• Cost Advantage of a 20 SEER Air Conditioner Over a 16 SEER AC

    As you consider your next air conditioner, does it make sense to pay the extra money for a 20 SEER model, or higher, or is a 16 SEER model more cost effective? There are a couple of ways to look at the issue, and we’ll do that here.

    Savings on Your Utility Bills

    Doing the math on this one is easy. A 16 SEER central air conditioner is 80 percent as efficient as a 20 SEER model (16/20), so you’ll use 20 percent less energy with a 20 SEER model vs. a 16 SEER model.

    Home energy pie charts show about 45 percent of a home’s energy use in the summer goes to heating and air conditioning. It’s higher in climates with extreme heat and long summers; it’s shorter in moderate and cool climates.

    Take a look at your summer energy bills, and pick a percentage of the cost you think your air conditioning is responsible. In hot climates, it could be as high as 55 percent. In cool climates, 30 to 35 percent is more likely.

    Multiple that number by the energy cost. If your electric bill last August was $160, do the math:

    • Phoenix: $160 x 55 percent = $88 for AC
    • San Francisco: $160 x 40 percent = $64 for AC
    • Duluth: $160 x 35 percent = $48 for AC

    That’s an estimate of what you’re currently spending on air conditioning per month. If your AC is 12 to 20 years old, it’s SEER rating is probably 8 to 12.

    If you know what the SEER rating is of your current central air conditioner, you’ll be able to determine roughly what you’ll save with a 16 SEER vs. a 20 SEER central air conditioner.

    Here’s an obvious point we’ll make anyway. The hotter your climate is, the more cost-effective it is to choose the more efficient model. In cool climates, a 16 SEER model is almost certainly a more cost-effective choice.

    Central Air Conditioner Costs

    The more efficient the model is, the more it will cost. A 20 SEER two-stage AC will cost approximately 25 percent more than a 16 SEER two-stage model. A 20 SEER modulating AC will cost 35 to 40 percent more than a 16 SEER two stage air conditioner.

    Here are some sample prices to give you an idea of what this looks like:

    • 3-ton 16 SEER, two-stage AC: $2,200
    • 3-ton 20 SEER, two-stage AC: 3,000
    • 3-ton 20 SEER, modulating AC: $3,500-$4,000

    For more exact pricing and the lowest cost from a qualified contactor, request multiple estimates. You can do that online very conveniently using the form on this page. There is no cost or obligation for using the service.

    16 SEER vs. 20 SEER: Other Considerations

    Are you striving to be ecofriendly in your lifestyle? More efficient ACs use less energy and create fewer carbon emissions.

    Does your utility company offer rebates for the installation of energy-efficient equipment? You should be able to find out on its website or in the database at DsireUSA.com which also lists state and local tax credits for energy efficient HVAC equipment.


    It will take some digging and basic math, but you should be able to get a reasonable estimate of the time it will take to pay yourself back the difference in cost between a 20 SEER central air conditioner and a 16 SEER model.

    If it is less than five years, it’s probably worth it. If it’s longer than that, it might not be worth the money unless you plan on living in that house for a long time and/or are committed to cutting your energy use to live greener.

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