Many thousands of years ago, humans learned an important lesson: we could use fire to cook food and keep warm.
Eventually, we learned how to control fire, to bring it indoors. The Roman Empire developed the concept of central heating. The centuries that followed brought the first furnaces, the first radiators and the first electric heaters.
But despite all the advances we’ve made in furnace efficiency, no one has developed a home heating system that will never break down or need to be replaced.
And when breakdowns happen, you’ll be faced with a few different questions: Should I repair my furnace, or replace it? What will it cost? Should I switch from oil to gas? What size do I need?
Below, we’ll explore the answers to these questions so that you have a better idea of what to do if and when your furnace stops working or better yet, if you’re being proactive in your research before the system breaks down.
A furnace uses a forced air system to heat a building by sending warm air through ducts, and can be powered by electricity, oil, propane or natural gas. A boiler heats water with a combustion chamber, then sends the water though pipes into a radiator.
They both have their pros and cons. Furnaces are easier to install and less expensive but are also less efficient and make more noise.
Boilers, meanwhile, use less fuel and provide a more consistent heat, but are harder to install and difficult to convert from a forced air system.
When it comes to switching heating systems, you may have better luck switching from oil to natural gas, which we will look at in the next section.
Right now, your furnace is hard at work keeping you and your family warm. But there may come a day where it stops working – or at least stops working well – leaving you with a big decision:
Do I repair or replace?
The answer to that question will depend on a few different factors:
- Your system’s age – You will typically get 15 to 20 years out of a furnace, although some systems can last much longer. When you replace aging equipment, you can take advantage of efficiency features that didn’t exist when the furnace was made.
- The cost – The national average for the cost of a new furnace is $4,000. When deciding whether to repair or replace, ask whether the furnace has exceeded more than three quarters of its life expectancy and if repairs will cost more than a third of the replacement cost.
- Efficiency – Older furnaces – we’re talking 20 years or more – usually have an Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency rating of 70 percent, while newer models are in the high 90s. By replacing an old furnace with a modern one, you’ll pay more up front, but come away with a more efficient system.
- Safety – Some furnace issues are so serious that replacement might be your only option. For example, a cracked heat exchanger can cause carbon monoxide to seep into your home.
Let’s say that, after considering these factors, you come away thinking that replacing your furnace is your best course of action. From there, you’ll want to think about the type of furnace you want, and what you’re prepared to pay.
When you a buy a new furnace these days, you’re more or less guaranteed to get one with a higher-efficiency rating. Under the law, furnaces have to be at least 80 percent efficient. Higher-end units carry an AFUE rating of 98 percent.
And this type of heating system brings with it a few important benefits:
- Savings – If your furnace’s AFUE rating is 80 percent, that means you’re still losing 20 percent of the heat your system produces. Bump that rating up to 98 percent and your heat loss drops down to 2 percent.
- Comfortable and quiet – You’ll get more even heating, better humidity control and less noise.
- Better for the environment – High-efficiency furnaces use a third less fuel than older models.
- Home value – If you decide to sell your home, you’ll also be able to sell potential buyers a new, more-efficient HVAC system.
In our next section, we’ll look at some things to consider when shopping for a high-efficiency furnace.
The average price of a new furnace in the Philadelphia area in 2018 is $5,400, although some higher-end units can cost as much as $10,000. It all comes down to the type and brand of the system.
Gas furnaces cost more to install, but homeowners will pay less for fuel and won’t see prices fluctuate as much with oil. They are cleaner, quieter and more energy efficient.
Because oil furnaces get their fuel from international sources, prices can fluctuate much more often. But customers in colder areas value oil heat as it offers more heat per BTU than other fuel sources and lets users in remote areas heat their homes without tapping into a utility. All you need is an oil tank.
But what if you have an oil furnace and want to switch over to gas? What if I want a boiler and not a furnace? We’ll explore those questions in our next two sections.
You can find the age of your furnace by looking at the dates inside the cabinet, or by searching its model number online. If you can’t determine the date when your furnace was made, it might be time to purchase a new one.
And as we said before, switching to a high-efficiency furnace means working with a system that has an AFUE rating of – in some cases – as high as 98 percent.
How does this translate to savings? Think of it this way: with that kind of rating, 98 cents of every dollar you spend on heating is converted to heat. With a lower-efficiency model, you’d be losing 20 cents.
Of course, having the most efficient system in the world won’t matter if it isn’t sized properly for your home. In our next section, we’ll talk about choosing the proper furnace size for your house.
For the last 16 years, the cost of heating a home with oil has consistently been much higher – 30 to 50 percent – than using gas.
With that in mind, it makes sense that you might want to switch from oil to gas. Doing so will mean answering three questions:
- Is natural gas available where I live? Most neighborhoods have gas infrastructure. Talk to your utility company to see if there’s a line near your home.
- What will it cost? You’ll need to pay to have your home connected, and for the new furnace.
- What about my oil tank? You’ll also need to pay to have your oil tank removed.
This might seem like a lot of work, but you’ll realize some significant savings by switching to a less expensive fuel source and a more efficiency system.
When shopping for a new gas furnace, bigger isn’t always better.
A heating system that’s too big wastes energy and may actually require extra duct work, which cuts into your energy savings. And a system that’s too small won’t be able to warm your home.
Picking the right size gas furnace involves considering three factors:
- Your home – We don’t just mean the size of your home. Look at things like your floor plan, the materials used to construct your house (brick provides more insulation than wood) and even factors like outside landscaping.
- Your climate – Someone living in New England will need a more powerful furnace than someone in a place with milder winters.
- Efficiency – Two furnaces might be the same size but have very different AFUE ratings.
We’ve talked a lot about AFUE ratings here, but we don’t want you to come away thinking they are the key to a furnace’s efficiency. Unfortunately, we see a lot of customers who come to us with that misconception. In our final section, we’ll review this and other costly assumptions about buying a heating system.
“One heating system is just as good as the next.”
“We can’t afford to finance this.”
“An AFUE rating tells the whole story.”
Take the AFUE statement. While it’s true that these ratings are important, they don’t give customers the whole picture. AFUE has nothing to do with electrical efficiency, product quality or other features the furnace might – or might not – offer.
Mistakes like these are easy to make. And getting your head around installing a new furnace can be difficult. We get it. We’re here to help.
Contact All Seasons Comfort Control to schedule a free, in-home consultation. We’ll be happy to work with you on this crucial project. Humanity has yet to create the perfect furnace, and until someone does, we’re here to help.