Choosing a Furnace Arlington WA
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Choosing a Furnace
Whether replacing an old furnace in an existing home or installing one in a newbuild, homeowners have many moneysaving options. In addition to focusing on the heating system itself, homeowners also need to decide which type of fuel or energy source makes the most monetary and environmental sense, whether its oil, natural gas, propane gas, electric, or even wood or coal. Making the right decision involves a little work with a calculator and conversations with local fuel distributors and technicians.
With the fuel chosen, the next decision involves getting the right furnace - a choice that also involves some investigation into local furnace maintenance options. With the right heating contractor and a little advance work, though, a new furnace can reduce energy costs and heat a home far more efficiently than an older system. Done right, it will pay for itself in about 10 years, or sooner if energy prices continue to soar.
Before making a significant investment ($10,000 and up) in a new furnace installation, make sure your home is insulated properly. Ensuring your home is airtight and well insulated is a much less expensive, more effective and more environmentally friendly way to combat rising heating bills. To view recommendations for wall and ceiling insulation, as well as window replacements - all tailored to homes in your zip code - visit the website of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (see Resources sidebar for more information).
Once you've done everything possible to insulate your home properly, it's time to consider heating fuel options. In truth, part of that decision has already been made for you, depending on where you live. For instance, natural gas is available only in areas to which it can be piped directly, usually only large cities and suburbs. If you want to use gas in an area lacking natural gas pipelines, bottled propane gas is the only other solution - although propane is not at all the same as heating with natural gas, either financially or environmentally. More on that later.
Geography also has a significant impact on the pricing of fuels. Generally speaking, the farther your home is from an oil refinery or depot, the more expensive heating fuels will be for you. Also, your distance from major ports to which refined fuel oil or propane is shipped and stored will affect pricing. For instance, fuel oil in northeastern New Jersey is far cheaper than in, say, upper New York state.
Finally, local heating traditions and resources will contribute to the fuel possibilities. Coal in Kentucky will be cheaper and more readily acceptable as a heating fuel than in southwestern Connecticut. Burning oak, birch and maple cordwood in New Hampshire makes more sense than trying to do the same in Kansas.
After geographical considerations, it's time to work with a calculator. Even for the most math-phobic homeowner, figuring out which heating fuel makes the most financial sense is pretty easy. In fact, the federal government's Energy Information Administration (EIA) has created an online calculator that does the work for you - after you've gathered local pricing for the fuels available to you. The calculator (see sidebar) breaks down each fuel's cost by British Thermal Units (BTUs), which is a way of measuring how much heat you get from a given fuel. The cost per BTU is then converted into dollars and cents, using a constant price per million BTU.
There's more. Calculating the cost of heating a home involves a bit more than just determining the relative costs of heating fuels. Although you can easily calculate the cost per million BTU with the EIA calculator, you must also determine how much of the available BTU in, say, a gallon of propane is actually converted into heat. This depends largely on the efficiency of your furnace. This is where calculations can get a little tricky.
All furnaces, including the one you now own, have an annual fuel utilization efficiency, or AFUE, rating. This is simply a percentage of how much of the fuel's available BTU the furnace actually burns. If an oil furnace has an AFUE rating of 85 percent, it's burning 85 percent of the BTUs available in the average gallon of No. 2 heating oil. That works out to 117,866 BTUs of 138,690 BTUs available in each gallon.
In general, older furnaces (20 years or more) have lower AFUE ratings than modern furnaces. Except for electric furnaces, a rating of 60 to 75 is not uncommon in older furnaces. (Electric furnaces have an AFUE rating of 99.5 because virtually all of the BTUs in the electricity delivered are converted to heat.)
Modern combustion furnaces have AFUE ratings from the federally mandated low of 78 to as high as 97. Generally, the price of a furnace gets steeper as the AFUE rating gets higher. Thus, most combustion furnaces sold today have an AFUE rating in the upper 80s. Whatever the furnace does not burn goes up the chimney as gases and particulates, which are considered pollution.
Of course, AFUE ratings assume the furnace is properly tuned up and professionally maintained. Any furnace you buy must have an annual checkup by a licensed furnace technician to maintain its efficiency. Thus, it becomes important to shop for a good furnace technician while at the same time shopping for a good furnace.
Good furnace installers will take the time to help homeowners make the right decisions on which furnace to buy, offering up to a half dozen options in both price and AFUE ratings for a new furnace. If a contractor makes you feel rushed or limited in your options, you might want to talk with a competing installer. The local Better Business Bureau can help you find a reputable HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) contractor. Also, try the furnace installer locator tool on the website for Air Conditioning Contractors of America (see sidebar).
How do you determine if it's time to replace your old furnace? Generally, gas furnaces that still use a pilot light are pretty inefficient and good candidates for replacement. Oil furnaces that are really converted coal furnaces also tend to be losers in the efficiency race. Beyond that, an independent energy auditor can help you assess the situation.
Found in the telephone directory under "Energy," through your state's energy office or sometimes through the local power company, an energy auditor has test instruments that quantify your furnace's current efficiency, tell you how you can improve it and what savings can be realized if it's replaced. For more on possible savings, visit the website of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
Focusing on Fuel
Depending on how you define "pollution," all mainstream home heating solutions pollute to some degree. Even electricity pollutes, although the pollution doesn't come out of your home's chimney. Instead, it comes out of a chimney at the power generation plant - unless it's a nuclear plant, which dumps only steam into the atmosphere but leaves behind troubling radioactive debris that many consider a form of pollution.
Natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel. Except for some carbon dioxide and water residue, natural gas burned in a high-efficiency furnace emits very little pollution into the atmosphere.
Propane gas, which unlike natural gas is produced from crude oil, is perhaps a second-best choice for a low-polluting furnace fuel. Also known as LP (liquefied petroleum) gas, propane emits some nearly negligible amounts of poisonous carbon monoxide and some soot-like particulates, as well as carbon dioxide and water residue.
Heating fuel oil and kerosene both add sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide to the list of pollutants that the previously mentioned gas fuels emit into the atmosphere. Oil and kerosene also emit significantly more particulates. Both sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide contribute to ozone depletion and acid rain, in addition to contributing to lung irritation, blood pressure anomalies and other medical problems.
Wood and coal add further chemical compounds, as well as even more particulates and soot to the atmosphere, in addition to adding a heavy coat of carcinogenic residues to your chimney's inner lining - residues that must be periodically removed by a professional chimney sweep.
Other considerations include the convenience of the fuel's delivery and storage. For instance, natural gas is piped underground to you, but its price and delivery are controlled to a large extent by local public utilities commissions. So, like dealing with the local electric company, shopping for the best price is difficult to impossible, depending on your location.
By contrast, local propane dealers compete on fuel pricing but usually you have to invest in large, onsite storage tanks, often with the aboveground version your only option. That can give your home's exterior a somewhat industrial look.
Oil and kerosene tanks, on the other hand, can be hidden away in a basement or outbuilding. Dealing with cordwood takes up a lot of space and time, and coal is a dusty mess when delivered in bulk.
In the final analysis, deciding among today's furnace options can be time-consuming. But it's time well spent, particularly if you replace an older, fuel-guzzling furnace with a more modern, environmentally friendly heat source.
Ken Textor contributes frequently to Smart HomeOwner. He's based in Arrowsic, Maine.