Not that long ago, one of the only ways to distinguish a less expensive furnace from a more expensive one was the AFUE rating. A rating between 78 percent and 80 percent meant an average priced furnace, while a rating of 90 percent or higher usually meant the furnace would be more expensive.

That still holds true to some extent. However, manufacturers are now offering a wide array of new technologies on their high-end furnaces. The latest high-end models boast features such as variable speed, two-stage, and advanced controls technology.

These furnaces come with heftier price tags than standard models; however, that does not deter savvy customers who understand that pricier equipment can help improve the air quality in their homes, optimize energy savings, and provide ultimate indoor comfort.

The Carrier Infinity System.

What Drives Demand

There are several reasons why manufacturers are now offering so many new features on their high-end furnaces. Robert Peitz, senior manager, Heating Products Marketing, Carrier Corp., Indianapolis, noted that system-wide communications for self-configuration just recently became a reality, and low-cost electronics have allowed inclusion of more advanced features.

These breakthroughs have definitely been helpful in the recent creation of Carrier's Infinity 96 furnace. According to Peitz, benefits of this furnace include full data communication with other system components; intelligent adjustment of heating and cooling staging times based on space needs; and full operation and service history for the life of the product visible on either the Infinity system control or via the Advanced Product Monitor.

Peitz noted Carrier introduced the two-stage, variable-speed condensing furnace back in 1987. "The drivers were better comfort, more even temperatures throughout the home, and lower gas and electrical costs," he said. "This was a case of anticipating consumer needs."

Consumers are definitely the main reason why manufacturers continue looking for ways to add value to their furnaces. "The market will always determine the products that we manufacture," said Adam Schuster, Rheem Manufacturing Co., Air Conditioning Division, product manager, Residential Heating Products, Fort Smith, Ark.

"We're seeing more and more consumers who are open and attentive to information that addresses their concerns for airborne allergens, quiet operation, humidity control, and close-tolerance temperature regulation - all benefits that can be realized with an advanced Rheem and Ruud furnace as part of a complete home comfort package," stated Schuster.

The flagship of the Rheem and Ruud line of furnaces is the 90 Plus Fully Modulating Gas Furnace with Contour Comfort Control. This high-end furnace contains patented technology, which gives it the ability to monitor room temperature and adjust fuel flow and fan speed to continuously run the unit from anywhere between 40 percent and 100 percent of capacity.

According to the company, the result is ultra-quiet, continuous, consistent comfort - within 0.5 degrees of the set point. The 90 Plus also features GE's electronically commutated motor (ECM) and two-speed induced draft blower for increased energy savings and comfort.

Rheem’s 90 Plus Fully Modulating Gas Furnace with Contour Comfort Control.

New Construction, Retrofits

Manufacturers are also including new technology in their high-end furnaces to meet consumers' demands for greater comfort and more efficiency. This is the case in new homes, which are often more tightly built, and also in older homes, where homeowners are faced with replacing aged HVAC systems.

"This pull-through effect has created an opportunity for products, such as two-stage, ECM, and advanced controls technology, to deliver the desired comfort through enhanced humidity control, indoor air quality, etc., as well as improved overall efficiency through ECM," said Mickey Smith, indoor products marketing manager for York Unitary Products Group, Norman, Okla.

York's high-end furnace is the Affinity V Series, which is an energy-efficient heating system that can be tailored to operate efficiently in any climate. The premium 8.V (80 percent AFUE) and 9.V (92 percent-plus AFUE) Affinity variable-speed furnaces are equipped with an ECM that operates at varying speeds while consuming less energy.

York's ClimaTraK comfort system enables Affinity installers to customize the comfort performance for each home, depending on the specific climate - dry, temperate, or humid - in which the homeowner lives.

ClimaTraK offers nearly continuous, gradual fan speed operation, resulting in effective humidity control, improved indoor air quality, and less noise. Affinity furnaces are compatible with most thermostats and utilize standard components, the company stated.

York’s high-end furnace is the Affinity V Series.

Everyone Benefits

Manufacturers believe their high-end furnaces will benefit everyone from consumer to contractor. Schuster stated consumers are now recognizing the benefits and advantages of improving indoor comfort and health through taking a systematic approach to their home comfort systems. "As such, contractors will increasingly have more opportunities to propose and sell higher-end, more fully featured, higher efficiency, and higher profit-margin furnaces."

Even consumers purchasing standard furnaces will one day benefit from the technologies seen on today's higher-end furnaces. Steve Attri, senior product manager, Lennox International, Richardson, Texas, pointed to the increasing number of high-end products being sold today, noting, "As consumer awareness and demand increases, it is likely that some of today's higher-end products will become more of the standard at some point."

Lennox's high-end furnace is the Dave Lennox Signature Collection G61V, which has heating efficiencies up to 94.6 percent AFUE. It features two stages of heating for more even temperature control and a variable-speed motor, which provides additional comfort benefits like improved air movement and better indoor air quality. The furnace incorporates SilentComfort technology, which is why it's billed as "the quietest furnace you can buy."

Peitz noted that some of Carrier's mid-efficiency gas furnaces already have all of the comfort and control features of the company's condensing furnaces. "Several builders are already installing our top-of-the-line Infinity system standard in their homes," he said.

The Dave Lennox Signature Collection G61V furnaces are Energy Star products.
Schuster said that a definite shift has occurred in the industry, as more consumers associate indoor air quality with their HVAC systems. He attributes this trend to quick access to industry information via the Internet, as well as to the many contractors who survey their customers during the job, using the customers' answers to propose suitable equipment based on climate, cost, and customer expectations.

While today's high-end furnaces contain more features than ever, it's probable that furnaces manufactured five years from now will contain even more technology. Just what that technology will be is hard to say, as manufacturers are notoriously coy about releasing any details before a product launch.

Attri acknowledges that there will be breakthroughs within the next five years, but he wouldn't say what those would be, as he wants to "keep the competition guessing."

Furnaces may look different in five years, said Smith, because builders are demanding that manufacturers create units that use less space in the home. "The result is manufacturers striving to create furnaces with a smaller cabinet size that continue to be efficient and easy to service."

Schuster added that Rheem will continue seeking input from contractors, distributors, suppliers, and consumers in order to offer more durable, more efficient, and more environmentally compatible future products. "Our innovation teams constantly evaluate new technology, and yes, furnaces in 2009 will be different than today."

Publication date: 11/22/2004