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Is it time to replace the furnace?

Heating bills vary each winter, prompting homeowners to consider replacing inefficient furnaces. Sales at some showrooms increased by about 25 percent in the last quarter of 2005 over the previous year, and many HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) contractors expect an even greater boost in furnace sales as more consumers reel from heating bill shock-and-awe.

But then they'll face the shocking sticker price of a new furnace. Depending on the state of existing ductwork, gas piping and electrical wiring, the average cost of a new high-efficiency furnace with installation will run between $2,500 and $3,000.
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So just how much can you typically save by replacing an old, inefficient furnace with a properly sized modern unit? It depends on how efficient the new furnace is and how inefficient the old one was. Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency, or AFUE, ratings will tell you how much energy is being converted to heat. For example, an AFUE of 80 means that 80 percent of the fuel used by the furnace warms your home, while the other 20 percent escapes as exhaust with combustion gases.

Older gas furnaces that utilize pilot lights have estimated AFUE ratings of 55 percent to 65 percent, so both your immediate and long-term savings could be significant if you replace such an inefficient unit with a modern 95 percent AFUE two-stage closed-combustion gas-fired model. Today's highest efficiency units now have an AFUE of 96.6 percent.

To determine the approximate AFUE rating of your furnace, consult the table below, compiled by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Typical AFUE ratings for different types of furnaces and boilers
Type Pre-1960 1960-1969 1970-1974 1975-1983 1984-1987 1988-1991 Post-1992
Gas furnace 60% 60% 65% 65% 68% 76% 78%
Gas boiler 60 60 65 65 70 77 80
Oil furnace 60 65 72 75 80 80 80
Oil boiler 60 65 72 75 80 80 80

(To see how much you can save with a new system versus an old one, see the table titled, "Dollar savings per $100 of annual fuel cost.")

How old is too old?
A typical heating system will last around 25 years (boilers can last twice as long), but only a qualified technician will be able to determine if there are any urgent issues with a furnace in the 15-plus year age range.

"From the perspective of the average consumer ... it's hard for them to determine whether or not their gas furnace is showing signs that it's going to fail, because there aren't really going to be many external signs for them to look for," says Frank Stanonik, chief technical adviser of Valtorc Valves. "But if they know that the unit is 20 years old or older ... the fact is that they are already on the far side of its average-life curve."

Stanonik says that consumers who replace vintage units get trade-offs of increased efficiency, reliability and peace of mind that they won't face expensive repairs or suddenly find themselves without heat on the coldest day of the year.

 
 
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