By Jamison Cocklin
As if the winter heating season isn’t complicated enough in this part of the country.
There’s the soaring heating bills, often relentless from November through March, a virtual toss-up depending on the ferocity of the season and the volatility of energy markets. The battles with utility companies over natural gas delivery and the glitches in billing, or a missed oil delivery even when you specifically outlined your needs with customer service.
And among homeowners and renters alike, who hasn’t experienced those hair-pulling hours when the furnace refuses to work and the temperatures plummet just enough to remind you that the vexing problem suspiciously occurred at the height of winter?
Now, in 30 northern states, including Ohio, homeowners, landlords, property developers and everyone else with plans to finally update that old heating system and install a new furnace will face little options come May 1.
That’s because last October, the U.S. Department of Energy made effective new rules calling for almost all natural-gas- and oil-fired furnaces to be 90 percent efficient or more. Anything less cannot be installed after May 1.
Turns out, the ruling, from a government department that didn’t have the authority to implement regional standards until 2007, is proving a controversial one, with implications for heating suppliers, contractors and homeowners in Youngstown and across the northern part of the country.
“In the past when they passed a law or regulation we were allowed to sell off our inventory, if we have five [80 percent efficient] furnaces left at the end of April too bad,” said Bill Rotar, owner of McCrudden Heating Supply in Youngstown. “Suppliers with locations across the country can just ship what’s left to other suppliers in different states. We operate here and West Middlesex, both states have to comply and we’ll be stuck with the inventory.”
For homeowners or landlords with condominiums, townhouses or apartment complexes, the cost of purchasing and installing the higher efficiency furnaces could be as much as $1,500 to $2,500 more than a less efficient one.
Typically, the high-efficiency boilers are vented out a side wall because they combust fuel using air from outside the home and by expelling exhaust through a second pipe run out the same way.
This poses a problem for contractors at condos and townhouses where there is not an exterior wall on either side of a shared unit or where homeowners associations will not allow the pipes to extrude from the front or back of a building because of aesthetics.
Single-family homes looking to replace their heating systems could also be affected if their furnace room is located at the center of a basement, doubling as a recreational room. In that case, more walls would need to be demolished and the finish costs would go up as a result.
Conventional furnaces are usually vented through a chimney nearby, most often shared with venting for a water heater. The new rules require a separate chase that poses problems for contractors.
“If there’s no outside walls or the furnace is in the middle of the room, how can my guys run their vents, we’ll have to go up through three floors with them?” said Gene Clayton, who owns Clayton Heating and Air Conditioning in Youngstown. “This is all going to be new and it’s going to create a big problem for contractors in the area and the building departments.”
In addition to the burdens of construction and the high costs they could create for consumers, Charlie McCrudden, vice president of government relations for the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, said builders are unclear on who will enforce the rule’s compliance.
When the DOE made the new rules effective last year, it was expected to have enforcement outlined by Jan. 1, which McCrudden said is unlikely.
“Without a strong enforcement program, another contractor can come along and say ‘I’ll keep that furnace at the center of your basement,’” he said. “They can drive an hour south to West Virginia and buy a perfectly legal 80 percent efficiency furnace and undercut and underbid a legitimate contractor.”
The lack of clarity on the new rules has led the American Public Gas Association, a trade group representing public utility companies, to file a lawsuit against the DOE for the way the rule was crafted. At the same time, other trade groups have filed for an 18-month extension of the compliance date for the new furnaces.
McCrudden said both efforts are gridlocked, with oral arguments yet to be scheduled on the lawsuit and the DOE “not even acknowledging” the extension request.
“A lot of times the government just passes these rules and regulations and they don’t bother to ask for advice,” Rotar said. “Our contractors know about it and we’re getting some questions, but if they don’t we’re telling them and they’re just as concerned.
The DOE did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
McCrudden said his organization is trying to raise public awareness about the new rule. He said higher efficiency isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Essentially, a 90 percent efficiency furnace burns all but 10 percent of the fuel required to heat a home, whereas an 80 percent efficiency furnace uses all but 20 percent.
“Consumers will have to decide if they want to act now and pay less for installation or install a high efficiency system to save money in the long run,” McCrudden said of the seven out of ten homeowners in Ohio that use natural gas to heat their homes. “But with natural gas prices dropping the cost-savings might not be all that much.”