Complete Guide to Heat Pump SEER Ratings


If you get a little lost when it comes to 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 interesting 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 useful information.

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Those yellow stickers are very easy to read and will 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 information related to air conditioning, heating and refrigeration systems.

You just 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.

On older heat pumps, it will be more difficult to find out what their SEER rating is 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. Frequently detailed information may be found 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.

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 homes 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 future.)

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 on the energy guide label, you would find two ratings: (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 in a similar manner.

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 by using static temperatures and humidity levels, whereas SEER takes into account 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 takes into account the various fluctuations of the humidity and the temperature during the season, whereas COP takes only static numbers.

What Is the Best SEER Rating?

Currently, the SEER ratings for heat pumps start from 13 and go up to 26. With such a wide variety of choices, especially considering that the installation of a new heat pump can be very expensive, 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 little lack-luster, 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 important to fully understand its implications. 

The SEER rating is providing information on the potential or theoretical efficiency of a heat pump under typical seasonal conditions. This means that the SEER rating is not something set in stone, rather more of an average ratio over a typical cooling season.

SEER ratings do matter as they provide consumers with an educated estimate of 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, while the other system, using a programmable thermostat, 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.

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

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 heat pump with a higher SEER, that breaks down so often that after two years you have paid for repairs almost what the heat pump itself cost you? I am sure you already know the answer.

So while the SEER rating matters, it is definitely 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. 

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

Common SEER Rating Comparison Expected Savings Over 1 Year* Expected Savings in Percentage**
10 SEER vs. 16 SEER $591 38%
10 SEER vs. 19 SEER $746 47%
10 SEER vs. 26 SEER $970 62%
11 SEER vs. 13 SEER $220 15%
12 SEER vs. 16 SEER $328 25%
14 SEER vs. 16 SEER $141 13%
14 SEER vs. 18 SEER $250 22%
16 SEER vs. 18 SEER $109 11%
16 SEER vs. 26 SEER $379 39%
18 SEER vs. 20 SEER $88 10%

* 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

Now, 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 between $2,000 and $40,000.

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

Using the table above, we can 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.

The reason I am stressing on those numbers is that the lower a SEER rated heat pump a homeowner has, the more benefit they will see from an upgrade.

However, to really get a good estimate about what you can expect to save, you will 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. It is true, this is the main and most important factor, but it is also well worth mentioning that heat pumps that have higher a 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 part of the reason 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 as it 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 able to provide 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 goes to show 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 the fact 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. In fact, these numbers are usually calculated using a set indoor temperature point, which may not even 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 condition of the ductwork, the wall, ceiling, and floor insulation are all in bad condition.

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

The Details

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

Take into consideration what estimates and quotes you have been given 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, it has been 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 only 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 important to energy-conscious homeowners. Depending on your family’s needs, a higher SEER rating may be more desirable. However, most families will find a SEER rating of 16-18 to be 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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