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Furnace standards debate heats up

After one of the warmest summers ever, the approaching winter heating season may seem hard to imagine right now. But the icy grip of cold weather will be upon us soon, and that's bad news for the millions of Americans who experience serious financial pressure every year trying to keep their homes warm. Those consumers and the federal lawmakers who represent them should be outraged to learn that national minimum furnace standards have lagged far behind technological advances and that needlessly higher winter heating season energy bills have been the result.

The good news is that the federal government is doing something about this by moving ahead with proposed stronger standards for furnaces. The new standards have been a long time coming; nearly three decades have passed since Congress enacted and Ronald Reagan signed into law the original minimum requirements. That's right: The standards in place today predate the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the Internet, and probably even the date of birth of many of the readers of this op-ed.

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Fortunately, the Department of Energy (DOE) has not let up on the push for better furnace standards, even in the face of industry foot-dragging and time-consuming litigation. DOE forecasts a $600 net average savings for consumers over the life of equipment meeting the tougher efficiency standard (keep in mind that is over and above the cost of the new equipment). Those projected savings are compelling for all consumers, but particularly so for low-income Americans, who not only pay more of their income for heating but also often have little or no say about what kind of furnace is used since a substantial majority of low-income consumers are in a rental situation.

On a national level, furnaces sold over the next 30 years that meet the proposed standards would save 3.1 quadrillion BTUs (British thermal units, or "quads") of energy — enough to take care of the gas and propane heating needs of all of New England for 17 years. On a national level, the net savings for consumers over that period would range from $4 billion to $19 billion. No wonder then that improved minimum standards for furnaces and a range of other household and commercial products have enjoyed broad bipartisan support spanning four decades and five presidencies.

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How would the new standards work?

Widely used and thoroughly demonstrated "condensing furnace" technology captures waste heat from flue gases, using that heat to warm the home rather than letting it escape up the chimney. The new standards would require a level of efficiency performance achieved with this proven technology, saving about 13 percent compared to less efficient basic furnaces sold today. The minimum required would increase efficiency to 92 percent AFUE (annual fuel utilization efficiency) from the current 80 percent standard.

A more modest variation on new standards would leave the standard for some small furnaces unchanged while raising the standards for the vast majority of furnace sales. Reasonably well-insulated, smaller homes such as condos or row homes or those in warm climates use less gas to heat, so they save less with improved technology and could get by with older furnaces. In response to requests from multiple stakeholders, the DOE evaluated this new option earlier this month. It may provide the path forward that will finally enable new standards to reach the finish line.

Everyone likes to think that their solution to a major national problem is a "no brainer." But, if there ever was a solution that should be adopted with all due haste (and particularly given the considerable delays to date), it is the DOE's furnace standard. Policymakers, Congress and concerned citizens should get behind this now before the first snowflake of winter arrives. Why in the world would we keep on needlessly wasting energy, polluting the air, and forcing consumers to pay more than is necessary when better furnace technology already is available to us?

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Andrew deLaski is executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project; his email is adelaski@standardsasap.org.

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