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Air Conditioning: Buyer’s Guide

Buyer’s Guide


If you have a well-insulated and weatherized home with efficient lighting and appliances, you’ll have a reduced cooling load and may be able to save up to 30% on operating costs. 2 Follow these simple guidelines when purchasing your air cooling system:3


Choose the Right Size  

It’s cheaper to buy and install a smaller AC unit, and studies show on average, about 50% of AC units are oversized.4  These studies also report that oversized units tend to run more intermittently, reducing efficiency, shortening unit life, and providing less temperature-and-humidity control. You should consult a contractor specializing in home energy efficiency to assist you with the proper sizing of your A/C unit.


Look for the Label: EnergyGuide

Most major appliances, electronics, and lighting must meet specific energy standards outlined by the U.S. Department of Energy. Energy use and efficiency are displayed on the yellow EnergyGuide label, and compare the estimated annual operating cost with similar models.  It also states how much energy the appliance is expected to use on an annual basis. The EnergyGuide label will also display the ENERGY STAR® logo, if the particular model qualifies. 

EnergyGuide label compares the estimated annual operating cost with similar models


Look for the Logo: ENERGY STAR®

ENERGY STAR® is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy. The program sets minimum efficiency standards for appliances and building products and  identifies and labels the  models that are the most energy efficient and available on the market. The standards are more rigorous than federal standards, and vary by product category.5  A list of qualified products, and more information on energy efficient cooling options can be found online at energystar.gov.

Compare to National Efficiency Standards

The efficiency of an air-source heat pump is measured in terms of its heating season performance factor (HSPF) and seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER). 6 We recommend purchasing heat pumps with SEER of at least 13 and a HSPF around 9.0.

The efficiency of a ground-source heat pump is measured by its coefficient of performance (COP) for heating and energy efficiency ratio (EER) for cooling. Many models have COPs greater than 5.0 and EERs greater than 17.0.7

Efficiency of conventional AC units is measured by the SEER rating or an energy efficiency ratio (EER) rating. Choose a central air conditioner with a SEER rating of 14 or higher or a room air conditioner with an EER rating of 11 or higher. The most efficient central air conditioners now have ratings up to 24.5 SEER.8

Installing Heating Ventilating and Air Conditioning (HVAC) Systems

Step 1: Quality Installation

Improper HVAC installation may cost more in the long run by using more electricity, running up your bill, and making your air conditioning work harder—which can shorten equipment life. Common installation problems such as low air flow, improper charge, or duct leakage can reduce the efficiency and effectiveness of your air conditioner.

Step 2: Hire a Licensed Contractor

Hiring a licensed contractor increases the likelihood that your system will be properly installed and work efficiently, quietly and safely.

Licensed contractors are regulated by the Contractors State License Board and expected to:

  • Obtain the required building permits and comply with local codes, ordinances and the requirements of the Building Energy-Efficiency Standards (State Administrative Code, Title 24, Part 6)
  • Should have a minimum of 4 full years of experience performing the trade
  • Have taken a law and trade exam
  • Have a contractor’s bond,
  • Have been the subject of a background check.

Installers who perform contracting work without a license have avoided these quality assurance requirements and may even be in violation of the law.

Step 3: Permits & Inspections

A building permit issued by a local authority may be required for certain HVAC (heating ventilation and air conditioning) installations and modifications including, but not limited to, the following:

  • New Heating Ventilations and Air Conditional (HVAC) installation
  • HVAC change out/remodel/replacement including the air handler, coil, furnace or condenser
  • Relocation of an existing HVAC unit
  • Removal of an HVAC unit or system
  • Adding ducting

The installation of the HVAC equipment may be inspected by a Building Inspector who should perform a quality assurance check in order ensure that:

  • The system is installed to comply with all applicable state and county or city codes
  • The work specified under the permit has been performed properly; and
  • Required compliance documents have been submitted

Our Quality Installation program offers up to $2500 to help offset the costs of A/C installation performed by a qualified contractor. Our Quality Maintenance program offers up to $200 for maintenance and repair by a qualified installer.

Use & Care

Proper use, maintenance, and installation of your home’s air conditioning will maximize efficiency measures. Learn more about Air Conditioning Use & Care, where to start, and how to maximize your savings and stay cool.


If you’re thinking about making efficiency improvements, the Air Conditioning Overview is a great place to get acquainted with the basics and your options, before you buy or install a cooling system in your home. Return to Heating and Cooling.

1Yardi, Ramola, Wang, K., Smith, A. (2004). Home Energy Briefs: #3 Space Cooling. Snowmass: Rocky Mountain Institute. Retrieved September 28, 2012, from www.rmi.org (p. 8).

2 Yardi, Ramola, Wang, K., Smith, A. (2004). Home Energy Briefs: #3 Space Cooling. Snowmass: Rocky Mountain Institute. Retrieved September 28, 2012, from www.rmi.org (p. 7).

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 ENERGY STAR®. How A Product Earns the ENERGY STAR Label. Retrieved October 4, 2012, from www.energystar.gov

6 Yardi, Ramola, Wang, K., Smith, A. (2004). Home Energy Briefs: #3 Space Cooling. Snowmass: Rocky Mountain Institute. Retrieved September 28, 2012, from www.rmi.org (p. 5).

7 Ibid.

8 Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute. (2012). Residential Air-Conditioner Product Search. Retrieved September 28, 2012, from www.ahridirectory.orgx

This program is funded by California utility customers and administered by Southern California Edison under the auspices of the California Public Utilities Commission.

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