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The heat is on to buy high-efficiency furnace

Q. We had trouble affording our heating bills last winter, so I guess we need to start looking for a good energy-efficient furnace for this winter. Any suggestions for the best way to find a good one?

A. The first thing to do to lower your heating bills is not to buy a new furnace. You need to make sure your home is well-sealed to minimize air infiltration and that your attic is insulated to at least the minimal levels for your climate. Then you can start looking for a furnace because the size you need will be different once you do the other energy-efficiency things.

This would also be a good time to have your home's ducts inspected for leaks, since this could be a major cause of high utility bills and a poorly performing heating system.

But if you do these things and determine that you still need a new furnace, here are some suggestions on what to do next. First, you should look for a high-efficiency system. Home heating systems typically last as long as 25 years, so an investment in a more efficient system will pay you back in energy savings for hundreds of months.

There's a neat chart available online from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy that will help you figure the energy savings you'll get from replacing an older furnace with a new efficient one. (Visithttp://www.aceee.org/consumerguide/heating.htm#replace ) You need to know your current system's annual fuel utilization efficiency, something you can probably get from the company that services your system.

Their chart lets you correlate your current system's efficiency with that of a new system you're considering buying. For example, the chart shows that replacing a system with a 65 percent efficiency rating with a high-efficiency natural gas system with a 90 percent rating will save you $27 for every $100 you're spending now on heating. If your current bill for heating is around $1,300 annually, then the new system will save you $351 each year. That gives a return on investment of 14 percent assuming the new system costs $2,500, and your savings will obviously increase even more as fuel costs go up.

Their site includes a lot of tips on choosing a new furnace, along with information on choosing a contractor. You can also get names of contractors in your area from a couple of other great sites: the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (http://www.acca.org/consumer/comfort.php ) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association ( http://www.smacna.org ).

At today's costs of fuel, you really can't afford to buy a furnace that isn't energy-efficient. These higher-rated systems will not only cut your utility bills, but they'll also have fewer maintenance problems.

I urge you to look for Energy Star equipment, a rating that means the furnace has met the strict energy-efficiency guidelines set by EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy. And be sure to find an experienced contractor who will not only properly install the furnace, but will size it for your home and your family's needs. Finally, before you start looking for a contractor, visithttp://www.energystar.gov for some great information on how to find the right contractor for your home.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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