During last winter’s heating season, this publication looked ahead to July, when new Fan Efficiency Rating (FER) requirements would go into effect. Industry sources expected FER to represent a substantial nudge toward ECM motors — including their attractive efficiencies and larger price tag — for furnace manufacturers.
A few months on the other side of summer and its FER implementation, how do things look? A check-in with aftermarket motor veterans and a furnace OEM show that while much of the transition has gone largely to plan, room for some misunderstanding or misinterpretation has remained.
THIS WAS NOT A DRILL
Part of the difficulty manufacturers face when it comes to federal regulations is that not only can they change, but those changes can be reversed with a shift in political winds, or simply stopped in their tracks with no guarantee if they will (or won’t) resume a path to implementation in the future.
Valerie Mastalka, senior product marketing manager, heating, Lennox, said that uncertainty is the reason why some “OEMs find themselves behind” in adjusting to an environment that includes FER, despite the DOE announcing the proposal back in 2014.
Lennox, she commented, began its committed planning for FER a couple of years ago, including a plan for working closely with customers during the transition, and that feedback has been positive.
Nidec Corp.’s HVACR market manager, Alex Wiegmann, presented on the then-upcoming change at this year’s AHR Expo. FER represented difficult writing on the wall for some offerings. Builder-grade units with PSC motors were unlikely to achieve the required efficiency without shifting to ECM motors, he told the audience.
Existing models with the toughest challenges typically fell into one of three categories:
- Units whose heating maximum airflow is equal or greater than the cooling airflow;
- Units whose capacity is the highest that can be accommodated in a given cabinet size; and
- Units where the capacity is relatively low, with Wiegmann mentioning that larger units are easier.
From the company’s aftermarket perspective, Nidec officials report that customers have been very supportive of the ECM motors Nidec has offered through this transitional period.
The manufacturer has “gone to great length to create informative, pithy installation videos in an effort to assist the contractor during install,” the company said. The videos are part of a multi-pronged effort to raise awareness among customers and partners of both the transition and the company’s latest ECM products.
Despite that effort, sometimes the problem isn’t that a customer hasn’t heard of the regulation, but that they think it goes further than it actually does. In this case, according to Nidec, customers don’t always realize that PSC motors can still be built and purchased for replacement purposes.
The primary point of confusion for others, the company said, is the erroneous belief that PSC motors are dead and that the new regulations apply to more than just furnaces.
On the OEM side of things, Mastalka said that “there is still some confusion around enforcement and positioning of the new furnace baseline. We counsel our dealers that the regulation is in full effect,” following up with information on the manufacturer’s compliant products.
Mastalka said the company makes a complementary effort to work with dealers on how to educate homeowners about the change and on “the short- and long-term benefits of an ECM.”
Fan Energy Ratings (FER) Chart
FURNACE BLOWER MOTORS DO THE LIMBO: Residential furnace manufacturers now must incorporate fans with energy ratings (FER) that slip below the thresholds in this table. Furnace fans incorporated into hydronic air handlers, small-duct high-velocity modular blowers, SDHV electric furnaces, and central a/c and heat pump indoor units are not subject to these requirements. (Info courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.)
THIS YEAR’S MODEL (AND LAST YEAR’S, TOO)
One distributor, Ferguson HVAC / EastWest Air, has set up a FER FAQ page with a Ruud logo on its website to, among other things, emphasize one more detail about this transition.
While manufacturers may not build any more non-FER units as of July 3 of this year, non-FER units may still be installed after that date. So while that deadline was momentous in its way, the rule does allow distributors and contractors to work through their existing noncompliant stock.
The result: Contractors have a period where the menu of options may be larger than usual, along with a last brief window where a FER-compliant unit is technically still an upsell, depending on inventory. For the most part, expect the emphasis in conversations with customers to shift to the more efficient options.
“Any time there is a change in industry regulation, it is a great opportunity to review and assess your entire portfolio,” Mastalka said. She confirmed that Lennox, for example, enhanced some products to step up to FER standards while also introducing some entirely new additions.
Nidec market manager Rich Bardgett noted that some of Nidec’s customers also simply “retired products where it didn’t make sense to upgrade,” adding that others also took the opportunity to launch
CRYSTAL BALL: CLOUDY
When it comes to pricing and pacing of changeover, no source wanted to speculate on how FER requirement might affect the pace of new furnace purchases as a whole. As Nidec pointed out, the variables that go into a replace-or-repair decision are particular enough to each home and homeowner to make that kind of estimation difficult.
Lennox also seemed to expect no big change in terms of pricing for FER-compliant products.
“A FER compliant constant-torque motor is no different from a constant-torque motor prior to the regulation,” reminded Mastalka. “The difference comes when you compare the old baseline furnace to the new minimum standard.”
One area where companies are willing to hazard a guess: the future of furnace efficiency.
“On the gas efficiency side, we are already near 100 percent efficiency,” Mastalka noted. “So the next phase of improvements may come from the electrical efficiency or cleaner emission.”
Bardgett spied another scenario, making an important distinction about not what is most likely to happen, but what would make the most sense. Time will tell whether that distinction means his comment remains more of an entire industry’s wishful thinking than accurate prognostication.
“Given the number of different regulations that govern furnace operation, the most logical step is to try and harmonize the different regulations into one umbrella regulation,” he said.
See more articles from this issue here!