.

Courtesy Carrier

Keep it cool: The 18 SEER WeatherMaker two-speed air conditioner incorporates the Puron refrigerant--a refrigerant approved by the EPA to replace Freon-22. For smooth operation, the company decreases air turbulence so air quietly moves through the system. The copper tube/aluminum fin coil helps transfer heat out of the home while resisting corrosion, the maker claims. Carrier. 800-422-7437. Ice cold: The 15.75 SEER PowerSaver air conditioner features a two-speed compressor designed to minimize operating costs. A heavy gauge non-corrosive PVC-coated steel wire guard protects the condenser coil and helps keep out debris, the maker claims. The unit also features a direct-drive fan that runs slower for quiet operation. Lennox. 800-953-6669.

Courtesy Goodman

Keeping it cool: Capable of reaching up to 13 SEER, the CKT series of split system air conditioners comes in several models for two- through five-ton applications. Units are designed for ground-level or rooftop applications and for use with evaporator blowers and coils. According to the maker, the units--equipped with enclosed and permanently lubricated condenser motors--discharge from the top for quiet operation. Goodman. 713-861-2500.