Complete Guide to Heat Pump SEER Ratings

If you get a little lost in energy efficiency ratings, don’t worry, you are not alone. In my experience, there is a lot of confusion as to how SEER ratings work.

Below I give you more detailed information about everything you need to know about heat pump SEER ratings so that you can make a better well-educated decision.

How to Find the SEER Rating?

Before you can move on to the more exciting stuff, you need to know how to find the SEER rating on your heat pump.

The best way to find the SEER rating is to look for the yellow EnergyGuide label located on the outside unit. The EnergyGuide label displays the SEER rating, the HSPF rating, and other helpful information.

Those yellow stickers are easy to read and tell you everything you need to know about your heat pump.

If you can’t find the EnergyGuide label, to determine the SEER rating of your heat pump system, you can search the online AHRI directory using your heat pump make/model number to find the SEER rating.

Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) is an online directory of air conditioning, heating, and refrigeration systems.

You need to know a few things about them first.

  • At the top right-hand side, the unit’s model, serial number and type are usually displayed.
  • On the upper left-hand side, the features and capabilities of the unit will be listed. These are usually directly connected to the energy efficiency of the unit. For example, it may say Heat Pump, Cooling and Heating, Split System.
  • In the center, you will see two ratings. The first will be the SEER rating, which will represent the cooling efficiency of the heat pump. The second rating, usually below the first one, is the HSPF, which represents the heating efficiency of the heat pump.

The energy guide labels are uniform for the most part, but they can vary slightly in how they look. Typically on cooling units, they are yellow with black numbers, but on other appliances, they can be black with yellow numbers or white with black numbers, as is the case in Canada.

It will be more difficult for older heat pumps to determine their SEER rating because they may not have an energy guide label. In this case, it is best to look for any other labels or the user manual that should have come with the heat pump.

As a last resort, and frequently, the only solution, use the brand, model, and serial number and search for them online. Often you may find detailed information online.

How Does the SEER Rating Work?

Now that you know how to find the SEER rating of a heat pump, let’s go over why the SEER rating is so important, how it may impact your home’s energy bills, and what exactly you need to be looking for on the energy guide label.

A SEER rating, Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, measures the ratio between the cooling output over a typical cooling season divided by the consumed energy for that same season.

As you can see from the above description, SEER applies to cooling units. This naturally also applies to heat pumps since they can provide cooling during the warmer season.

SEER ratings range from 13 to 30+. Although there can be found heat pumps with a SEER rating below 13, this happens primarily in older homes with old heat pump installations. (For example, some older heat pumps installed before the 1990s are around SEER 10 or less.)

The current regulations do not allow for heat pumps with a SEER rating of 12 or lower to be installed in any home in the U.S.

The law requires units with a minimum of 13 SEER in the northern states and 14 in the southern states. (However, these numbers may be reviewed and potentially raised in the future.)

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A higher SEER rating represents a heat pump that is more efficient at cooling a home during the warm seasons.

However, the SEER is not the only rating you will find on your heat pump.

What Is the Difference Between SEER and HSPF?

Earlier, I mentioned that you would find two ratings on the energy guide label: (1) SEER and (2) HSPF.

HSPF stands for Heating Seasonal Performance Factor. While SEER represents the cooling efficiency of a heat pump, the HSPF represents its heating efficiency, which is calculated similarly.

And since a heat pump can provide both heating and cooling, it always has a SEER and an HSPF rating.

What Is the Difference Between SEER and EER?

EER stands for Energy Efficiency Rating, and it measures the ratio of a heat pump’s cooling output based on its energy consumption.

As you can see, SEER and EER sound very similar. However, there is one small detail.

EER is measured using static temperatures and humidity levels, whereas SEER considers the seasonal fluctuations in humidity and temperature.

What Is the Difference Between SEER and COP?

Another rating you will find on your heat pump is its coefficient of performance (COP). This is essentially the opposite of EER, as it measures the efficiency of the heat output of the heat pump to the total energy input.

The difference between HSPF and COP is that the HSPF considers the various humidity fluctuations and the temperature during the season, whereas COP takes only static numbers.

What Is the Best SEER Rating?

The SEER ratings for heat pumps start from 13 to 26. With such a wide variety of choices, especially considering installing a new heat pump can be costly, an important question needs to be answered. Namely, what is the best SEER rating for a heat pump?

The best SEER rating for a heat pump is 16, as it offers the best combination in terms of value, expenses, and savings. The higher the SEER rating, the better the cooling efficiency. However, this also carries a higher price tag. A SEER rating of 16 provides excellent cooling efficiency with a more affordable price tag.

Heat pumps with a SEER rating below 16 usually do not have all the bells and whistles and are a bit lackluster, especially ones with SEER 13, which are not allowed in the northern states.

Heat pumps with SEER ratings above 18, although more energy efficient, are usually too expensive and may end up costing more in terms of maintenance and service costs.

Does SEER Rating Really Matter?

When considering the SEER rating of a heat pump, it is essential to understand its implications fully. 

The SEER rating provides information on a heat pump’s potential or theoretical efficiency under typical seasonal conditions. This means that the SEER rating is not set in stone but rather an average ratio over a regular cooling season.

SEER ratings do matter as they provide consumers with an educated estimate of the cooling costs of a particular heat pump system. However, two heat pumps with the same SEER rating may have different energy consumption depending on the conditions in which they are used.

For example, two similar 16 SEER heat pump systems can have very different energy-consumption costs if one system has a continuous thermostat setting of 72 degrees. Using a programmable thermostat, the other system has an average thermostat temperature of 76 degrees.

“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” goes the old adage. And this holds true when it comes to SEER ratings as well. Here’s what I mean by that.

The efficiency of a heat pump is highly dependant on several factors like:

  • The temperature thermostat settings used.
  • The condition of the ductwork.
  • The condition of the insulation.
  • Window and door airflow leaks.
  • The size of the heating pump unit.
  • The age of other linked units and appliances.
  • The quality of the installation, and more.

However, the SEER rating is not the only thing that matters, as other aspects of the heat pump may be just as important, if not more. You should always consider the reliability, warranty coverage of replacement parts, and labor costs.

Of course, a good SEER rating—all other things being equal—will save you money, but going with a very unreliable brand of heat pumps may end up costing you a lot more. Is there any benefit to a higher SEER rated heat pump that breaks down so often that you have paid for repairs almost what the heat pump itself costs you after two years? I am sure you already know the answer.

So while the SEER rating matters, it is not the only factor worth considering when buying a new unit.

Is a Higher SEER Rating Worth It?

Whether or not a higher SEER rating is worth it can be very subjective. On the one hand, a heat pump with a higher SEER rating can save you money, but it can also end up being more expensive to maintain and install. A higher SEER will also be capable of providing better comfort levels.

The Potential Savings

A higher SEER rating may not always be worth the investment, as, in some instances, a new heat pump may not be able to pay for itself over its lifetime. 

Most homeowners have one of the first questions about energy efficiency and how much they will save by upgrading to a new heat pump with a higher SEER. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Common SEER Rating ComparisonExpected Savings Over 1 Year*Expected Savings in Percentage**
10 SEER vs. 16 SEER$59138%
10 SEER vs. 19 SEER$74647%
10 SEER vs. 26 SEER$97062%
11 SEER vs. 13 SEER$22015%
12 SEER vs. 16 SEER$32825%
14 SEER vs. 16 SEER$14113%
14 SEER vs. 18 SEER$25022%
16 SEER vs. 18 SEER$10911%
16 SEER vs. 26 SEER$37939%
18 SEER vs. 20 SEER$8810%

* Numbers are calculated as averages for a 3-tonne AC system. Actual savings may vary. (1, 2)

** The easiest way to calculate these percentages is to use the following formula: (1 – (Low SEER) / (High SEER)) * 100

If we examine the cost of a new pump, we will see that a new heat pump may cost between $100 and $7,500. And if we factor in the installation costs, we can end up with a total of between $2,000 and $40,000.

As you can see, the cost of upgrading your old heat pump can vary wildly. That happens because factors like capacity, type, and overall quality play an important role. But even then, the highest costing item on the list remains labor costs.

Using the table above, we see that the highest savings are achieved at the lowest SEER numbers. A two-level jump from SEER 11 to 13 will save you about $220, a similar jump from SEER 14 to 16 results in $141 saved, and an upgrade from SEER 18 to 20 will save you only $88 in one year.

I am stressing those numbers because the lower a SEER rating heat pump a homeowner has, the more benefit they will see from an upgrade.

However, to get a reasonable estimate about what you can expect to save, you need to find how much energy your current heat pump uses.

But let me stop you right here. The SEER rating does not give us the whole picture because there are a few caveats.

The Level of Comfort

The SEER rating should not be judged only based on its energy-saving potential. Most importantly, it is also well worth mentioning that heat pumps with a higher SEER rating usually pack some extra features and capabilities compared to low SEER rated units.

Heat pumps with higher SEER usually come with a two-stage compressor. Those compressors are more energy-efficient and are why they are used in higher-rated heat pumps in the first place. However, two-stage heat pumps are also expected to have a longer lifespan. They require less maintenance and fewer repairs in the long run. All that may save you money translates into lower future expenses and bills.

Other heating systems may even have a variable speed compressor, which is even more effective in controlling the humidity indoors and providing balanced indoor temperatures throughout the day.

These heat pumps are also quieter as they produce less noise while running at a slower speed.

This all shows that a small increase of the SEER (for example going from 14 to 16, or 16 to 18) is not usually financially worthwhile as the potential savings are minimal.

This is why such upgrades are usually done for comfort improvement.

Maintenance and Repair Costs

Another point worth investigating is that a higher SEER heat pump will tend to cost more to repair. The overall equipment and parts are just more expensive and may potentially offset any expected future savings in terms of electricity.

Also, although I have cross-referenced some of these numbers, it needs to be noted that these numbers are just averages and not guaranteed by any means. These numbers are usually calculated using a set indoor temperature point, which may not be suitable or comfortable for all people.

The Overall Energy-Efficiency of the Home

But let me stop you right here. Even the best heat pump with the highest SEER rating possible will do you no good if the ductwork and wall, ceiling, and floor insulation are all in bad condition.

In certain cases, it may be worth spending money on improving the home’s overall energy efficiency before buying a new heat pump.

The Details

If you are interested in getting a heat pump with a higher SEER, the correct answer to whether or not it is worth it will depend on several factors.

Consider what estimates and quotes you have in terms of expected future savings, installation and labor costs, unit price, expected levels of comfort, and how long you intend to stay in that home.

In some instances, a heat pump may pay for itself in as little as three years, and in other cases, that may not happen over the total expected life cycle of the heat pump.

What SEER rating should I buy?

The best SEER rating to buy is between 14 to 18. If the ductwork is in good condition, well insulated, well designed, and there are no leaks, you will see the best ROI with a SEER rating of 16. This SEER rating is an excellent golden mean where the ratio between service costs, upfront costs, and potential savings are optimal.

If you already have a heat pump with a decent SEER rating of anywhere between 14 to 20, you may not be able to justify the expense of upgrading to a different heat pump with a higher SEER rating.

In this case, it may be worth upgrading if you currently have a single-speed heat pump. (The focus is on improving the comfort rather than savings in this case.) However, please, keep in mind that there are different entry-level heat pumps rated SEER 16, for example, that are still single-speed.

Conclusion

In closing, the SEER rating of a heat pump system is essential to energy-conscious homeowners. A higher SEER rating may be more desirable depending on your family’s needs. However, most families will find a SEER rating of 16-18 the best option when considering energy savings, installation costs, and operating costs.

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Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.

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