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In a highly unusual step, the Department of Energy has quietly rescinded a final rule on minimum energy efficiency standards for residential central air conditioners and heat pumps that was published in the final days of the Clinton Administration, replacing it with one calling for a slightly lower seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER).

Under Clinton, the Energy Department had mandated an SEER of 13. But now the department says an SEER of 12, which is 20 percent more efficient than the old SEER 10 standard, is plenty. And so does the National Association of Home Builders.

The new minimum requirements will still help consumers save energy without impacting housing affordability, NAHB President Gary Garczynski said in praising the decision.

For most of the country, the savings in operating costs over the life of the appliance would not offset the incremental first cost of an SEER 13-rated product, according to Garczyniski, a builder/developer from Woodbridge, Va., said. NAHB believes SEER 13 units would be cost-effective in only the most southern U.S. climate zones.

DoE said it decided to withdraw the old "midnight" regulation, which never actually became effective, largely because it was not economically justified. The move was announced in the Federal Register, as are all changes in federal regulations. But the department did not otherwise publicize the switch.

The new SEER 12 requirement takes effect in 2006. At that time, the government estimates that cost of the most common type of air conditioning, a split system combining a heat pump and air conditioning, would be $213 more than it is now. But the result would be an annual energy savings of $31.

Thus, home owners would begin saving money after an average about seven years. Heat pump air conditioners last about a dozen years on average, depending on how much they are used and how well they are maintained. So consumers could reasonably expect to save $150 or so over the life of their units.

After investigating the effects of varying energy prices throughout the country and different air conditioning usage patters, the department concluded that three out of four home owners would either save money or be negligibly impacted by the greater cost resulting from the higher standard.

It also said that over 25 years, the new standard would save about three "quads" of energy, an amount that's equivalent to all the energy consumed by nearly 17 million households in a single year.

In retracting the SEER 13 requirement, DoE said further that it would have contributed to an unacceptable cumulative regulatory burden on manufacturers. Indeed, it said that the SEER 12 standard can be met for the most with models that already are on the market.

The department estimated that an SEER 13 mandate would result in $303 million in manufacturer costs, an amount that would be passed on to consumers, whereas the 12 SEER requirement would result in $159 million more in added expenses.

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