U.S. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson in October proposed new energy-efficiency standards for residential central air conditioners and heat pumps. Over a 25-year period, the proposed standards are expected to save enough electricity to light all U.S. homes for nearly three years, according to the Department of Energy.

The proposed standards would require air conditioners to have a minimum SEER of 12 and heat pumps to have a minimum SEER of 13 and a minimum Heating Seasonal Performance Factor of 7.7. Current standards require central air conditioners to meet a minimum SEER of 10, and heat pumps to meet an HSPF of 6.8 for split-system heat pumps and 6.6 for single-package units.

The Air-Conditioning & Refrigeration Institute was guarded in its reaction to the proposal.

"ARI urges the Department of Energy to consider all the facts in adopting a fair and equitable standard," ARI said in a statement. "The goal should be a standard that balances the needs of America's diverse population and the benefits of higher energy efficiency. Air conditioning contributes significantly to the quality of life, and in many parts of this country it serves as a lifesaver during heat waves. The facts used to establish a new standard must include consideration of the serious economic and societal consequences affecting consumers that could result from a standard that is flawed. ARI welcomes the opportunity to submit comments in response to the proposed rule."

While ARI's statement implies that the proposal is flawed, the group did not say so.

"We have distributed the 160-page document for review by the individual companies, and now we'll continue to promote the position that we took in the statement," said ARI spokesman Ed Dooley. "We've asked DOE to consider all the facts in proposing a fair and equitable standard, and we will do that in the comment that we will file with the department."

In the meantime, the association will await the reaction of its members to the proposal.

Spokesmen for Carrier and Lennox declined to comment, saying they wanted to let ARI talk for them.

"As far as Goodman is concerned, bring it on, as quickly as you want," said Chuck Russ, vice president/sales and marketing for Goodman Manufacturing Co. "We think it's a wonderful idea. By going to a 12-SEER product, we already know it will cut down on electricity consumption, reducing pollutants in the atmosphere."

Conservationists said the proposal does not go far enough. The Appliance Standard Awareness Project took out full-page ads in the Washington Post stating that the standard should be 13 SEER. ASAP is a coalition made up of groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Alliance to Save Energy, Consumer Federation of America, and Pacific Gas & Electric.

In September, the DOE's Energy Information Administration reported that 47% of U.S. households used central air conditioning in 1997, up from only 23% in 1978. The proposed standards are expected to save 1.5 quadrillion Btu of energy by 2020. This is enough energy to avoid the need for 31 large, 400-megawatt power plants and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.5 million metric tons.

A 60-day public comment period is underway, lasting until Dec. 4, to allow for comments from manufacturers, trade associations, utilities, state energy offices, consumers, consumer/environmental groups and other interested parties. The department will then issue a final rule on the standards. The proposed standards would take effect for all residential central air conditioners and heat pumps manufactured after Jan. 1, 2006.