Preparing for New Furnace Efficiency Rules

A U.S. Department of Energy mandate set to take effect in less than a year will affect the minimum efficiency for residential furnaces sold in the northern half of the country. To prepare for the changes, construction professionals should make sure they understand the impact of the ruling on the types of products and installation techniques that will be available for their projects.

“Space heating is, by and large, the largest end-use load in residential buildings,” James Lyons, a research engineer with Davidsonville, Md.-based research firm Newport Partners, says. “And you’re looking at a dramatic change in the standard equipment that goes in homes in the northern half of the U.S.”

Set to take effect in May 2013, the Energy Department’s direct final ruling mandates that all furnaces sold and installed in heating climates must be at least 90 percent efficient as measured by annual fuel utilization efficiency, or AFUE. Furnaces in this efficiency range are known as condensing furnaces. Because they extract 90 percent or more of the available heat from their combustion gases, the water vapor in those gases condenses into liquid water and must be managed and drained.

The ruling will have a significant impact in many markets around the country, according to Jim Lowell, a furnace product manager in the Residential Solutions division of Ingersoll Rand, maker of Trane furnaces. While high-efficiency furnaces are relatively common in some northern regions, other areas, such as greater Chicago, have a large installed base of 80 percent efficient [noncondensing] furnaces.

“If [they've] got a large number of homes that already have noncondensing furnaces and they take the path of least resistance, they’re going to stay with those noncondensing furnaces for the most part,” he says. “What’s going to happen next year is that’s an option that’s going to go away.”

The good news? Contractors affected by this law won’t see any products they’re not familiar with. Contractors in northern climates have likely already installed condensing furnaces, which require a condensate management system and vent through PVC piping instead of metal. For remodeling customers, however, replacing the obsolete venting in their home with a new venting system may add complexity to their project.

To help their customers understand the new rules, pros can highlight the advantages of high-efficiency furnaces, Lowell suggests. “The biggest part of the story is the efficiency that a consumer will get from a higher-efficiency product and the savings that they will get,” he says. “In many cases, they will find that they can get a payback within the life of the furnace, and consequently it’s a smart economic choice to upgrade to a more efficient furnace like this.”

A Comparative Study and Analysis of Residential Heating Systems, conducted by Newport Partners, analyzed 15 heating systems to compare metrics such as annual energy costs, CO2 emissions, and simple paybacks for higher first cost. The study found that a heating system with a 95-AFUE high-efficiency propane-fueled furnace is less expensive to install than heating oil, air source heat pump, and ground source heat pump alternatives. The high-efficiency propane-fueled furnace actually achieved a slightly lower first cost than the 78-AFUE standard-efficiency propane furnace because of its reduced venting costs. The high-efficiency furnace also saved $430 in annual energy costs compared with the standard-efficiency furnace, and propane furnaces produced 15 percent fewer CO2 emissions than oil systems of the same efficiency. To analyze the results in your own market, use the interactive Comparative Heating Map, below.

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