Getting Closer: New Gas-Furnace Standards

As of press time, Department of Energy (DOE) sent proposed new minimum energy-efficiency standards for gas furnaces to Office of Management and Budget, which reviews DOE rules before they go public.

In other words, we finally might be a bit closer to seeing the first update to gas-furnace minimum energy-efficiency standards since 1992. DOE has worked on updating furnace standards since 2005, but the process has been fraught with delay, mostly due to manufacturers that aren’t happy with the standards. Contractors, manufacturers and trade groups sued DOE in 2013, because they said the agency was pushing through a standard without listening to objections.

At least 40 million U.S. households use gas furnaces. Heating accounts for 40 percent of residential energy use, according to Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Appliance Standards Awareness Project estimates that new standards could save consumers $600–$800 over the lifetime of a furnace (typically 16–20 years).

“This is a big one for consumer savings, so we’re on pins and needles,” says Elizabeth Noll
of NRDC.

As of press time, no one knows how the proposed standards will shake out. Previously, DOE proposed a two-tiered approach that was based on whether homeowners lived in the northern or the southern half of the country. All six experts whom we interviewed expect that DOE will take a two-tiered approach to minimum annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) of 92 percent or 95 percent for large furnaces and 80 percent for small furnaces. No one could tell us how DOE decides what constitutes a large and a small furnace.

After the proposed standard goes public—and as of press time, we didn’t know when that would take place—a 90-day public comment period will ensue before DOE issues a final rule. Experts tell us that it’s reasonable to assume that the rule will be finalized by the end of 2016. The rule would go into effect 5 years later—2021 at the earliest.