SEER Rating for Heat Pumps & Air Conditioners (Complete Guide)

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 what SEER ratings are and how they work.

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

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.

What are SEER Ratings?

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 have a SEER 10 rating or less.)

Current regulations do not allow for HVAC systems with a 12 SEER rating or less in any home in the U.S.

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

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

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

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 or central air conditioning system.

The best way to find the SEER rating is to look for the yellow EnergyGuide label on the outdoor unit. The Energy Guide 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 challenging to determine their SEER rating on older units 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.

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.

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 outdoor temperatures during the season, whereas COP takes only static numbers.

What Is the Best SEER Rating?

The SEER ratings for air-source 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 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 dependent 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 are 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.

Your Homes Energy Efficiency

The SEER rating won’t matter much if your home is not energy efficient. If your home is not air-tight and lacks insulation, you’d be better off making improvements in your house or spending extra on a higher SEER rating HVAC system.

You should consider improvements including:

  • energy efficient doors and windows
  • attic insulation of R30 or higher (up to R60 depending on where you live)

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.

SEER Rating ComparisonExpected 1 Year Savings*Expected % Savings**
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 A.C. 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, 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 Indoor Comfort Level

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

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.

How to Calculate SEER Rating

There are two methods:

  1. using a manual calculation
  2. finding the rating provided by the heat pump manufacturer

To find the manufacturer’s SEER rating, you can locate it on your heat pump, and you can also find it on the manufacturer’s official website.

The exact steps to find it needs further explanation, so I’ll explain exactly how to do it below. And once you’ve found it, you’ll probably be interested in how it compares to other heat pumps and whether it’s any good. So, I’ll include that information in this article for your reference.

How to Manually Calculate Your SEER Rating

Before I get into the exact method, in my opinion locating the special sticker on your heat pump is the fastest way to find it. I explain what it looks like and exactly where to find it in this article.

But, sometimes, the label can be worn off or not be there at all. When that’s the case: 

  • New heat pumps will sometimes have a document sealed in plastic stuck to the side of the heat pump. This will typically have the SEER rating on it.
  • You can find the SEER number on your building permit. 
  • Some manufacturers will list the SEER rating as part of the model number.
  • Doing a quick Google search for the make and model online.
  • Giving a call to the manufacturer or sending them an email.

If none of these options are available for your heat pump, you’ll want to do a manual calculation. Here’s exactly how to do that. 

Bear in mind that you need to do many numbers and calculations, so it’s a good idea to use a spreadsheet to keep track of all the numbers.

1. Find the British Thermal Unit (BTU) Usage of Your Heat Pump. 

The steps to find the BTU of your heat pump is the same as finding the SEER number. Hopefully, you’ll have better luck finding the BTU number. 

You can also find the BTU if you know the ton of your heat pump or your heat pump’s kWh.

If you only have the ton of your heat pump, you can get a rough estimate of the BTU using the formula:

1 US ton (907 kg or 0.9 tonnes) = 12,000 BTUs.

This table gives some average numbers:

Heat Pump TonnageBTUs
1 Ton12,000
1.5 Ton18,000
2 Ton24,000
2.5 Ton30,000
3 Ton36,000
3.5 Ton42,000
4 Ton48,000
4.5 Ton54,000
5 Ton60,000

If you have the kWh of your heat pump, you can convert that into BTUs. Using, the known quantity 3.5 kW = 12,000 BTUs. Which I’ll demonstrate below so you can work it out.

An important note here: If you see kiloWatts (kW), or Watts (W), it’s interchangeable with kiloWatt hours (kWh) and Watt-hours (Wh). Which is how many kW or W your heat pump uses in an hour. They’re equivalent.  

Using some fancy algebra, I found that 1 kW = 3248 BTUs. 

You can multiply the number 3248 by the kW your heat pump uses. 

For example, to calculate the BTUs of a 3 kW heat pump, you can do:

3 kW * 3248 BTUs

Which is 10,285 or 10,285 BTUs.

Now that you have the BTU your heat pump produces, you can move on to the next step.

Insider’s Tip: You can also find the heat pump tonnage in the heat pump model number. Look for a number like 18, 24, 30, 36, 42, 48, 54, or 60 divisible by 6. The result is the heat pump tonnage.

2. Calculate the BTU Used Per Hour (BTU/h)

1 Watt per hour (Wh) = 3.412 BTU/h

Since we’ve got the kWh from the last step, you can use that to get the BTU/h.

To convert the Watts per hour to kWh, you can multiply by 1000 since there are 1000 Watts in kiloWatt.

In long-form math, we multiply both sides by 1000, but you can think of multiplying the whole formula by 1000.

1 Wh * 1000 = 3.412 * 1000

1kWh = 3412 BTU/h

To calculate it for a heat pump with a different kWh, you need to multiply both sides of the equation by whatever will turn 1W into your kWh.

For example, if it’s 2.5 kWh, you need to multiply 1 W by 2,500 to turn it into 2.5 kWh.

1 Wh * 2,500 = 3.412 * 2,500

2.5 kWh = 8,530 BTU/h

3. Finally, Calculate the SEER Rating

Yay, finally at the final step. In this step, you divide the BTU/h by the Wh to get the SEER rating.

According to this scientific paper, the SEER rating is calculated by dividing the BTU/h by the Wh. So, you first need to find the Wh of your heat pump. 

Using the example above, I get:

8,530 BTU/h / 2500 Wh = a SEER rating of 3.4

You can substitute in your numbers to find the SEER rating.

What is the Minimum SEER Rating for Cooling Systems?

In the USA, the minimum is a SEER rating; a cooling system sold needs to be 13+ in the north half of the country, and a SEER rating of 14+ in the rest of the country, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration

It’s said that in 2019, the U.S. Department of Energy proposed that the minimum SEER rating is set to rise by 1 for both regions in 2023.

This would mean the minimum SEER rating for heat pumps sold in the north of the country will be 14 in 2023 and 15 in the rest of the country.

The South, as defined by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which has a SEER rating minimum of 14 currently, includes the states of:

  • California
  • Nevada
  • Arizona
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Oklahoma
  • Arkansas
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Alabama
  • Georgia
  • Florida
  • South Carolina
  • North Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Kentucky
  • Virginia
  • Maryland
  • Delaware

All other States have a minimum 13 SEER rating for air conditioning units.

Does a Higher SEER Cool Better?

The formula for a SEER rating is calculated as the amount of cooling divided by the amount of energy it uses. Higher SEER heat pumps or central air conditioners won’t cool your home faster. It will only do so more energy efficiently. 

If an air conditioner cools the air using less power, it will have a higher SEER rating.

A higher SEER rating will save on electricity costs, but the cost may not offset the fact that a higher SEER rating heat pump is more expensive. So, it does depend on the difference in price between the different units you’re looking at.

How Do I Know What SEER Rating I Need?

There is a minimum SEER rating that manufacturers can sell. It’s 13 in the northern states and 14 in the southern states. Other than that, a heat pump with a higher SEER rating will give you more heating and cooling for the same amount of power, and your electricity cost will be less.

So, you want to get the highest SEER rating you can. Additionally, each home is a different size, and you will need to figure out what size heat pump will be best for your home/office.

As a first step, according to Unique Heating Solutions, you can work it out roughly based on the size of your home. 

For every 550 square feet (51 square meters) of heating or cooling, you need a 1-ton capacity.

For example, if you have a 1000 square foot (100 sq meter) apartment, you’ll need a 2-ton heat pump.

On top of that, there is a range of other factors that go into figuring out what heat pump size you need, such as:

  • What the building’s made of (brick/wood)
  • The amount of insulation it has
  • The amount of sun the house gets
  • Whether it has double glazed windows
  • If there are spaces where air can circulate easily, such as large spaces under the doors

This can all be factored in using a calculation known as a Manual J. Here’s an excellent video that shows how it’s calculated:

Most folks aren’t engineering majors or HVAC experts, so it’s often easier to have a consultant do this all for you rather than work it all out yourself, which can take many hours, especially for someone who’s never done it before.

Is 14 SEER a Good Rating?

According to Trane, a leading HVAC manufacturer, most units have a SEER rating between 13 and 26. Central systems range up to 18 SEER, while ductless heat pump systems range as high as 26 SEER.

14 is also the minimum SEER rating in the South of the USA, and 13 in the country’s rest. And both minimum’s are going up to 14 and 15 respectively in 2023. 

Ductless heat pumps have a higher SEER rating because they don’t have ductwork. All cooling output exits the front of the wall unit and directly into the room.

Central heat pumps have ductwork that travels through unconditioned spaces like crawl spaces, basements, and attics which can lose 30% or more cooling efficiency through the ducts.

How Much More Efficient is a 20 SEER vs. 14 SEER?

A 20 SEER heat pump is roughly 30% more efficient than a 14 SEER heat pump. However, it will vary from model to model, translating to a 30% saving in energy costs. 

A 20 SEER heat pump is typically much more expensive than a 14 SEER heat pump, so to get the full picture, you’ll want to look at the electricity cost savings and compare it to the difference in price between the two units.

Should I Get a 14 SEER or 16 SEER?

A higher SEER rating is more energy-efficient, so you’ll use less electricity to get a 16 SEER. If you use less electricity, you’ll have a lower electricity bill at the end of the day, and you’ll spend less to get the same amount of heating and cooling. 

However, 16 SEER units are more expensive than 14 SEER ones. The cost savings are around $100 a year. If a SEER 16 heat pump is $1000 more expensive, it will take ten years to offset the cost.

Therefore, it depends on the prices of the different models you’re looking at. I recommend bookmarking that article as a reference when you’re choosing between two HVAC systems of varying SEER ratings.

In Conclusion

To figure out your SEER rating, you can use formulas that involve knowing some critical numbers such as your BTU and kW usage. 

The higher the SEER rating, the more energy-efficient it is.

The easiest first step is to find the sticker or label on your heat pump. But, if it doesn’t have one, you can also look online for the make and model to find it. 

Failing that, I would do a manual calculation. 

There are tax credits for energy-efficient heat pumps at the federal level, and there are also state tax credits for each state. 

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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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