Subscribe to the Journal, call 505-823-4400

          Front Page

How Your Furnace Could Burn You

By Dan McKay
Copyright 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    Replacing that broken furnace is about to get more expensive in Albuquerque.
    Requirements that go into effect April 1 call for homes to have 90 percent efficient furnaces. The rules apply to new homes or people who replace the furnace in their existing home.
    Opponents say that the city is going too far and that they may challenge the regulation in court.
    The goal is to increase energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
    Scott Ruch, whose firm has installed furnaces for years, said the 90 percent models typically cost $400 to $900 more than the standard less-efficient furnace.
    One person who contacted the Journal said the cost would be several thousand dollars more for installation.
    But supporters say the new furnaces have a payoff. Monthly gas bills should be lower and the home should be warmer and heated more evenly.
    "It makes your house so much more comfortable," said Ruch, who owns Scott Ruch Heating, Air Conditioning, Plumbing and Electrical Inc.
    The changes are part of the "green" building code approved by Mayor Martin Chávez and city councilors. The ordinance was enacted last year, with many of the requirements going into effect April 1.
    But Dawn Matson, president of Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group, said the city needs federal permission to enact more stringent rules for furnaces and air conditioners. She also said the federal government just reviewed furnace regulations and set them at 80 percent efficiency.
    Albuquerque's rule "leapfrogs the federal mandate," Matson said.
    Angelica Martinez, a state employee who lives in the Northeast Heights, said contractors told her they would have to dig up her home's foundation and front yard for the new furnace— at a cost of several thousand dollars. That's because 90 percent efficient furnaces typically create water as a byproduct and need a drainage line.
    "I understand we're trying to be green and more environmentally friendly, but at what cost?" Martinez asked.
    Faced with the extra cost, she chose to install an 80 percent efficient furnace, with no water byproduct, prior to the new rule kicking in.
    Ruch said there's no need to dig up the yard or foundation. The water can be drained some other way, he said.
    "Every installation is totally different," he said.
    It's even easier to do in new home construction, Ruch said.
    "I can't imagine a situation where people would have to tear up a yard," said City Councilor Isaac Benton, an architect. The water can be piped to the outside of the building, he said. It doesn't have to be connected to the existing sewer system.
    The cost can range from roughly $3,000 to $4,000 for high-efficiency furnaces, Ruch said.
    Martinez, meanwhile, said she estimated a 90 percent furnace would cost her $5,500 because of the expense of tearing up the yard.
    Benton suggested the cost of 90 percent efficient furnaces may come down.
    "The market is going to change," he said. "People will start to get competitive with high-efficiency products as time goes on."
    John Bucholz, Albuquerque's green-building manager, said some homes can get an exemption altogether. Houses that are heated exclusively through wall or floor heaters can't get a 90 percent furnace because they aren't available for those systems.
    And the green building code also includes an option for "performance" standards. That means that, if homeowners don't want to install an efficient furnace, they can opt to make other improvements that save an equivalent amount of energy. Installing better insulation in the roof, for example, could help meet the requirement, Bucholz said.
    Federal tax credits, meanwhile, can help offset the cost of putting in a 90 percent furnace, he said.
    The construction and operation of buildings comprise about 48 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, Bucholz said.
    "It's actually the big item," he said.
    Bucholz has made presentations on the new energy code to suppliers, builders, developers and others.
    The regulations apply to people who live within Albuquerque city limits.
    Furnace Fight
  • The efficiency of a furnace— usually expressed as a percentage— refers to how much fuel is converted to heat. The city plans to require 90 percent efficient furnaces, starting April 1.
  • A high-efficiency furnace could save a homeowner about $10 a month, according to the federal government's "Energy Star" Web site (energystar.gov.) That example is based on a 2,500-square-foot home that goes from a 78 percent efficient furnace to a 90 percent furnace.
  • Homeowners with wall or floor furnaces can get an exemption from the new requirements on a case-by-case basis.
  • Opponents say the city is going too far by requiring 90 percent furnaces. The federal government recently set its regulations at 80 percent.
  • Opponents may challenge the regulation in court.