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Home Heating: Become an Informed Buyer

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A new heating system for your home or business is a complicated decision.  The choice you make needs to last you 10-20 years, is a sizable initial investment, will require further investments in fuel and maintenance, and has plenty of environmental concerns attached.  It’s one of those decisions you have to make right the first time, and surprisingly, most people don’t have much to do with the actual choice.

The average homeowner calls their local HVAC company, listens to a couple of suggestions, and chooses the furnace of boiler that seems to fit their budget. This makes the choice simpler, but, since many HVAC professionals are licensed resellers for one or two companies or source directly from a single reseller, the installer is rarely objective about the options out there.

So, what can a smart shopper do to find the best furnace or boiler for their situation?  The obvious answer is research, but where to start?

There are 7 factors that govern the smart purchase of a heating system:

  • BTU Output
  • Efficiency
  • Ease of Use
  • Legal Regulations
  • Build Quality/Warranty
  • Cost (initial purchase and fuel/maintenance costs)
  • Environmental Concerns

Having good information on all these factors will let you make an informed decision.  So, let’s take a look at each factor:

BTU Output (AKA Sizing your Furnace/Boiler)

It may be tempting to say “bigger is better”, but an improperly sized furnace or boiler will cause you plenty of grief.  If your heating unit has a higher BTU output than you need, it will never run at capacity.  When not at capacity, efficiency is lower, emmissions (including creosote output) are higher, and other maintenance issues may arise.  If your unit’s output is too low, you will not be able to adequately meet your heating needs.

If you are replacing a system, and trust that it was properly rated, you can save a lot of effort, but you do risk not maximizing your efficiency and savings.  An energy auditor or qualified contractor should be able to help you calculate your heat loss in BTU/h using a ‘Manual J Calculation’, which will determine the size furnace you need.  Alternatively, you can get a less accurate estimate from DIY calculators like this: http://www.shophmac.com/info-center/hvac-calculators/heat-load-calculator.php

As a quick rule of thumb you can guess at a needing size of about 35-40BTUs per square foot if you live in a northern US state, but using this measurement will NOT allow you to maximize your efficiency and minimize your cost.

Efficiency

A higher efficiency furnace or boiler will use less fuel to heat and produce lower emissions, thereby cutting cost in fuel as well as maintenance.  The estimated efficiency of a heating unit can be usually found on the label, listed as the AFUE (Annual Fuel Use Efficiency).  This number can give you an idea of where to start with efficiency, but is unfortunately fairly inaccurate.  Due to not accounting for “Idle Loss”, systems with identical AFUE ratings can differ in performance by as much as 25%.

There are also several more industry-specific efficiency numbers that are used by manufacturers, such as ASME testing (in the US) and the European EN 303-5 testing standard for wood boilers.  These can offer a bit more accurate comparison, but they have their own issues.. In fact, the ASME test is being retooled this year for better accuracy, which may cause a lot of efficiency numbers to change.

When comparing boilers of differing make, the ASME efficiency value is the most consistent, however, remember that it is not an iron-clad comparison and real-world values my vary by a wide margin.

Ease Of Use

This one is pretty straight forward: Some furnaces or boilers require manual loading or regular maintenance.  Knowing what you are willing to do and what your prospective heating units require will help you chose the right unit.

Legal Regulations

All Furnaces and Boilers must meet a minimum AFUE efficiency value.  For most types of furnace that value is 78%.  For most types of boiler it’s 80%.  These minimum values will increase again by about 5% in 2015.  That should be considered when purchasing, as parts and service may become harder to find for units that do not meet these higher standards.

Certain States have also regulated lower-efficiency units like Phase 1 outdoor boilers… these Phase 1 units are not allowed to be sold in VT, ME, NH, MA, MD, PA, NY, RI, OR, or IN, and more states are considering such legislation.

In addition, town and zoning ordinances can limit your options. Be sure to check all of your existing and planned local legislation, because once again, service for banned units will likely become hard to find.

Build Quality & Warranty

This one important quality that is easy to overlook.  You aren’t likely to be able to return a boiler, once installed, and you are unlikely to be able to replace a shoddy product immediately.  Do your research, and make sure that the furnace or boiler you buy is sdurable, well built, and backed by a good warranty from a reputable company. A 10 year warranty is common in the industry, with furnaces and boilers having about a 20 year life expectancy.

You’ll also want to be sure that the company you choose won’t leave the furnace/boiler industry or fold entirely.  There are several changes in the works, like the changes to the ASME tests that will require recertification and the higher regulations starting in 2015, that may leave some companies with large amounts of unsellable stock, and high certification costs.  Make sure the company you choose is prepared to adapt to these changes.

Cost

The retail cost is simple to get from the manufacturer or local dealer, but may not represent the entire initial expense.  Be sure to ask about optional components and addons (such as pellet augers and hoppers), and installation kits, as well as additional recommended purchases (such as thermal storage tanks).  Be sure to also get a labor estimate for installation.

Research the cost of any necessary maintenance items and services, such as air filters and chimney sweeping, to get an idea of maintenance costs, as well.

Now for the complicated bit: Fuel Cost.

It is amazingly difficult to get an accurate estimate for fuel cost, because of the many factors involved.  Your heat load changes with the outside temperature, your specific house, and your heat needs.  Your heating appliance is also unlikely to meet its rated efficiency.  These factors make fuel cost calculation very tricky.

Luckily, for people replacing an existing unit, the folks at eco-worx.net have a pretty good Fuel Cost Calculator that estimates your cost with a new system, based on your cost with your existing system.  It is still an estimate, and relies on your heater’s rated efficiency, but it does manage to factor in your specific climate, home, and usage by basing the calculation on your existing cost.  You can find the calculator at https://eco-worx.net/calculator.html

Environmental Concerns

Any energy-related purchase has several related environmental concerns.  For some people these factor little into the purchase process, whereas others may weigh them much more heavily.  Fuel Source, Gaseous Emmissions, Particulate Emissions, Heat Waste, and Manufacturing Process can all factor into the environmental impact of your purchase.  I won’t go too far in terms of pushing an ecological bent on this article, but hardwood and hardwood pellets are a truly renewable american resource, with a low pricetag.

So, there you have it.  A basic overview of the primary factors that drive an educated purchase.  Get out there, get researching, and buy smart.

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