Furnace efficiency rules suspended, but seen as inevitable by installers

Nate Cannell, left, and Tim Schroeder load the coil portion of an HVAC unit into a truck as they prepare for installation by Elam Heating & Air Conditioning in Quincy. Local furnace dealers said a court recently suspended a rule that would have required a
Posted: Jan. 30, 2013 8:25 am Updated: Feb. 20, 2013 10:43 am

Herald-Whig Senior Writer

High-efficiency furnaces are the top choice among local people buying new heating units, but thanks to a federal rule reversal, less-efficient furnaces will remain available for now.

The U.S. Department of Energy had issued a rule in 2011 that all furnaces installed after May 1, 2013, would have to attain a 90 percent efficiency rating or higher. The rule would have taken effect in 30 Northern states, including Illinois and Missouri. That rule was set aside Jan. 11, when the U.S. Appeals Court in the District of Columbia was preparing to hear arguments from the DOE and a utilities group.

Jamie Terstegge of Air Specialists Heating & Air Conditioning can see both sides of the debate.

"Overall, I think it's inevitable" that higher-efficiency furnaces will eventually be required by law, Terstegge said. He also believes there should be some exemptions in the near term for people whose homes are not suited for the newer furnaces.

On the positive side, fuel efficiency goes up a great deal with the high-efficiency units. That cuts the costs for consumers, cuts air pollution and reduces the nation's energy consumption. Problems arise when high-efficiency furnaces are placed in older homes where chimneys have to be eliminated, a vent needs to be run out a side wall and water that condenses out of the furnace needs to be drained.

"In some of the older homes, they've got furnaces in the attic. Attics are horrible for high-efficiency ... unless you've got a way to drain the water that condenses out of the fuel that's burning and keep it from freezing," Terstegge said.

Even in basements, there can be limitations on where high-efficiency units can be installed. They have to be located at least three feet from any window and they need a floor drain or other option to handle condensation.

Shawn Cooley, co-owner of Elam Heating & Air Conditioning, Inc., said it can cost people "a couple thousand dollars" to cut through concrete walls for side venting and to eliminate the flue pipes.

Cooley said there's not much difference in the cost of high- or low-efficiency units. Terstegge said it could cost $500 to $700 more for the better efficiency units, but there are federal tax credits for the high efficiency units and utilities such as Ameren offer incentives as well.

Even if those incentive programs expire, the savings are substantial.

"If you've got an older furnace that's maybe 60 percent efficient, you've got 40 percent of your energy going up that flue," Cooley said.

Switching to a furnace that is 98 percent efficient makes a big difference in heating costs.

Word of the Department of Energy order had gotten around to some local customers. Quincy installers said some people who own rental units had planned to buy several 80 percent efficiency furnaces for installation before the deadline. Those property owners said it would cost them too much to take out chimneys and install side wall venting for the high-efficiency models.