Welcome to 75 “Hot” Years

As part of The News’ 75th anniversary celebration, we bring you the evolution of comfort heating. Since The News printed its first weekly report — and that was on September 11, 1926 — there have been changes to this weekly trade publication, initially called Electric Refrigeration News. However, just like the heating industry, it still thrives — and we’re proud of that!

Naturally, The News was unable to include everything in this issue. Instead, we tried to touch upon, at the very least, heating milestones from each decade, from mankind’s earliest efforts to today’s high-efficiency systems. Thanks to some generous manufacturers, contractors, readers, and well-wishers (too numerous to mention), we have also incorporated interesting photos, advertisements, anecdotes, and memorabilia throughout this special issue.

Enjoy! — Mark Skaer, Editor-in-Chief

It’s been years since we’ve had to gather our families around a campfire or stove in order to stay warm. But in terms of the whole human experience, it hasn’t been that long. In fact, it’s only been a little over 100 years that true furnaces (as opposed to wood-burning fireplaces or stoves) have been keeping building occupants warm.

The heating equipment of today bears little or no resemblance to the cast iron behemoths of the past. Those old furnaces would warp and crack after extended use, causing smoke and coal gases to seep into the occupied space. Just imagine the indoor air quality problems occupants had to deal with then!

Today’s heating equipment is sleek, stylish, long-lived, and safe, providing occupants with unsurpassed comfort. Manufacturers have worked hard to make units easier for contractors to install and homeowners to operate.

Given how far and how fast equipment has come in the last 100 years, what could possibly be left to improve? We asked a few manufacturers to see what they have up their sleeves.

Environmental Issues

The environment is at or near the top of most manufacturers’ lists, as far as future improvements of heating equipment are concerned. The main reason is that it is no longer acceptable to have large amounts of emissions belching forth from a heating unit.

Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are the particular emissions that manufacturers are curbing. NOx is formed during combustion by a chemical reaction between the oxygen (O2) and nitrogen (N2) compounds contained in the fuel. California has led the way in regulating the amount of NOx that a furnace can release to the atmosphere.

“We are also beginning to see regulations in Ontario, Canada, as well as California. This is forcing us to develop products that meet the low NOx requirements of these regions,” says Bob Schjerven, ceo, Lennox International.

Dennis Kloster, vice president of marketing and sales, residential and light commercial, Nordyne, says he believes that future heating equipment will come standard with low NOx emissions.

Many manufacturers predict that federal regulations will focus heavily on the environment, mandating higher heating efficiencies and requiring lower NOx levels in the next 25 years.

Higher Efficiencies

The Department of Energy periodically reviews the national minimum efficiency requirements of appliances, and a new rulemaking process is currently underway for furnaces and boilers. At the present time, the current furnace minimum efficiency level is set at 78% annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE).

“Significant increases in the cost of natural gas would be required before this minimum efficiency could be raised and justified economically,” says Lloyd Copenhaver, general manager, residential heating products, International Com-fort Products (ICP).

With AFUE ratings already well above 90%, increases in efficiency become a consumer buying decision more than anything else, adds Mike Eberlein, product manager, residential heating products, ICP. “Products with efficiencies above 92% are currently available from all manufacturers. It is unlikely that efficiencies will increase much past the mid-90% level, for cost reasons. Manuf-acturers can supply efficient products when homeowners are willing to pay the extra cost. Right now, the energy cost savings does not justify the cost of further improvements in efficiency.”

Jim Crawford, director of goverment affairs for The Trane Com-pany, believes that furnaces will not change much in the next 25 years, due to the fact that the efficiency of the products is very near the absolute limit attainable. “When one is very near 100% efficiency, there is no further fundamental change to be made. Changes to internal parts may evolve as new gas valves are introduced, for example, but these changes will be largely unnoticed by the consumer.”

Lennox’s Schjerven notes that there is pressure to increase the energy efficiency of heating equipment both in terms of thermal as well as electrical efficiency, but that “It is important that we balance efficiency with consumer payback.”

Jeff Alexander, vice president-marketing, Peerless Heater Com-pany, notes that manufacturers will still try to come up with new ways to increase efficiencies. Although he states that efficiencies can’t increase that much, because they’re already in the 90%-plus range, and “higher efficiencies will require major design changes because of condensation.”

Francis L. Franck, vice president sales and marketing, Texas Furnace, LLC, says there is no doubt in his mind that government and market economics will drive higher efficiencies. “As a country, we waste a lot of energy. I believe more regulations will come demanding higher efficiencies and that will continue to drive higher efficiencies and new products. I will be surprised if the industry does not start to speak out loudly about what good it does to manufacture higher efficiency products if contractors continue to misapply a significant amount of them,” for example, high-efficiency air conditioners with low-efficiency evaporators.

Franck adds that increases in efficiencies are limited only by our imagination and entrepreneurial spirit, in the long term. In the short term, and considering today’s common technologies, furnaces are limited to the mid-90s AFUE and SEER ratings in the high teens, he states.

Jim Eisenbeis, director of marketing, Burnham, says that on the equipment side we will continue to see advances in new technologies driving efficiencies higher. “We have the ability now to make appliances at nearly 100% efficiency. Applying these new technologies properly is still key. There is a lot of opportunity for energy savings on the systems side that can be achieved through better control strategy and proper system design.”

Kloster believes that 90% will eventually be the minimum AFUE and that they’ll top out at 99%. “We’ll also see CO sensing as standard and lower electrical usage from motors.”

Live Long And Be Friendlier

Another area in which manufacturers plan to see improvement is the longevity of heat exchangers. Some express the concern that heat exchangers fail too often but that new compositions will allow these components to last longer. As Nordyne’s Kloster notes, heat exchanger life and new heat exchanger materials are concerns that manufacturers will address in the future.

Copenhaver says that ICP has just introduced a line of 90%-plus furnaces that are designed to address the customer issues of reliability, comfort, sound, and energy efficiency. “Our reliability testing indicates that our new third-generation ‘RPJ’ heat exchanger design is even more reliable than previous models.”

Some manufacturers say that customers are concerned with bringing in sufficient outside air and preventing today’s heat exchangers from failing. With the need for additional outside air, many will be looking for reliable and cost-effective solutions to further prevent heat exchanger corrosion.

Schjerven says that the deregulation of the natural gas industry raises the question of the consistency and quality of the composition of gas, especially in terms of trace contaminants which could affect the long-term reliability of heating equipment. He notes that this problem could be solved by routine maintenance on heating equipment. “Consumers frequently act as if the routine inspection and maintenance of heating equipment is not required. We believe this equipment should be routinely inspected and serviced in order to provide long-term, reliable, safe operation.”

Most manufacturers also agree that improvements will be made to the “user friendliness” of equipment, including easier installation, troubleshooting, and operation. “As customer needs shift and require more user-friendly features, manufacturers will change their designs. Trane has already embraced this reality by using customer input to drive our latest product designs. Several features were added to our new Precedent™ rooftop line as a result of customer market research. These units are designed to make installation, operation, and maintenance easier for the customer,” says Allan Bond, vice president commercial unitary marketing, Trane.

Eberlein notes that ICP works continuously to improve the user friendliness of their furnaces. “In the years to come, I think we will see even more use of electronic diagnostic systems and built-in communications to monitor furnace operation and alert homeowners to potential problems before they become serious. All manufacturers are paying attention to these subjects. Making a unit easier to install and trouble-shoot and more reliable in operation is a market advantage, and all manufacturers are studying their designs to meet this.”

However, Alexander notes that while greater user friendliness would be wonderful to achieve, “The trend is to more sophisticated controls, which equals more complex installation and trouble-shooting.”

Dual Fuel And Other Options

Burnham’s Eisenbeis notes, “Dual fuel systems are useful for commercial applications, but their application in residential is probably cost prohibitive.”

Copenhaver adds that dual fuel has been an option for a long time. “However, it requires a substantially higher initial investment. In most climates, energy savings do not justify that cost. That situation could change with a major shift in the balance between prices of natural gas and electricity.”

Crawford notes that if oil supplies diminish, then there will be more reliance on gas. If natural gas supplies diminish, then syn-gas is likely to grow. “One hundred years ago, syn-gas in the form of ‘city gas’ made from coal was common. Future syn-gas will come from less polluting processes fueled directly or indirectly by bio-mass.”

Speaking about the future, Crawford does note that a totally gas-fueled furnace that needs no electrical supply could be attractive, especially if electricity shortages or outages became more common than they are today.

“Such systems have been proposed and prototyped in the past. However, they have been constrained thus far by 1) the fact that furnace blowers require a fair amount of power; 2) direct conversion of heat to electricity is very inefficient and costly; and 3) most furnaces also provide the blowers for air conditioners and one would probably not want to burn gas to power the blower for an air conditioner.”

Another possibility that several manufacturers raised was the use of fuel cells, both in heating equipment and providing power for homes. Here again, costs will have to decrease some before these can be widely applied.

Home Networks And The Internet

Many manufacturers are paying attention to home networks, where major appliances would be hooked up to a central computer.

“Its usage will accelerate when time-of-day pricing becomes more common. This is because a ‘network’ can communicate with the local utility in order to optimize demand with pricing. Given this perspective, hvac equipment is likely, in time, to be part of an ‘appliance’ network that operates with the local utility,” notes Schjerven.

Trane’s Crawford notes that there have been many efforts over the last half century to introduce products that centralize controls within buildings. In commercial buildings these have been quite successful.

“In the residential application, the centralization is not deemed by most homeowners to merit the expense, and the likely need to employ professional repair technicians for some tasks that are DIY today — like replacing a mechanical wall switch or a thermostat — will continue to put people off. The added complexity must deliver some added functions, services, or features which the consumer needs or wants,” says Crawford.

He adds that for the upscale market that wants convenience at the cost of complexity and monetary expense, there may develop a somewhat broader market for remote thermostat setting and the like. However, this is not likely to become more than a niche market.

As far as the Internet is concerned, manufacturers believe it will become a major source of information for end-users in the areas of products, services, and solution capabilities. Additionally, as manufacturers of all home appliances and hvac equipment adopt a common, widely used protocol, the Internet could become the communication device of choice for the end user, the home services provider, and the local utility to monitor and diagnose the home.

It’s been an amazing century for heating equipment manufacturers. And based on the predictions of the manufacturers cited here, it looks like the next quarter century will see still more improvements in the ways we heat our buildings.

publication date: 11/12/2001