As the soaring and scorching temperatures of summer 2021 have shown, our world is getting hotter, and all people need access to affordable and efficient cooling systems. For the more than 85 percent of Americans who do have air conditioning, concerns about the energy efficiency of their cooling systems, and those systems’ impacts on the environment, also come into play the more they have them in use.
A Portrait of American Cooling Costs
According to data from the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2015 air conditioning was responsible for about 12 percent of the average American homeowner’s total energy consumption. In Florida, the eastern parts of Texas, and other hot and humid parts of the Southeast, that figure rose to 27 percent.
According to overall 2020 EIA figures, about 16 percent of the electricity usage in the residential sector was for cooling purposes. That’s about 236 billion total kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity.
Figures for the year 2015 from the EIA also show that the average American homeowner’s annual energy expenditures on air conditioning came in at about $265, out of a total of $1,856 in energy bills. Not surprisingly, the annual energy cost for home AC was $525 for homes in the Southeast and approximately $60 in the typically mild marine climate of the West Coast, where many homeowners do not even have air conditioning.
Region, local climate, type of system, and other variables affect how much it costs to cool a home, and these are anchored in how much your local utility company charges per kilowatt/hour, or kWh. Your kWh cost will be listed on your utility bill, and you can also contact your utility company to find out.
How to Look for Energy Efficiency
Your AC unit’s SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) rating also plays a big role in your energy costs. A higher SEER number means that an air conditioner can produce more cooling power for every unit of energy consumed, giving you greater energy efficiency. An AC unit with a high SEER rating, when correctly installed, will be less costly to run in your home than one with a lower SEER number working under the same conditions.
In addition to looking at an AC unit’s SEER rating, make sure to look for a model with the government-backed ENERGY STAR label. This designation certifies that an appliance meets specific standards for energy efficiency. A central air conditioning unit with the ENERGY STAR label will achieve about 15 percent more energy efficiency than comparable models without one.
In addition, a federally mandated EnergyGuide label must be attached to most new appliances sold in the US. This yellow-and-black tag displays an appliance’s annual energy consumption, along with the costs of operation. When shopping for a new appliance, you’ll be able to compare these costs among your possible choices.
Newer Is Better
Replacing an older and less-efficient air conditioner with a new and more efficient one can significantly cut cooling costs. An estimate by the US Department of Energy (DOE) says that newer-model AC units use anywhere from 30 to 50 percent less energy to create the same degree of cooling than their counterparts of a generation or two ago. Even if a home’s AC unit is only 10 years old, replacement with a brand-new and more energy-saving model could result in energy cost savings of 20 to 40 percent.
When investing in a new central air conditioning system for your home, also make sure to factor in amortized installation and labor costs, including any necessary remodeling of a central air conditioning system to ensure proper air flow and coverage.
Central or Room AC?
Evaluating which makes more cost sense, buying a central AC system or installing individual wall air conditioners room by room, is a matter of calculation. If you are hoping to cool three or more rooms, experts say to go for central AC. Even factoring in the costs of regular upkeep, you’ll still come out ahead on your electric bill.
Central air conditioning is also a solid long-term investment that increases the value of your home. Even so, even a quality central AC installation won’t be earning its keep unless it is sized properly for your home by a qualified professional.
Once you have a well-functioning AC system, make sure to maintain it properly in order to keep costs low. Without regular cleaning and maintenance, even the best system can become more costly than it should be.
Beyond individual consumers’ energy costs, the use of air conditioning puts a burden on the environment, affecting quality of life for everyone. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated that the world’s current approximately 1.9 billion air conditioning units will increase to 5.5 billion units by the year 2050. This explosion of growth is a definite contributor to global warming.
As the IEA points out, the expansion of AC use is among the “most critical blind spots” in discussion of global energy policy today. But the agency also notes that doubling the current energy efficiency of the average AC system would drastically reduce the resulting environmental burden.
New design thinking can also show a way to create buildings with more sustainable cooling systems. In addition to a wealth of other helpful information on home energy on its website, the U.S. Department of Energy offers an overview of a number of alternative types of home cooling systems and design elements. These include landscaping for shade as well as installing whole-house fans, radiant cooling, evaporative coolers, or heat-reflecting “cool” roofs.