Millions of consumers will save operating costs and the environment will be improved under a nationwide standard expected from the U.S. Dept. of Energy. A Senate vote of 52-47 cleared the way for a 20% increase in the efficiency of residential central air conditioners and heat pumps manufactured by 2006.

The vote came on an amendment to energy legislation offered by senators concerned about the higher costs imposed on consumers under a proposal to increase the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio from the current 10 SEEP to 13 SEER. Such a measure could discourage replacement of older, less efficient equipment.

"This is a huge win for homeowners, small business and the environment," said a statement by William G. Sutton, president of the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute. "The standard is fair because it keeps the equipment affordable and reduces operating costs for consumers. It encourages homeowners to replace lower efficiency equipment earlier."

The House bill does not include a provision dealing with a minimum standard for air conditioners and heat pumps. However, under a longstanding rulemaking in which the DOE has proposed a 12 SEER, a new standard could be published in the "Federal Register" at any time, and would not require congressional action.