Energy efficient – somewhat. But how about quality?

Lennox air conditioners range from extremely unambitious to excellent when it comes to energy efficiency. In my books, you don’t get full boasting rights for efficiency when the entry level central air conditioning system in your product line is at the absolute bottom of mandated efficiency levels.

Lennox International, a mid-sized HVAC manufacturer (roughly $2.4 billion market capitalization) starts its product line with the 13ACX Air Conditioner, which, as the product code suggests, has an SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) starting at 13. That’s exactly the new minimum standard the US DOE set in 2006. The minimum for an ENERGY STAR rated central air conditioner is SEER 14, and Lennox air conditioners at the lowest efficiency in this class include the Lennox 14ACX Air Conditioner, rated at between SEER 14 and 16 depending on the outdoor unit model number. Fortunately, Lennox goes quite a bit further to models with up to SEER 21 – meaning they’re up to 38% more efficient than the least efficient models.

Don’t be fooled by manufacturer descriptions of the 13ACX as ‘economical’. Unless you’re installing your air conditioner in the far north or in Tierra del Fuego, where sticker price is all that matters because you’ll almost never turn the dang thing on, the most economical air conditioners are the most efficient, because the energy use over the lifetime of a central air conditioner typically far outweighs the up-front costs.

For example, assuming a typical cooling season of 150 days, with 30 very hot days, 60 hot days, and 60 warm days, a total seasonal cooling output of 28.8 million BTU (equivalent to a 2 ton air conditioner running full blast for 1,200 hours/year), and a price of 12 cents per kilowatt hour, you’ll wind up paying about $6,000 in electricity costs over a 20 year period for an SEER 14 unit, while an SEER 21 unit (the best Lennox has to offer) will cost you about $4,000, or $2,000 less. And you can do better than the best Lennox air conditioners – for example, the Nordyne air conditioner has an SEER rating of up to 24.5 on their iQ Drive models. (Nordyne air conditioners are branded as Maytag, Frigidaire, Kelvinator, Gibson, Tappan and other brands). So unless the higher SEER model costs a great deal more than the lower SEER model, you’re better to go with the most efficient.

How quiet are Lennox air conditioners?

I confess that I don’t have a working central air conditioner myself – see my Summer energy saving tips for how my family survives muggy Toronto summers with no air conditioning – and so I do get to hear the noise from many neighbors’ air conditioners from my open bedroom window as I try to get to sleep at night. So if only for the neighbors – if not for yourself – you should look for a quiet central air conditioner. And there’s a correlation between efficiency and noise in the case of the more modest efficiency Lennox air conditioners. The 13ACX and 14ACX Lennox air conditioners have a sound output level of 76 dBA (equivalent to the noise made by a dishwasher or washing machine), while the more efficient XC17 (up to SEER 18) is only 62 dBA (closer to the noise made by normal conversation). Which would you rather listen to when you’re outside gardening and the AC is running?

But the correlation between noise and efficiency doesn’t extend to their most efficient models, which at SEER 21 you would expect to be whisper quiet. Instead, they rate about 69 DB, which is a little quieter than standing a yard away from a hair dryer. Not my idea of background noise.

How about quality?

Of course, the noise level of an air conditioner that isn’t working will be 0 dBA, and Lennox AC units may well score in this noise range for considerable parts of their lifetime. Unfortunately the frustrated Lennox owner screaming into the phone to their HVAC contractor may push the noise level back up to the mid 70’s or higher.

Consumer satisfaction with Lennox air conditioners is a mixed bag according to many online review websites. A few customers are very satisfied with their Lennox AC units – the ones who have not experienced any problems, or whose problems were quickly addressed at no cost to them, because of a warranty or service contract arrangement. But many customers report problems with breakdowns, malfunctioning thermostats, or refrigerant leakage, on Lennox central air conditioners. These problems often occur within the first few years of ownership. Typically people complain about failures after the warranty expires, although that doesn’t mean these units are designed to last exactly the length of the warranty period. After all, you’re much more likely to complain if you are the one who has to pay for repairs, or a new unit, than if the unit failed while the warranty still covered the costs.

This is one of the inherent biases of online customer AC review sites. A good thing to watch for is how old the air conditioners are of people who are raving about the unit versus griping about it. In the case of Lennox air conditioners, it seems many of the complainers have owned their units for 1-5 years, while those who are very satisfied either bought the unit within the last year (perhaps before it had a chance to fail), or 10 or 20 years ago. Anyone who is still running a 20-year-old central air conditioner should seriously consider replacing it, since it is probably running at an SEER of 8 or less, a third of what you can get from a Nordyne.

Again the newer units receiving more complaints is a somewhat distorted view from the review sites, because the group of people who have had the units longer excludes those who bought Lennox air conditioners 5+ years ago and then got rid of them because of failures (and didn’t bother to write a review five or ten years after ditching the unit). So it is not clear whether Lennox quality has gone down over the years, or whether it has been consistently bad enough that few people stick with a Lennox air conditioner for very long.

One thing to bear in mind is that many of the problems that plague any central heating or air conditioning system are due to substandard installation rather than to the quality of the products themselves. And customer complaints about the timeliness of service on Lennox air conditioners do seem to be quite prevalent, which suggests that the companies that choose to sell Lennox products are not as focused on good customer service as some others.

Whatever air conditioner brand you choose, make sure you do some thorough research on the HVAC dealer you are buying from: they should have a solid reputation, be a member of the local Better Business Bureau, provide you with a number of references (both people you can call, and letters from satisfied customers), and preferably be rated highly in local community newspapers (for instance, “Reader’s Choice” awards for the best HVAC dealer, as my furnace provider, Unionville Heating, has been rated for over a decade).

Finally, whatever air conditioner manufacturer you provide, I strongly recommend going for a renewable annual maintenance contract that covers all parts and labor, and given the spotty record of Lennox units, especially regarding refrigerant leakage, a maintenance contract is essential. You should ask your HVAC dealer to tell you what price they are currently charging on maintenance contracts for older equipment as well, as service contracts often go up in price once the unit is past a certain age.

A new twist: solar powered air conditioning

Lennox is apparently trying to score more environmental points by marketing ‘solar power ready’ air conditioners and heat pumps. The idea is that your Lennox dealer will install both the air conditioner system and one or more solar electric panels to help generate electricity that will offset the electricity use of the air conditioner. They even provide a solar powered air conditioning calculator that lets you figure out how much of your annual air conditioning energy costs you can eliminate by installing one or more solar panels.

I’m not sure an HVAC contractor is the right company to be doing solar electric installations, unless that’s a major separate part of their business. (It’s a very different set of technical skills than those of the HVAC technician, after all.)

And it is a bit of a gimmick. It’s a bit like selling you a pet weasel along with your mink coat so you can say you’re animal-friendly. Someone still killed 20+ minks for the coat.

As I point out in Solar powered air conditioning, you are far better off to invest your extra cash in energy efficiency upgrades (such as increased insulation, better windows, energy saving window coverings, additional deciduous trees on southern and eastern exposures to reduce sun exposure to your house, and of course the most energy efficient air conditioner you can afford) than to buy solar panels to generate the electricity to power your air conditioner. (As I also point out, there are actually much more efficient solar powered air conditioning systems that use solar heat, rather than solar photovoltaics, to run an evaporative or absorption based cooling system.) And if you are really serious about saving electricity, you’ll also want to work hard to minimize your need to run a cooling system at all, rather than find one you can run on solar panels.

In brief: reasonable efficiency and noise levels; quality problems

I can’t in good faith recommend a Lennox air conditioner given their fairly unambitious entry level units in terms of energy efficiency, the fact that their top of the line models, while providing good energy efficiency, are still well below the leadership established by companies like Nordyne; and the large number of Lennox customers who have experienced major problems such as compressor breakdown, refrigerant leakage, coil failure, system board failure, or substandard performance. I should also point out that many customers report problems getting units serviced in a timely manner, either because parts aren’t available or because the dealer doesn’t have the staff to service the units promptly.

If you are tempted to consider Lennox air conditioners one by the ‘economical’ argument, remember to include in your assessment of ‘economy’ not just the sticker price (and any promised rebates) but the operating costs (efficiency, as I pointed out early, has a direct bearing on what you’ll pay to run the unit), and maintenance costs (either for an annual maintenance costs, or the cost of the service call, parts and labor when things go wrong and you don’t have a service contract).

If I were considering Lennox vs Trane, I would definitely go for the Trane AC unit. I’ve been very impressed by Trane’s reputation for good quality and high efficiency. And any of the companies that private-label the Nordyne air conditioner are also good bets. Lennox air conditioners don’t seem to me a good long-term investment. Let’s give them a few years to see if consumer reviews of their future models show an improvement on what’s out there today; until then, stick with a brand like Nordyne or Trane (even Carrier, which gets mixed reviews from consumers, but still scores better overall on quality than Lennox).

Remember, your objective is to stay comfortable at the lowest possible cost to you and the environment. The low sticker price you can pay for Lennox air conditioners, followed by leaking refrigerant, frequent maintenance calls, or a compressor that won’t run is not the way to achieve that goal. And throwing solar panels on your roof won’t do much good if the coils are busted. Go for a quality system with ultra high efficiency, and you can relax in comfort knowing the extra up-front cost will be more than offset in long-term savings and far fewer headaches.

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