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What’s Wrong With Our New Furnace?

Why isn’t this furnace, which was sized by a heating contractor, keeping anyone comfortable?

Posted on Jan 16 2017 by Scott Gibson

John Melichar has upgraded the furnace in his two-level San Francisco home, one of several improvements that should have made the house more comfortable as well as more energy-efficient. The new furnace has the capacity recommended by his heating contractor, but so far the house seems less comfortable, not more comfortable.

In a post at GBA's Q&A forum, Melichar explains his concerns:

"Our contractor told us to buy a 60K BtuBritish thermal unit, the amount of heat required to raise one pound of water (about a pint) one degree Fahrenheit in temperature—about the heat content of one wooden kitchen match. One Btu is equivalent to 0.293 watt-hours or 1,055 joules. /h furnace; we opted for 96% AFUEAnnual Fuel Utilization Efficiency. Widely-used measure of the fuel efficiency of a heating system that accounts for start-up, cool-down, and other operating losses that occur during real-life operation. AFUE is always lower than combustion efficiency. Furnaces sold in the United States must have a minimum AFUE of 78%. High ratings indicate more efficient equipment. with two-stage variable blower — the Goodman GMVC960603BN.

"We get high winds from the vents," Melichar continues. "We thought that the variable blower and two stages meant that the unit would operate on a low flame and low fan (cubic feet per minute) level but that doesn't seem to be the case. The furnace starts out slow then ramps up to gale storm."

These problems prompt Melichar to ask whether the furnace has been installed incorrectly. Maybe the contractor has recommended a furnace that's too big for the house. Can some adjustments be made to improve its performance?

Further complicating Melichar's situation is a language barrier with the contractors who installed the furnace: He's able to speak with only one of them.

That's the backdrop for this Q&A Spotlight.

Did the installer do his homework?

GBA senior editor Martin Holladay's first question is whether the heating contractor has taken all the necessary steps to ensure the furnace was specified and installed properly.

That process, he writes, should begin with Manual J and Manual D calculations to make sure the furnace is matched to the heating loads in the house, and that the ductwork is designed correctly. Following installation, the system should be commissioned to make sure it operates as intended.

"There is a good chance that your contractor never performed steps one, two, or three, unfortunately," Holladay says. "You should start by asking your contractor about these three steps. You may need to hire a home performance contractor to check your system if (as I suspect) your contractor doesn't understand the three steps I listed."

Melichar suspects that Holladay has a point.

"I wouldn't be surprised if your suspicions about our contractor not completing those steps are right," he says. "My conversation with the furnace installer hired by our contractor was limited to, 'How big should it be? 60K BTU? 66K BTU?' He said '60.' We were responsible for shopping for it. The contractor made a suggestion of a single-stage, single-speed blower system even though we stated we wanted the opposite, so I'm not sure how familiar they are with improved technologies."

Here are some tweaks you can make

Jon R suggests that the specifications for the furnace Melichar has installed don't show much of a difference between high and low stage. But, he adds, there is an adjustment for air flow that would reduce the "high winds" the system seems to be producing now.

"Also make sure that the thermostat supports two stages," he adds. "Adjust zone dampers so that they never close to less than two-thirds."

"That's interesting about the dampers not being closed more than two-thirds," Melichar replies. "It makes sense to me and seems a route to consider given that we are expecting the furnace to sometimes heat the whole 1,500 square feet, most often the 1050-square-foot upstairs and sometimes only the 500-square-foot downstairs.

"As you probably suspect, when the furnace is only heating the lower 500-square-foot zone, it is loud and fast!" he continues. "Reducing that cfm by leaving the upstairs damper upstairs makes sense."

Reid Baldwin adds that a zone controller, a device installed between the thermostats and the furnace, may be to blame.

"Even if you have two-stage thermostats and a two-stage furnace, the zone controller may only be capable of single-stage logic," Baldwin says. "When you use a single-stage controller with a two-stage furnace, the furnace is usually programmed to run on low stage for about 12 minutes and then to switch to high stage until the heat call ends. The furnace has no idea how many zones it is feeding. If you have a two-stage zone controller, it would have more sophisticated logic, like using low stage when only one zone is calling for heat and high stage when both are."

Your new furnace is just plain too big

To Dana Dorsett, the problem is more fundamental: The furnace is way too big for Melichar's house.

A typical house of that size framed with 2x4s, and one with clear glass double-pane windows or storm windows installed over single-pane windows, should show a heating load of 22,000 to 28,000 Btu/hour with an outdoor temperature of 0°F and the thermostat set at 68°F, Dorsett says. In a house with 2x6 framed walls insulated to R-20, the heating load would likely drop to between 19,000 and 24,000 Btu/hour, he adds.

"So, is a 60,000 Btu/hr two-stage the optimal furnace for your house?" he asks. "I seriously doubt it."

"Odds are pretty good that even at it's lowest firing rate the output is probably more than 3x oversized for your actual 99% heat load," Dorsett continues. "A reasonably tight and insulated 2x4 house at 30°F would have a heat load of maybe 15,000 Btu/hr, 20,000 Btu/hr if it's all single-panes with no storms — and even an uninsulated brick house would typically come in well under 40,000 But/hr."

If Melichar has access to records for fuel use, he can check the heating load at the actual outside design temperatureReasonably expected minimum (or maximum) temperature for a particular area; used to size heating and cooling equipment. Often, design temperatures are further defined as the X% temperature, meaning that it is the temperature that is exceeded X% of the time (for example, the 1% design temperature is that temperature that is exceeded, on average, 1% of the time, or 87.6 hours of the year). (as established by ACCA's Manual J Residential Load Calculation) based on heating degree-dayMeasure of how cold or warm a location is over a period of time relative to a base temperature, typically 65°F (although other base temperatures, such as 75°F, can be used for cooling). To calculate the number of heating degree-days (HDD) of a given day, average the maximum and minimum outdoor temperatures and subtract that from 65°F. The annual number of heating degree-days is a measure of the severity of the climate and is used to determine expected fuel use for heating. Cooling degree-days (CDD), which measure air conditioning requirements, are calculated by subtracting the average outdoor temperature from an indoor base temperature. data.

In an exchange with Alan B, Dorsett's defends the process by which he estimates Melichar's heating loads, adding the new Goodman furnace could be as much as 10 times too big for the 500-square-foot zone, and as much as six times too big for the 1,000-square-foot part of the house, even when it's burning on low.

Even in cases where heat-load calculations have been performed, a variety of factors can throw them off, Dorsett says, including assumptions about R-values, air infiltration, and the effects of plug loads.

"Seems there is not sufficient enforcement of California Title 24, which [if I remember correctly] requires Manual J heating and cooling load calculations even on replacement equipment, and may even require duct leakage testing and remediation (though that might only be for new construction)," Dorsett says.

Another heating option

If Melichar were to start over, Dorsett thinks a better approach, given the heating loads, would be to produce hot water with a condensing tank-style water heater and distribute the heat via a one-ton hydronic coil air handler, such as the Firstco 4CW.

The Firstco is capable of delivering 13,700 Btu/hour with 120°F water and a pumping rate of 2 gallons per minute, and 19,200 Btu/hour with 140°F water.

"That would deliver long comfortable low-cfm flow cycles," Dorsett says. "The max flow on the Firstco 4CW is 400 cfm, which is lower than the lowest heating cfm setting on the Goodman GMVC960603BN (600 cfm, set to minus 10%.)

"If air conditioning is a 'must have,'" he adds, "doing the heating and cooling with minisplits might make more sense. But cooling loads are low enough on that side of the bay that most houses that size do just fine with a half-ton window-shaker for cooling."

Our expert's opinion

GBA technical director Peter Yost added these thoughts:

I am going to build on Dana Dorsett’s comments on choosing another heating option. I think the series of images below from the free download software Climate Consultant is worth 1,000 words on what I feel is the completely misguided type of space conditioning system that was elected for this project. (For more information on Climate Consultant, see "How to Use Climate Consultant 4.")

To follow along, simply download Climate Consultant 6, enter the California zip code for John Melichar (94132) and use the drop-down list of charts. And note that the Climate Consultant starting page summary states, “Climate Consultant seeks to translate outdoor conditions into indoor comfort…”

California Climate Zone 3 has about six months of low-grade space heating and then six months with just about zero active space conditioning need. As Dana explains and Climate Consultant 6 reinforces, it's hard for forced-air systems to be as effective as an integrated package of other design and mechanical strategies.

I think the oversizing and misapplication of the type of system means John should go after the HVAC(Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). Collectively, the mechanical systems that heat, ventilate, and cool a building. contractor for such gross errors and then move, if he can, to a hydronic system (or hydro-air system) that allows him easily and effectively to combine his space heating and domestic hot water loads.

Tags: , , ,

Image Credits:

  1. John Melichar
  2. Climate Consultant

Jan 16, 2017 2:37 PM ET

Combustion Air
by Chris Harris

Am I seeing the image correctly that the combustion air is being pulled from the interior of the mechanical room? Is that legal? Seems like that could impact comfort in the house unless it is somehow balanced elsewhere?

Jan 16, 2017 4:03 PM ET

Neither a comfort or legal problem @ Chris Harris
by Dana Dorsett

Unless explicitly barred in the manufacturer's installation instructions it's legal to draw combustion air from the mechanical room so long as there is the code specified minimum makeup air path for the size of the burner. Codes vary on the makeup air opening requirement- not sure what it is in CA. A typical makeup air requirement for an atmospheric drafted burner is 1 square inch per 1000 BTU of make-up air opening into the mechanical room from the conditioned space is sufficient even for supplying the draft-hood dilution air of an atmospheric drafted burner. But stack dilution air isn't even used for condensing burners. It only needs enough for the combustion air.

Then, a 60K burner doesn't draw enough combustion air to affect indoor comfort:

Even a low-efficiency gas-burner draws no more than one cubic foot of combustion air for every 1000 BTU of source fuel, and condensing burners about 10% less. So 60,000 BTU/hr condensing burner draws about (60,.000/1000= ) 60 cubic feet per hour, or (60minutes/60 cfh = ) ONE cubic foot per minute. That's only ~1% of the air of a decent bathroom fan, and "in the statistical noise" of the amount of air leaking into & out of a typical home. A 2 mph change in wind speed would make a bigger difference in the amount of infiltration air.

Jan 16, 2017 6:23 PM ET

Edited Jan 16, 2017 6:35 PM ET.

@ Dana
by Alan B

I used to have a 75K in/60K out indoor air sourced furnace, replaced with a dual pipe unit and i noticed the indoor humidity went up 10-20% the winter after replacement. So its enough to make a difference, and one can probably consider it an exhaust only ventilation system.
I am much happier with the dual pipe and i hope my water tank replacement can also be dual piped (then comes the dryer).
Though i will then need an HRV once i do some air sealing :)

Jan 16, 2017 9:57 PM ET

Edited Jan 16, 2017 11:03 PM ET.

Climate Consultant
by Charlie Sullivan

Thanks for prompting me to try Climate Consultant. What a great free tool! It seems like a good way to answer questions like whether a whole-house fan is useful in a particular climate, for example.

Jan 17, 2017 3:04 PM ET

It's the dilution air, not the combustion air @ Alan B
by Dana Dorsett

75K-in / 60K-out= 80% efficiency, and whether it was atmospheric drafted or forced draft, the largest fraction of the air needed to operate it without flue condensation is the dilution air going up the draft hood.

The dilution air draft runs 24/365, not just when the burner is operating. The flue damper (if the old unit even had one) that opens only during burns is on the appliance side, before the dilution hood. Even if the furnace or boiler is right-sized for the load, the daily volume of passive dilution air flow is quite large.

With condensing appliances there is NO dilution of the combustion exhaust, and the exhaust venting materials are selected to be condensate tolerant, and flue condensate management details are built into the equipment & venting design.

If your water heater isn't a forced draft type (with plastic venting), and it vented into a masonry chimney that used to be shared with the old furnace, there is high risk of even the diluted exhaust condensing/adsorbing into the masonry, along with higher risk of backdrafting. Natural gas exhaust condensate is mildly acidic- it degrades mortar and destroys the chimney from the inside out. Look up "orphaned water heater".

Jan 17, 2017 3:33 PM ET

@ Dana
by Alan B

That is very interesting about the dilution air. It was forced draft with no damper i am aware of. The orphan water tank is going to a non masonry chimney, its actually a metal chimney that runs up the center of the house. I am planning on replacing it with a power vent water tank so the chimney will be capped, and there is not much in the way of water dripping out of the chimney, i have removed the bottom cap a few times and its dry, even after rain.

Jan 18, 2017 4:00 PM ET

Code Requirements for Furnace Replacement
by Bill Burke

California's Title 24, Part 6 Building Energy Standards require an ACCA Manual J, S and D for a furnace replacement. This leads me to ask whether this project was permitted. Was it? If not, this points out a benefit of getting a permit. It it was permitted, and the contractor can't show that they did these calculations, it would strengthen the homeowner's case that the contractor did not do the minimum requirements called for in this job.

Jan 18, 2017 4:13 PM ET

Dilution air on hot air furnaces @ Alan B
by Dana Dorsett

Hot air furnaces need an induced draft to overcome the impedance of the heat exchanger, but the dilution air is introduced post- heat exchanger in a draft hood (typically on one side of the box, sometimes two and is not dampered-off in many/most older 80% AFUE models. Retrofit automatic flue dampers were sometimes added post-draft hood with interlocks to inhibit ignition until the open flue was "proved" by an electromechanical switch, but it's unlikely that yours had one of those, given the over-drying symptom.

The exhaust condensate will eat holes through B-vent over time. It won't show up as liquid water when you break it open for inspection at some random time- it DOES dry, due to the 24/365 parasitic drafting through the draft hood of the water heater. If it's a stainless liner it will tolerate it, but dual or single walled galvanized won't.

Jan 18, 2017 4:32 PM ET

CA Title 24 @ Bill Burke
by Dana Dorsett

It always amazes me, but that part of the code seems to be regularly overlooked in older homes, even though that's where it is most likely to do some good! Newer up-to-code houses are much tighter, but new construction seems to be where inspectors focus on the HVAC details.

Jan 21, 2017 1:17 AM ET

Edited Jan 21, 2017 1:20 AM ET.

CA Title 24
by Luke Morton

@ Bill Burke, @ Dana
The requirement for Manual J, (or ASHRAE HoF) calcs has been on the books for years. As someone who works on the Peninsula, I've experienced this bit of code (Section 150.0 (h) of Title 24 part 6) quite a bit since I advocate for it in my own work. My personal experience is: plancheckers and inspectors don't know about this section of code, nor have they received training as to how to review such calculations, and the vast majority of HVAC subcontractors have never heard of them either.

On the good side-- Bill and his colleagues are actively addressing this with ongoing education at the PG&E Energy Centers in SF and Stockton. (keep up the good work!)

Jan 21, 2017 12:49 PM ET

@ Dana
by Alan B

Thats very good to know and i will keep it in mind, i am already planning on replacing it, hopefully this year, and i'm not sure what kind of metal it is or how to find out. Its at least 30 years old that about all i know.

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