Future looks expensive for pennypinchers hoping to reduce A/C costs now

By SARA SARGENT – MEDILL NEWS SERVICE

More than a month into summer, with the humidity index consistently above 50 percent and with steamy August temperatures only weeks away, wise were those Chicagoans who invested in new air conditioners.

While air-conditioning units are keeping area apartments and office buildings pleasantly cool, the inefficient units among them are costing customers a pretty penny. According to the American Council for Energy-Efficient Economy, hidden inefficiencies in home central cooling equipment can add 20 to 30 percent to annual cooling costs.

ACEEE’s most recent estimates, from 2007, indicate that the average Midwestern household uses 1,772 kilowatt-hours and spends $152 on air conditioning per year; these figures assume that electricity costs 8.6 cents per kilowatt-hour. By replacing a 10 SEER air conditioner with a 14 SEER unit, ACEEE estimates that Midwestern household would save 620 kilowatt-hours per year, or $53.

Yet, instead of replacing inefficient units and reaping these financial benefits, many customers have been calling in repairmen to fix 10- and 15-year-old air conditioners, a practice that, although saving them money in the short term, will cost much more in the long term.

“The problem with that is, just like you if have a 15- or 20-year-old car, it makes no sense to keep sinking money into it without getting something more efficient,” said Bill Clement, vice president of Deljo Heating and Cooling Inc., which services Chicago’s North Side.

This year, Clement has seen a notable spike in the number of people opting for repairs over replacements.

“Generally they say, ‘No, we just don’t have the money right now,'” he said. “But if someone has a 15- or 20-year-old air conditioner, it’s using a lot more electricity. And say they do a repair, we’ll probably be out there again in a couple of months to do another repair.”

As of Jan. 1, 2006, the ACEEE mandated a 13 SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) federal standard for air-conditioning efficiency, an increase from the 1993 mandate of 10 SEER.

According to ACEEE spokeswoman Jennifer Amann, the new standard will decrease peak demand for electric power by 41,500 megawatts by 2020 and save consumers approximately $5 billion over the 2006-2030 period.

But, if consumers are not purchasing the new 13 SEER units and are instead choosing to repair their old 10 SEER ones, there are no energy-saving, cost-reducing benefits to be had.

Walter Kugler, owner of A-A Mechanical Heating Cooling in Wicker Park for 10 years, said his customers are showing the strains of the current economy by balking at the cost of his repair jobs.

“It’s haggling and downright telling you they won’t pay,” Kugler remarked. “I would say it’s the economy that affects the customers, which in turn affects our company.”

As far as air-conditioner repairmen and salesmen are concerned, customers are only hurting themselves when they’re unwilling to spend money on cooling. Until people recognize that paying to repair a cooling system three times over is, in fact, more costly than simply purchasing a new, more-efficient unit, customers can expect lighter pockets even while enjoying cooler houses.

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