If you've heard an ad or read a flier warning about a federal mandate that could lead to a costly furnace replacement, no need to have a meltdown.
The rule that was to have taken effect in May requiring any newly installed furnace in Nebraska and Iowa to have an efficiency rating of at least 90 percent is on hold and appears headed for a re-do.
The turn-about, however, has some installers and suppliers concerned that they look a bit like shysters with recent education campaigns suggesting that consumers beat the mandate by replacing worn-out furnaces with a newer version of an 80 percent efficiency.
“We wanted to let people know so it wasn't a big surprise,” said Stan Gregory, vice president of A-1 United Heating, Air Conditioning and Electrical, which had spread the word with door-hangers. “Now it's making us look goofy, like we're trying to trick or scam.”
He and others said their aim, rather, was to enlighten people about changes that had been mostly a hot topic among trade associations and furnace experts, and to consider cost-saving alternatives while they were still available. While many companies now are adjusting their message, they note that new standards still are expected. And they believe more customers now are educated about the topic.
The rule in question called for any non-weatherized gas furnace installed after May 1 in 30 northern states, including Nebraska and Iowa, to have an efficiency rating of at least 90 percent — up from the current local minimum of 80 percent.
Opponents criticized the rule-making process of the U.S. Department of Energy, saying that potential problems weren't vetted and that some residents might turn to less safe alternatives rather than pay more to install a higher-efficiency machine.
While local furnace companies generally agreed that higher-efficiency heaters are better in the long run for the environment and save energy costs, they said obstacles arise when retrofitting certain older homes or multi-unit buildings that need venting and other structural modifications.
Scott Getzschman of Getzschman Heating and Air Conditioning said upgrade costs could be as much as $2,000 more.
In response to a lawsuit challenging the new standards announced in 2011, the Energy Department two weeks ago agreed to a settlement with the American Public Gas Association that calls for a rewriting of furnace-efficiency standards. The goal, said a spokeswoman with the Energy Department, is to come up with a revised rule within a year and a final ruling the following year. Public comment will be encouraged.
The court must still sign off on the settlement, but those involved say that is largely a formality.
Locally, some furnace companies are scurrying to modify marketing and education campaigns. Wholesalers and distributors who had stopped re-stocking lesser efficient furnaces also are adjusting.
John Aliano of Aksarben Heating and Air Conditioning said his company pulled its radio and television ads a few weeks ago when it heard the mandate might be denied, or at least rewritten.
Others are in wait mode.
For now, Getzschman said he is continuing a winter promotion that includes information about the May change.
Mark Evans of Burton A/C, Heating, Plumbing and More said his company didn't buy advertising, but had notified some landlords, as they might benefit by replacing an aging 80 percent efficiency system with a newer 80 percent version — while such units still were available.
Phil Knust, general manager of distributor Carrier Enterprise, said his company had been taking 80 percent furnaces out of inventory so as not to be stuck with obsolete equipment. Now it will re-adjust.
“It's mixed news,” Knust said. “As an industry, we'd rather step forward and be more green. But the way they were going about it was wrong.”
Furnace mandate Q&A
Jason Stanek of Metropolitan Utilities District answers some frequently asked questions about the now-delayed high-efficiency furnace mandate.
Q: What are the basics of the mandate — why was it was proposed, and what would be required of consumers?
A: Today's minimum efficiency level for furnaces, 80 percent, was established in 2007 by the Department of Energy. DOE was sued by several states and organizations who felt the minimum was too low, so DOE agreed to establish a new rule. That brings us to the new revised standard — which was to take effect in May. It established higher regional efficiency standards for natural gas furnaces. Anyone installing a gas furnace in northern states (30, including Nebraska and Iowa) would have had to install a high-efficient model (90 percent or higher). Consumers in southern states would still have the option of installing an 80 percent efficient model.
Q: What is the current status of the mandate?
A: The DOE, faced with a lawsuit last year challenging the higher furnace standard, agreed two weeks ago to withdraw and go through another rule-making process. The court must yet accept that withdrawal (outlined in a proposed settlement), but most believe that is a formality. That means another round of debate and a revised law in a year or so.
Q: Why all the hullabaloo and debate?
A: Many groups were of the opinion that the (higher efficiency) law was too restrictive. Homeowners could be faced with costly modifications to install new vent piping for the high-efficient furnaces. Equipment manufacturers and distributors were concerned that portions of enforcement may fall to them (tracking of equipment to make sure it is installed in the correct location). There also was concern that homeowners may have opted to repair older furnaces rather than face costly modifications for a new higher-efficient furnace (a safety issue).
Q: Some were hurrying to beat the May mandate. Why?
A: For a customer replacing an 80 percent furnace with another 80 percent furnace, there typically are no additional costs involved such as installing new vent piping — it's basically pull out the old and swap in the new. However, if you are replacing an 80 percent furnace with a high-efficiency furnace, new vent piping will need to be installed. This can be problematic for homeowners who may have a finished basement or where the furnace is located in the center of the basement. In these situations, they may be faced with cutting holes into the ceiling or drywall in order to run vent piping. In some extreme cases it may not even be possible.
Q: What are the differences, anyway, between the 80 percent and 90 percent-and-above machines?
A: There are no safety differences. The main differences are efficiency, performance and the venting system. High-efficiency furnaces often utilize a PVC venting system versus a minimum efficiency furnace's use of a traditional metal-venting system. Since high-efficiency furnaces are more efficient, they consume less natural gas to heat the home, but at a price premium. A typical cost to upgrade to a high-efficiency furnace is an additional $700 to $900, but can rise to about $2,000 more depending on the model and difficulty of installation.
Q: Who would monitor compliance of a new standard?
A: The DOE had not released a specific enforcement plan, but I anticipate that enforcement would have been a combination of various groups such as equipment distributors, HVAC installers and local code agencies.
Q: Does MUD have an opinion on which furnace is best for consumers?
A: MUD opposed the rule. Although MUD supports energy-efficient technologies and in the past provided consumers with rebates for installing higher-efficient equipment, the mandate would have been a burden on some consumers. Depending on the location of their existing furnace, costly modifications to their house to accommodate the installation of new vent piping may have been required.
Stanek is chairman of the American Gas Association's Building Energy Codes and Standards Committee, and a member of the Codes and Standards Committee of the American Public Gas Association, which challenged the higher-efficiency gas furnace standard.
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