The current minimum standard for most types of furnaces is 78 percent AFUE. However, the Department of Energy is considering raising the minimum standard in the future. (Photos courtesy of Rheem.)
Now that new efficiency standards for air conditioning are in place, the Department of Energy (DOE) is zeroing in on the heating side of the HVACR industry.

The DOE recently issued its first official document in the current round of review of its energy-efficiency regulations for residential furnaces and boilers. The document, called an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANOPR), appeared in the Federal Register on July 29.

The DOE has scheduled a public meeting on Sept. 29 in Washington. The session is designed to allow the department opportunity to present its methodology and the results of its ANOPR analyses, as well as to answer questions and help participants prepare their written comments. GAMA, an association of appliance and equipment manufacturers, will be represented at the public meeting, along with several of its member companies.

According to Mark Kendall, GAMA's vice president, technical affairs, if the DOE does issue new standards, chances are they will go into effect no earlier than 2012 or as late as 2016. However, based on what the association has culled from the 39-page ANOPR document, it's best to be in Washington at the end of this month in order to be heard.

"DOE won't make any decisions at this meeting," said Kendall. "They will listen to what those of us who are affected by this rule will have to say. Then they'll go back and revise their analysis based on what they've learned.

"Hopefully they'll recognize that when dozens of experts in the furnace and boiler markets travel hundreds of miles to express their concerns, DOE should take them seriously. In a couple of years, we'll learn what new standards DOE will propose, if any."

Based on its early report concerning residential furnaces, the DOE appears to be taking the issue of vent and flue corrosion seriously.

More Stringent Standards On The Horizon?

The ANOPR defines the efficiency levels that the DOE considers being candidates for new federal minimum efficiency standards. The current standard for most types of furnaces is 78-percent annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE), and the standard for hot water boilers is 80-percent AFUE. For each candidate standard level, the DOE describes its projected impacts on equipment cost, energy savings, and consumer finances.

In short, an ANOPR is "preliminary" in that it imposes no regulatory requirements, proposes no specific new standard, and is open for public comment. It signals the beginning of the next phase of the rulemaking, which will culminate in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR). The NOPR will propose specific new efficiency standards and contain the results of further analysis.

It's why GAMA wants to be in on the ground floor of this time-consuming process. Even though the DOE may issue new standards that may not take effect until eight years from now, "the extra time won't change the laws of physics that govern how furnaces and boilers operate," said Kendall.

"If the DOE makes a mistake now, we'll be paying for it later," he warned.

If the DOE makes the new standards too stringent, the integrity of venting systems in the replacement market is GAMA's first concern, said Kendall.

"The higher the standard, short of full-condensing, which occurs around 90-percent AFUE, the more likelihood there is that combustion products will condense in the vent or flue passages," he said. "Widespread rotting of venting systems is not in anyone's best interest."

According to Kendall, the ANOPR does not rule out that the DOE would mandate condensing furnaces for the whole country.

"That would have a devastating impact on the pocketbooks of many consumers, particularly in mild and warmer parts of the country where the energy savings from installing a condensing furnace never pay back the extra equipment cost," he said.

In the end, more stringent standards are rarely favorable to manufacturers and contractors, said GAMA's representative.

"They force many consumers to buy more expensive products than they want to buy or can afford," he said. "That's bad for those consumers, but it also causes more buyers to bid-shop and select contractors based purely on price. Standards that are too stringent also reduce the opportunity to upsell since there are fewer products in the market that can meet the new standards."

Good And Bad News

If there is a bright spot, it is that the DOE seems to be taking the issue of vent and flue corrosion seriously, said Kendall, and that "they understand that most people who would benefit from the purchase of condensing furnaces already buy them."

"DOE also has determined that it does not have the authority to require two-stage or modulating furnaces equipped with variable-speed fans," he added. "Those are premium products that are well worth the price in terms of added comfort, but their associated energy savings don't justify a national mandate."

What worries GAMA most is the fact that the DOE has, what Kendall termed, "some mistakes in their assumptions regarding furnace modulation, venting of oil-fired equipment, and operation and installation of boilers, mobile-home furnaces, and outdoor-packaged furnaces." Those errors, if uncorrected, could lead DOE to "propose standards right at the levels where widespread vent and flue corrosion are most likely," he warned.

According to Kendall, GAMA will continue to emphasize that the benefits of pushing the furnace and boiler standards beyond 80-percent AFUE do not outweigh the risks of vent corrosion and the added costs to consumers.

"Most people don't realize that when the DOE begins a rulemaking, they know relatively little about the products involved or how the market works," said Kendall. "For the last few years, they've mostly been teaching themselves. This meeting presents us with a rare opportunity to lend our expertise and correct DOE's misperceptions."

Kendall said GAMA's role at the Sept. 29 hearing will be to point out errors in the DOE's analysis "that could lead them to draw a conclusion that hurts manufacturers, dealers, and consumers," and to educate DOE so it can correct those errors before it proposes any new standards.

The DOE actually began its rulemaking process in 2001, but it took until now to release its ANOPR and its analysis of consumer life-cycle cost and energy savings. The Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA) authorizes the DOE to establish minimum energy conservation standards for certain major household appliances. EPCA established efficiency standards for certain residential furnaces and boilers, with an effective date of Jan. 1, 1992.

The DOE said it must receive requests to speak at the scheduled Sept. 29 meeting before 4 p.m. (EST) on Sept. 15. The department will also accept comments, data, and information regarding the ANOPR before or after the public meeting, but no later than Nov. 10.

Publication date: 09/06/2004