What You Need to Know About the High Efficiency Furnace Law

furnace cartoonI first learned about the new federal fuel efficiency rating change when a family member's landlord recently switched out their furnace – causing them to be out of heat for a time. They'd indicated it was due to a new law to bring old furnaces up to a higher efficiency and so I thought I'd check into it for my house (ours is from 1985) and other readers who may be curious about the change.

Let's face it, furnaces are quite the expense. And, probably one of the biggest purchases you can make for your home. Here's a few facts surrounding them:

  • Heating and cooling accounts for 56% of energy used in a typical home
  • The Federal Trade Commission requires new furnaces or boilers to display their AFUE (Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency) so consumers can compare heating efficiencies of various models
  • The national minimum is 78% AFUE, but there are ENERGY STAR® models on the market that exceed 90% AFUE
  • A gas furnace should be checked about once a year by a qualified professional. They will check for holes, leaks or cracks. A break/crack lets carbon monoxide seep into your home (not good)
So, getting back to the regulation change. The federal government (God bless them) – has instituted this policy probably because they realize the high consumption of energy caused by heating/cooling as well as the advances in more efficient furnaces that are now on the market. Some of these new guys are running as high as 97% AFUE!

Do I have to get an energy efficient furnace by next year?

There have been a lot of rumors and misunderstandings surrounding this new rule. One of these is the belief that you have to buy a new one by next year. This is untrue.

Let's get to the facts of this new regulation (from the Department of Energy website):

The new federal minimum energy conservation standard in the northern region is 90 AFUE starting May 1, 2013, and 80 AFUE in the southern region. The southern region includes Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. [The northern region consists of: Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.]

 Currently, the law states that furnaces have to be above 78% AFUE. This is quite the leap to the new standard. More specifics about which heating/cooling devices these affect are displayed in this DOE chart:

high efficiency furnace standards

( Non-weathered means the appliance is designed for indoor installations, while weathered means it is designed for outdoor installations. I would imagine that many folks might fall into the non-weathered gas category.)

So what do you need to do?

To simplify – if you own a home that was built after 2000, you most likely have a furnace above 80-90 AFUE. You don't have to do a thing.

However, if your home is pre-2000 AND you live in the Northern Region, you're gonna want to check to see what your furnace is rated.

Here's where (I think) the confusion lay. After May 1, 2013, you can no longer install a AFUE furnace below 80% AFUE (depending on  your appliance) nationally AND below 90% AFUE in the Northern Region.

For example, let's take my case. We have a furnace that is from 1985 – well over a typical furnace lifespan. If we chose to install a new one – say in July of 2013 – we couldn't put in a 80% AFUE furnace. We'd have to go with the more expensive 90% + furnace. 

What folks in my area are doing (that are in my predicament) is installing an 80% AFUE (non-weatherized gas) which meets the national standard BEFORE the 90% rule kicks in. They figure they are saving money in the short-term by opting for this furnace over the higher efficiency models (which can run – on average – $1,500 more).

Don't get swindled

I can imagine there are a few shysters out there who are taking advantage of this new standard by telling folks they HAVE to upgrade to a new model and selling unknowing residents a super-duper high efficient furnace. Just beware of these salesmen.

While you will likely save more money in the long-run with a higher efficient furnace (some say $400/year) – you will have to shell out a bit more upfront.

  • To learn more about this new standard, visit the Department of Energy's site on Heating/Cooling
  • To read about the standard in more detail, check out this PDF from the DOE
  • Check to see if there are any energy rebates for upgrading in your area
  • Here's a good story by John Ewold of the StarTribune on the rule and how it affects Minnesotans
  • Update 8/26/13: The DOE has temporarily lifted the new standard for northern states. 
  • Update 1/3/18: You may want to consult the new eeCompass website the DOE has established to ensure consumers' appliances adhere to federal guidelines. 

Are you thinking of upgrading your furnace before May 2013? Or, have you already done so?

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  1. Heh, I already took care of this, though I didn’t want to. Furnaces are expensive!

    I learned from my experience that furnaces are something that you should shop around for for months before you buy. Manufacture rebates are everywhere but their timing is not very cyclical. Definitely don’t buy one before you have to, but look at the market before you make a decision this big. I could have saved $500 if I had bought one a week earlier thanks to a bigger rebate from the manufacturer.

  2. Purchased one last year that was running 97% AFUE! With all the rebates and incentives it ended up being a better deal than the 80%. I watch my monthly bill go, down, down, down and that was awesome. In no time I’ll pay for it in monthly savings on my bill!

  3. I had no idea about this law. I know our condo in Chicago is fine because it was a rehab in 2007, but the house we are renting here in Denver is most likely failing. The house was built in 1901 and the furnace looks like the one from the movie Home Alone.

    • @Sean – Haha.. I hope it doesn’t cause you guys any problems!
      @Candee – Good to hear from you! ;) 97% is great! Sounds like it’s going to save you a bunch.

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