Do you know when the U.S. last raised furnace efficiency standards? It was 1987. Do you know how long the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has been trying to change that? At least since 2007.
The past eight years have been a sad case of industry heavyweights preventing progress on this important issue. The DOE, however, just proposed a new rule, so we might finally see some action here. Do you know when it’s set to go into effect, if passed?
A bit of furnace efficiency history
In 1987, the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act set a minimum of 78% Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE). That’s when furnaces with standing pilot lights went away.
In 2007, the DOE proposed raising the minimum from 78 to 80 AFUE. What?! Yes, it’s true. They really did that, even though the rule would have had pretty much zero effect on saving energy.
Why? Because even though 78 AFUE was the minimum allowed, nearly every furnace being made is 80 AFUE or higher. I think I’ve seen only one new furnace that had an AFUE lower than 80.
So the battle began. The state of California and a coalition of environmental and energy efficiency groups sued the DOE. That led to a set of regional standards, whereby Northern states (those with more than 5,000 heating degree days) would have had to go to 90 AFUE and the warmer South and Southwest would get to stick with 80 AFUE.
And that’s when the American Public Gas Association (APGA) blew up. According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), the APGA “argued that consumers would flock to electric resistance furnaces rather than install high-efficiency gas furnaces.” (See their article, Why DOE’s Cave on Furnace Standards Is Such a Big Deal.)
There’s no way they really thought that would happen, of course. Heat pumps maybe, but electric resistance furnaces? No way. They’re not allowed for primary heating even here in Georgia, a warm state (IECC climate zones 2, 3, and 4). The truth is that the gas industry really should be afraid of heat pumps, not electric resistance heat.
So the effort to enact regional standards fell apart.
The latest move by the DOE
On February 10, 2015, the DOE announced a proposal to adopt a 92 AFUE standard nationwide. That’s nice. It should be higher and it should have been done a long time ago, but if enacted, it would effectively kill atmospheric combustion furnaces.
There will be opposition. According to The ACHR News, Stephen Yurek, president and CEO of the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), said, “Now, even though natural gas and oil prices are lower than they were [three years ago when the DOE issued regional standards] — in the case of oil, much lower — the DOE now feels a 92 percent nationwide standard is appropriate. How can that be? What’s changed?”
And the Air Conditioning Contractors of America seems to be getting itself ready for opposition. “It’s very aggressive,” said senior vice president Charlie McCrudden in the same ACHR News article. “This would harm a lot of people, including those in lower income brackets.”
So, as homes are required to reach greater levels of airtightness, the furnace efficiency circus continues.
Oh, another thing: Do you know when the new requirement would go into effect, if approved? 2021. At the earliest.
Pros and cons
Changing the minimum efficiency of equipment available isn’t a big deal for new homes. Yeah, the cost is a little higher, but it’s existing homes that will feel the biggest blow if the DOE proposal gets approved.
DOE efficiency standards for equipment, however, cannot distinguish between new homes and existing homes. The DOE’s efficiency standards apply to equipment, not uses of equipment. So if the DOE approves this proposal, anyone changing out an atmospheric combustion furnace afterward will also have to change out the flue. That could add several hundred dollars to the cost. It may increase it even more, and in multifamily buildings, the difficulty level will be higher.
The obvious benefit of going to a higher efficiency furnace is the energy savings. Going from 80 AFUE to 92 or, better, 95 AFUE will reduce the amount of natural gas or propane being used and save money for the homeowners. Unfortunately, the price of gas is really low in a lot of places now, so return on investment may not be favorable.
The biggest reason to make the change, in my opinion, isn’t energy savings though. It’s indoor air quality. Condensing, sealed combustion furnaces that bring in their own combustion air won’t backdraft a natural draft water heater (which is still allowed in homes). It won’t depressurize a home and suck in bad air from the garage or moldy crawl space. And it won’t ever spill exhaust gases into a home when common-vented with a natural draft water heater because it cannot be common-vented.
It’s past time to make this change. Let’s go, DOE. Make it happen.
Allison Bailes of Decatur, Georgia, is a speaker, writer, energy consultant, RESNET-certified trainer, and the author of the Energy Vanguard Blog. Check out his in-depth course, Mastering Building Science at Heatspring Learning Institute, and follow him on Twitter at @EnergyVanguard.