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Choosing an energy efficient furnace for an old house

By on February 4, 2015


While we’re finalizing our project plans for 2015, we thought we’d post an update to our dramatic furnace breakdown story from last winter. Remember how we were on the hunt for a new energy efficient furnace? Spoiler alert: There’s a happy ending!

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

In case you missed it, here’s a quick background. When we bought our house in the spring of 2013, the home inspector noted the advanced age and condition of our 25-year-old furnace, and recommended we replace it as soon as possible. Since we were taking on so many other updates to the house at that time, we opted to see if the furnace could get through at least one more winter. Well, one freezing polar vortex night last February, it drew its last shuddering breath and died. So we left this story off last time as we were getting estimates for a new heating and cooling system.

The Night our Furnace Died | Rather Square

Despite the immediacy of the situation, John met with multiple HVAC specialists to get a clear long-term view of what would work best for our house. Since we knew this would be a big purchase, we wanted to make the most informed decision possible. John ended up being really impressed with one particular installer who walked around the entire house with him and inspected the layout of the rooms, our insulation (or lack thereof) situation, and our overall energy needs. He then gave us a system recommendation – including size, power, and efficiency rating – based on these findings. His attention to detail helped us feel pretty confident about going forward, so we went ahead and signed a contract with him.

Then, over the next few days, the old furnace was removed…

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

…and the new energy efficient furnace – an American Standard two-stage high efficiency model – was installed. It’s 97% energy efficient and uses a variable speed fan for the two stages. Not only does this help deliver consistent heating with fewer temperature swings, but it means it’s much quieter than our old furnace.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

In addition, the installers re-routed the exhaust pipes – previously, the exhaust vented out alongside the walkway we use every day and it was damaging the exterior stucco, so we had them move the pipe outlets to the other side of the house. They drilled through the outside wall and put an unobtrusive cover over the pipe openings that blends into the color of our stucco.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

They also carefully detached our whole-house humidifier from the old furnace (which we had originally installed ourselves) and re-connected it to the new one.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

Our new HVAC system includes an air conditioner as well. It’s an American Standard multi-stage model, with a rating of up to 18 SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) which means it’s incredibly energy efficient. As you can see, we put Toddler E in charge of supervising its delivery.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

It was installed along with the furnace in February, but we had to wait for warmer weather before it could be fully charged. So the HVAC guys came back later in the spring to do that and get it operational in time for summer.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

Once the fancy new energy efficient furnace was up and running, we were so happy to have a warm, livable house again! With our often-extreme Midwest winters and summers, a functioning heating and cooling system is not optional – it’s a necessity. So even though our bank account was several thousand dollars lighter after this unexpected expense, we felt that the money was well spent. And even more glad that we’d had enough in our emergency fund to pay for it without going into debt. Plus, we received $1,000 in energy efficiency rebates from our utility companies toward this purchase – quite a nice bonus!

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

So, now that we’ve had our new HVAC system for almost a year, how has it held up through the long drawn-out end of last winter, our pretty typical Chicago summer, and now halfway through this not-as-freezing-as-last-year-but-still-pretty-cold winter?

We’re happy to report that it’s been working really well! During cold weather, it’s nice and toasty inside our house, and in hot weather we’re cool as cucumbers.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

The temperature inside our home feels great, but we’ve been able to go even further and gather some hard data to support this. John’s been programming our Ecobee smart thermostat to better customize our heating and cooling cycles, and this allows us to easily track how the new energy efficient furnace responds to our old drafty house. It’s interesting to see the two stages and their usage patterns during outside temperature fluctuations. The furnace runs at the lower speed most of the time (therefore saving us energy and money) and only kicks into high gear during extreme temperature spikes.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

And we can also see if anything seems off. Recently John noticed that the house wasn’t as warm as it should be, compared to how he had programmed the thermostat’s settings. He called our service contractor and was able to show him actual quantifiable data to help figure out the problem. Luckily, it turned out that all we needed was a new filter – an easy $30 fix.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

We love our new furnace. And we’ve definitely noticed improvements in our utility costs – for example, our gas bill from last month was $100 less than the same month a year ago (when we still had our old furnace). Yay!

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

But… this fancy piece of machinery doesn’t entirely solve all our home’s energy efficiency issues. In our choice of HVAC system, we also had to consider the way our house holds all the heating and cooling that the furnace and air conditioner generate. We’re still dealing with largely un-insulated exterior walls, some old windows and doors, and an attic with deteriorated insulation that probably isn’t working very well… all of which allows a lot of our carefully heated and cooled air to escape to the outside. Even though our new furnace is sized properly for our home, it’s only part of our overall energy strategy, and it won’t work up to its full potential until we address the other things on our list.

Attic Insulation | Rather Square

We touched on some ideas briefly in our Insulation and Icicles post, but it’s a complicated process with both short-term and long-term fixes (and costs!) that we haven’t quite worked out yet. Our next step is to explore how to get more insulation in the exterior walls. But for now, we’re grateful to have our new furnace to keep us warm during these long cold days of winter.

Choosing an Energy Efficient Furnace for an Old House | Rather Square

If you’re interested in learning more about tax credits, rebates and other financial incentives for upgrading your home’s energy systems, check out Energy.gov to see what programs are available in your state and nationwide.

How has your home held up to the freezing winter temperatures of recent years?

P.S. This is our milestone 100th post on Rather Square! Can you believe it? We can’t – my typing fingers get tired just thinking about it. But seriously, we’re excited to have come this far. Here’s to the next 100 posts!

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February 4, 2015

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