Buying a New Furnace
Replacing a Furnace
An Engineer's Advice on Furnaces
We just bought our first house. It's a fixer upper and it has the original furnace about 28 years old! We know a new furnace is in our near future. We wondered if any readers could give us advice about buying a furnace. Which brands are best? How can we get the best deal? Does shopping in the off-season help? Thanks for your assistance.
Cari and Mike
Check out the website for Phillips Heating & Air Conditioning in Pittsburgh, PA www.phillipsheating.com where they answer a lot of questions. My best advice is to find someone in your area that will service the equipment, has been around a while, and can offer you references in your neighborhood or a similar house to yours.
If you live in a cold climate or semi cold climate do not get a heat pump with an electric furnace. The heat pump only heats the air in temperatures up to 20 degrees. Anything in the teens and lower you need to switch the thermostat over to "Emergency Heat" and this is very expensive. Last month, our temperatures here in Kentucky ran in the teens all month and when we got our electric bill it was $405, which is quite expensive to us. If you get this type of furnace have some other heat source for back up in extremely cold weather like a wood burning stove or kerosene heater.
I work for a rural electric co-operative power company. We offer our members loans for home improvements such as HVAC replacement. We partner with local HVAC dealers to offer quality units at reduced prices. I suggest they speak with the consumer services dept. of their local power company (even if it's an investor owned utility - IOU) because they may have similar programs. Often, a power company representative will visit the home to do a complete energy audit and make other recommendations. Most will recommend a heat pump with a high SEER rating, but it does depend on where you live.
I have just recently replaced both my air conditioner and my furnace, both of 1972 vintage. I did it in the summer, when my air conditioner was still working and there was no immediate need for heat. I recommend that you go to the library and read up on furnaces and air conditioners in past issues of Consumer Reports. I got a wealth of information from CR and it helped me to define and refine my bid-seeking procedure so that, after a few fits & starts by heating contractors who didn't want to give exact specifications/model numbers at first. With the makes and model numbers from CR, I was able to know just how to compare the bids I got with one another and arrive at what I needed.
Depending on where you live, the size of your living space, and how great the variation in temperature is, you can pinpoint what you need in terms of BTU's and buy what your budget affords you. I live in Northern Virginia: too cold in the winter for a heat pump, so I got a 2-stage gas furnace that operates at 80% efficiency. (There are higher-efficiency furnaces, but the cost of them is much higher than the 80% level.) The air conditioner is also a high efficiency model, but not the highest level of efficiency because I don't believe in buying either the bottom or the top of the line in anything.
Just because your furnace is 28 years old, beware. When we bought our home 10 years ago, the home inspector mentioned that the furnace was 30 years old and may need to be replaced. However, we have the furnace serviced and inspected every year. The furnace expert told us that it would take 12 years to recoup any money on replacing this furnace, and there wasn't one part on it that he couldn't easily replace if it needed it. Consequently, we have an old furnace that works quite well. Talk with an expert who knows furnaces as opposed to one who wants to sell you a new one!
Don't buy based on unit cost. Instead, buy on the cost to generate BTUs and the kind of delivery already in your house, such as radiators, baseboards, air ducts, etc.
Oil is unpredictable both for price & availability. It is dirty. It does give off good heat, though. If you don't have oil, don't install it. The oil tank will eventually cause problems for the furnace if sediment gets into the lines. They used to come with hot water heaters that heated water on demand. "Demand" was a misnomer, especially if you needed hot water for more than a sink full of dishes.
Gas is cheapest and cleanest fuel available and is the easiest to install in old homes that use a hot water system (baseboard or radiator). Hot water systems are the most comfortable and perceived to be warmer at lower temps.
I believe you can now get heat pumps in combination with a gas furnace. Heat pumps are the best choice for air conditioning, but are not good for the consistent cold up north. We use them in Florida because we rarely need to heat our homes & natural gas is not as available as it is up north.
The quickest to heat up, but the most uncomfortable heating system is hot air. It's drying and it's not "even" heating like the radiant heat of hot water systems. It's also very dusty. I've had both gas and electricity hot air systems and didn't like either one. Besides, you don't want to put ductwork in if you don't have to.
One of the best heating systems that I ever experienced was radiant heat that was installed in the ceiling of an apartment. Because it heats objects, not the air, it was the most comfortable. Also the most expensive.
In any event, stay away from electric systems if you can since they are expensive and somewhat unreliable. If I were to install today, I would do what my parents did in Michigan. They installed a gas furnace with a generator in case of power failure, because all systems need electricity for ignition.
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