Ronald Reagan once said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help. That language might be used to describe the department of energy today as it regards furnace efficiency standards. For about 100 years American homes were heated by central heating systems, and not one lawsuit was filed relative to their efficiency. Market advances improved both the comfort and efficiency of these central appliances, and the consumer decided what would go into their home.
That changed in 1987 when the Department of Energy (DOE) began regulating the energy efficiency level of residential furnaces and boilers. Residential furnaces are defined as those having a heat input rate of less than 225,000 BTU per hour. These furnaces are rated in terms of annual fuel utilization efficiency, (AFU E) a measure of dynamic operating conditions as performed in a laboratory using a DOE test procedure. In 1992, the DOE standard specified that residential gas furnaces would feature a minimum of 78% efficiency. At that time, DOE estimated the standards would result in energy savings of $46.2 billion for product shipped between 1992 and 2021. While technology was certainly capable of producing furnaces with higher efficiency levels, market forces were allowed to drive the consumer toward the furnace of their choice.
In 2007, DOE proposed raising the minimum efficiency to 80 AFUE effective in 2015. This change however would have little impact, because almost all gas furnaces on the market already met or exceeded that level. Before that proposal could be acted on, a group of states and efficiency advocates challenged it in court, encouraging the DOE to arrive at a more stringent standard. In 2009, a group of efficiency advocates and equipment manufacturers prepared a consensus agreement to advocate for new efficiency standard levels for residential furnaces, heat pumps and central air-conditioners. The basis of this agreement was to establish separate regional standards, which represented a whole new concept in the implementation of energy efficiency levels. The concept seemed to make sense, because what is cost-effective for a furnace in Illinois may not be cost-effective in Texas. The DOE preceded to issue a ruling in 2011 that was scheduled to go into effect in 2013, which established a regional standard of 90% AFUE in colder climates and 80% AFUE in warmer climates.
Before the effective date however, an association of natural gas utilities and equipment distributors challenged the rule in court, arguing that the DOE had not accounted for certain issues when upgrading to more efficient furnaces. They argued that switching from a noncondensing to condensing gas furnace often requires modifying the furnace’s ventilation at additional expense. In March of 2014, the plaintiff group announced a settlement with the Department of Energy. The US Court of Appeals issued an order that among other things, vacated DOE’s minimum efficiency standards for residential gas furnaces and remanded the procedure back to DOE for further rulemaking. The settlement agreement included a provision that in the rulemaking, DOE would make available to the public the data gathered and analyzed by the agency prior to publication of a proposed rule in a timely manner.
Whew, glad that’s over. Well, tune into next week’s blog to see what the DOE did next!