In Washington this past week, both Republicans and Democrats spoke out against a Department of Energy (DOE) proposal which would make new natural gas furnaces more expensive than ever before for homeowners. The DOE wants raise the minimum residential furnace efficiency standard from 80 AFUE in the south and 90 AFUE in the north to a minimum standard of 92 AFUE nationwide. AFUE stands for Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency. The number represents the percentage of the fuel the equipment uses which is converted to actual heat. For example, an 80 AFUE furnace converts eighty-percent of the fuel it uses to heat; the other twenty-percent of the fuel utilized is lost.
The DOE would like us to believe that a minimum efficiency standard of 92 AFUE would make it more affordable for homeowners to heat their homes. However, the actual savings is tied to the climate in which the home is located, how well or how poorly the house is insulated, and the frequency and the temperature setting of the furnace. In the south the savings many homeowners would see in their gas bills over the lifetime of the furnace would not make up for the extra cost of having to purchase an 92 AFUE Furnace as opposed to an 80 AFUE model. Even up north, a full ten-percent of homes would not experience a positive payback given the cost of a 92 AFUE furnace. Those northerners who would experience a net economic benefit from a higher efficiency furnace already have the option of purchasing one. The question is whether all homeowners should be forced, when the time comes to replace their furnaces, to purchase one which is not cost effective for their climate and their needs. As Consumer Reports notes in its article on furnace efficiency, “Given that most furnaces with an AFUE over 90 percent are quite expensive, they’re likely to be economic only in regions where winters are especially harsh—including most of the Northeast and Midwest. ”
Should this regulation go through, it could actually mean higher utility bills for some homeowners, should the ticket price of a 92 AFUE gas furnace force them to switch to a heater which uses a more costly form of energy (such as an all-electric air handler). Still others, once their existing furnaces die, may find themselves going without central heat all together or turning to dangerous space heaters to get them through winter’s coldest nights.
U. S. Representative Mo Brooks (R-Alabama) is to be commended for leading the battle against the proposed furnace efficiency standards. Brooks wrote a letter to DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz asking him to reconsider the change and got one-hundred-and-twenty-one house members to sign it. Unfortunately the battle is far from over. Let’s hope that the Department of Energy will do the math and withdraw this proposal which would result in a higher net heating cost for many Americans living in the south and along the Pacific coast.