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How to Address Luddites in the Industry

This letter to the editor was published in our local paper:

Energy efficient AC units may cost more in the long run

I'm a contractor who was an engineering professor at A&M. I'd like to address the issue of air conditioning efficiency.

For some people, efficiency seems to have religious overtones. If you just want to be cost effective, the higher efficiency model may be more expensive in the long run.

BTU has suspended its rebate program while College Station Utilities continues its program, but has raised the minimum SEER energy-efficiency rating from 14 to 15.

The SEER rating I recommend is 14.

An AC system consists of three components: The outdoor condenser, the indoor cooling coil, and a gas furnace.

Until now, if any component failed we could replace it alone. To get a SEER rating of 15 or more, we have to replace all three components. Good equipment must be scrapped, and that offends my sensibilities.

Assume for the moment that one really needs to replace all three components. If you remove a 14 SEER system and replace it with 15, you get a 6.7 percent energy savings, but at what price? And who do you call when it breaks?

You pay more for the installation. The higher efficiency equipment comes with variable speed blowers, multi-stage compressors, computer controls, etc. Repair costs can skyrocket.

At a time when technology is going through the ceiling, the pool of qualified technicians is going through the basement.

Government interference always produces unintended consequences.

I applaud BTU for discontinuing its rebate program and I encourage College Station Utilities to do the same.

Still, you can resist the rebate temptation.

If you want to be cool without significant interruption, if you don't want outrageous repair costs, if you want the flexibility of being able to replace only one component rather than all three, I recommend 14 SEER. From beginning to end, it's by far the most cost effective choice.

I have no problem addressing the issue of resistance to change but I want to be very careful in dealing with any technical or factual errors in this letter. Much of what is said here seems to be correct. It is the conclusion that is misdirected. Nonetheless, I am not an AC contractor and am seeking input from those who are more knowledgeable before I reply.

Asked by Hugh Stearns
Posted Aug 8, 2014 7:41 AM ET


9 Answers

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Did the self-described "...contractor who was an engineering professor at A&M..." provide any credentials (or even a name?)

(edited to add)

Searching the web for the first line of the letter came up with it: C. RUSSELL YATES


Searching Texas A & M faculty directories did not come up with his name, however. There is a Justin Yates (possible relative?) listed. http://www.tamu.edu/faculties/directory.htm

I couldn't find any academic publications by any person using that name, so whether he taught there or not, it's not clear that he did any research. He does show up as an occasional donor to TAMU, and there's an Angie's List listing for someone by that name.

If he would provide something of substance to back his story about replacement components use examples and installed cost estimates it would be more interesting- you'd have a better sense of where he's really coming from. Without that detail is reads like a bit of a rant, the substance of which is unknown, with a "Take my word for it on the authority of my being an industry insider" type of argument.

He may have a point (or not) but it isn't a particularly well articulated point. Equipment efficiency isn't the be-all-end all of system performance- you can get a lot better as-used efficiency & comfort out of a right sided (minimum-legal) 14 SEER unit with well sealed Manual-D compliant ducts, installed inside of conditioned space than a 3x oversized 20 SEER unit with undersized & leaking ducts installed in the attic above the insulation.

Answered by Dana Dorsett
Posted Aug 8, 2014 1:23 PM ET
Edited Aug 8, 2014 3:04 PM ET.


If your air conditioner compressor conks out, I can't think of any reason why you would want to replace your furnace.

Answered by Martin Holladay
Posted Aug 8, 2014 2:21 PM ET


I can't seem to think of any reason to install a central air system :p

There you go, problem is fixed.

What is the reliability history of the japanese mini-splits ??? :)

Answered by Jin Kazama
Posted Aug 8, 2014 5:44 PM ET


And if on an already existing system , i'd say dump the current AC if any major component fails.
Keep the fan for mixing air and install minis as needed.

Answered by Jin Kazama
Posted Aug 8, 2014 5:45 PM ET


Dana, I probably should have included his name but in that I was not exactly praising him I left it out. But you have the right guy. He is both a luddite and a curmudgeon but, in that this was published in our local paper and we are in the south, where education is tolerated as long it is a look back and not a look forward, I feel compelled to provide a different perspective and rationale for advancing technology. He really is right about much of what he says there are some down sides to high efficiency equipment but with that thinking we would still be putting in 8 SEER units. Our hot humid climate requires a different configuration and we are wise to use equipment that will ramp down and run slow controlling the latent load, this becomes more critical with well sealed houses. He is primary a service guy dealing with retro fits. He is not directing his clients to improving the energy efficiency of their homes in any way and thus he is not all that far off in his recommendation for that model. Thanks for the input.

Answered by Hugh Stearns
Posted Aug 8, 2014 11:56 PM ET


El curmudgeonisto is only looking at the marginal improvement at the slight change in code minimums- going from SEER 14 to SEER 15, but doesn't address how it pencils out at say, SEER 18 or SEER 20. Yes, the marginal savings between SEER 14 and SEER 15 is pretty minimal, but that's not to say that it isn't economic to go even higher.

If market forces were sufficient to manage efficiency or electricity costs there might be an argument for less government regulation, but those experiments haven't really been run recently. The cost structure of electric power would likely be both very different and far more expensive without regulated monopoly type utilities, but then maybe SEER 15 systems would look like a bargain? The coming competition from privately owned rooftop PV is something that regulated monopolies and their regulators are ill equipped to deal with (though they're trying to stay ahead of it in Austin with their value of solar tariff approach).

While there are always unintended consequences to regulations, without pricing in the full environmental costs of the different power generation sources a simple utility bill savings analysis of going to SEER 14 to SEER 15 is not adequate. After factoring in the health & climate externalities of burning coal etc, how are we/he so sure that even setting the bar at SEER 15 isn't too low a number, and that maybe SEER 18 is the "correct" most cost effective balance point using current technology?

If regulators are setting the bar, they have to place is somewhere. The move from 14 to 15 seems fairly incremental on purely an efficiency point of view, and the complainer is alleging it might actually come with a much bigger increment in lifecycle cost. That's fine- let's hope the regulators did the necessary math, but most regulatory bodies take commentary from all stakeholders before making changes- if they didn't do the math, somebody else probably did.

Answered by Dana Dorsett
Posted Aug 11, 2014 5:25 PM ET



I'm speculating to say Mr. Yates' intended point is that when replacing one part of the system, it probably makes sense to replace multiple components until everything is at the same level of progression. For example, when I replaced my fuel oil furnace with a new high efficiency propane unit, there were some changes that had to be made to the plenum. Since it wasn't a drop in install, I imagine that building a new plenum and the associated labor costs represented a sizable portion of my total system install cost. Since I was already making changes to the plenum ductwork, they asked if I wanted to install a R410a compatible coil instead of the R-22 unit that while still functioning was getting older. From the way I understood it, the R410a coils have different dimensions than their R-22 counterparts. Since components from the different refrigerant gases are not compatible, I ended up with a new furnace, new condenser, and new coil.

The other point that Mr. Yates may have intended, is that the SEER rating depends on the integration of the condenser, coil, and furnace, since the furnace fan provides the air flow. Maybe the rebate programs he references are requiring a verifiable SEER rating, which in some cases would also require the installation of a few furnace with higher efficiency blower and computerized controls.

Answered by Rick Van Handel
Posted Aug 12, 2014 1:56 PM ET


Hey, *I'm* a luddite and a curmudgeon but I'm all over the idea of
well-integrated, computer-controlled refrigerant systems. Watching
them kick butt at a solid COP 3 at subfreezing temperatures is all
it takes to convince this observer...


Answered by Hobbit _
Posted Aug 12, 2014 10:36 PM ET


I'm not getting into the SEER wars but I'm all for code and regulatory upgrades. The crawl space of the 1970's house I looked at yesterday had decent mechanicals about a year old. I'm no mech engineer, I was checking out a crack in the foundation wall, but it was hard not to notice a hole in the main supply duct (16" flex) big enough to put my elbow in. This was symptomatic of a severely deficient distribution system in a ventilated crawl space. I do not understand how a HVAC installer could ignore this. Serious professional negligence IMHO.

As I gave him the number of a reliable firm that could address this issue I pointed out to the homeowner that this was not only a major waste of energy and a $$$$ issue but that air exchange with a vented crawl in North Carolina's humid climate could be guaranteed to introduce mold spores into the house. 'Is that so?', he said. 'Could that be connected with my asthma problem?'

Answered by James Morgan
Posted Aug 12, 2014 11:56 PM ET

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