The long winding road toward efficient furnaces

Posted on by
Andrew deLaski

The struggle toward improved gas furnace efficiency standards may have an end in sight. Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit approved a settlement between the Department of Energy (DOE) and an industry trade group. In the settlement, DOE agreed to pull back efficiency standards completed in 2011 and develop new standards in their place within two years. This new rulemaking represents another opportunity to set strong furnace standards which will save energy and cut consumers’ heating bills.

Since DOE based the 2011 standards on a recommendation jointly filed by efficiency advocates and furnace manufacturers, we are disappointed at the delay in efficiency improvements. But, with litigation threatening to tie up not only the new furnace standards, but also new standards for heat pumps and air conditioners, DOE’s decision to redo the furnace standards now makes sense. Previously announced central air conditioner and heat pump standards will take effect next January, as planned.

Improved furnace standards are more important than ever

Heating is the single largest household energy expense in the U.S. (About 40% of non-transportation energy costs.) Since heat is a necessity, high prices fall hardest on poor and fixed income households, who far too often must choose between paying the heat bill or buying food, medicine or other essentials. Without standards, consumers, especially renters and those with low incomes, often get stuck with the lowest-efficiency equipment.

The updated standards that DOE will soon begin work on will assure that all buyers of new furnaces get products that are truly energy efficient.  High efficiency, condensing-gas furnaces cut gas usage by 11-16% compared to a new conventional furnace, which can yield substantial heating bill savings for consumers. The annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) of condensing gas furnaces is 90% or more compared to 80% AFUE or less for noncondensing furnaces. (For a visual, see the 2nd graph in ‘Today in Energy’)

A long time coming

The road to new furnaces standards has been tortuous. This article from the Kansas City Star published last December tells the story well.  The just-approved settlement resulted from litigation brought by the American Pubic Gas Association (APGA), which represents municipally owned gas utilities, like Philadelphia Gas Works and others.  APGA objected to DOE’s use of a new process intended to expedite adoption of broadly supported standards, claiming that DOE did not adequately address their concerns.  With technological improvements bringing down the cost of efficient furnaces, gas prices creeping back up, and contractors more familiar with high efficiency products, we expect that as DOE gets to work on developing a new standard, the agency will find that strong new gas furnaces standards make even more sense now than they did in 2011.

AC and heat pump standards are on track

The 2011 DOE rule which would have increased gas furnace standards also improved heat pump standards and increased central air conditioner standards by 8% for equipment installed in the southern half of the United States. Equipment sold in California and the southwest states will also have to meet minimum performance criteria under the hot, dry conditions that prevail in much of that region. The settlement allows these standards to take effect on schedule January 1, 2015. It also allows sellers to install units manufactured before January 2015 for up to an additional 18 months, allowing them to clear existing inventory.  Because the new central AC standards are the first-ever standards that vary by region, DOE needs to develop an implementation and enforcement approach.  DOE plans to convene a committee of stakeholders to attempt to negotiate the implementation and enforcement rule.

According to DOE, the new heat pump and AC standards will save will save about 150 billion kilowatt hours of electricity over 30 years, or about enough to meet the total electricity needs of 13 million households for one year, while delivering net savings of more than $4.2 billion to U.S. consumers.

We will be actively participating in DOE’s processes for both the new furnace standards and regional AC standards enforcement.