Indoor weather continues

For those who missed earlier episodes of “Fun with V and E: The Great Indoor Winter of 2007,” our furnace started gasping its last breaths late last week, just in time for a week of record low temperatures. (You’ve probably heard that the California citrus and avocado industry is expecting a $1B loss, and the Governator declared a state of emergency in a bunch of counties.) As a result, most of this week it’s been high 30s/low 40s outside and mid 40s inside. We’ve been shivering under even an astonishingly large heap of bedding by night, and by day I’ve rediscovered the value of long johns, fleece, flannel, and many layers, even in my office with the space heater on. V has been going around in her stocking cap. This morning I washed a bunch of pots and pans just for the pleasure of having my hands in hot water. (They did need washing.)

It turns out that it was probably a relatively easy fix costing a few hundred dollars to get the old POS working again, but on its best day that old thing still sucks, and I’ve known for a long time that I should probably replace it. It never gets below about 30 around here, yet my utility bill soars from $50-75/mo in the summer to $200-350 in the winter, which is pretty ridiculous. It’s partly due to the maybe 60% efficiency of the old furnace, which appears to be at least 25 years old and too small for the house besides (75K btu, where 90-100K btu is a better idea). It’s also partly due to the debacle of energy deregulation in California, in particular how PG&E’s rates are capped on electricity (which is expensive to produce and inefficient to distribute) but not natural gas (which is abundant, if problematic for other reasons in recent years). If you figure that a lot of our electricity is produced by burning natural gas and then pumping electricity down the lines, and line loss is way more expensive than gas-pumping, it’s really stupid not to go straight to the source and burn your own gas, but in California you pay more to do the smarter thing. Go figure. It’s ridiculous, but I’m still going to do the right thing, and there are some signs that California has finally figured out that reregulating the energy industry is needed, so maybe someday my PG&E bills will reward my good behavior.

So, I had appointments with four different estimators plus two others who never made it (one called to cancel, one didn’t), and a seventh from Sears blew me off twice–scheduled me, then called the morning of to cancel, both times. After my water heater experience from hell with Sears, I didn’t find that too surprising.

Everybody had the same advice about the basic question, once I stipulated that I wanted a PG&E-rebate-qualified high-efficiency furnace; namely, we should get a variable-speed, two-stage, high-efficiency furnace of the same capacity. They extolled, variously, four brands, American Standard & Trane, which are the same company and basically the same furnace, Ruud, and Amana. All are rated well by Consumer Reports. They differed on whether additional things were needed. I ended up with bids ranging from $3334 for furnace only to $12070 for furnace, fancy filter, redoing all the ductwork under the house, splitting the house into two zones, and gold-plating a bottle of snake oil.

The first guy was the gold-plated snake oil guy, and the other three were basically sensible geeks. Snake Oil guy was clearly all about sales and pushing a dubious rebate scheme that looked like a big marketing scam to me. One of the geeks took great pains to freak me out about all kinds of code issues, and I ended up concluding that this was a sales-by-fear tactic intended to make me accept a price $2K higher for exactly the same furnace installation. All of them guaranteed to do whatever it takes to pass the inspection at no additional cost, and Code Freak guy was the only one who thought that my ductwork (which is clearly also some PsOS) was fine.

Third was Family Business guy, who actually seemed to know what he was talking about and who wasn’t freaky or dogmatic about anything at all, including brand of furnace (Trane or Amana), and who presented all the options at competitive prices, explained the pros and cons, and said it was really up to me. I liked him and had decided it was his bid to lose when the fourth guy arrived. This guy basically said the same thing as everybody else and gave the 2nd lowest price but didn’t bother breaking out much detail. At some point I asked him about his accent, and he answered cautiously that he’s Iraqi. I replied that I have never voted for this president and never would, and he immediately relaxed, and there followed an interesting exchange about the war and how he’s had to move his extended family to Syria. It was an interesting conversation. His heating proposal was reasonable, and he ended up second place in my thinking.

After a long, shivering talk Wednesday night, we decided on Family Business guy and the Amana, whose efficiency has a 96% AFUE rating, vs. 92.x% for all the others. That’s a trivial difference except that it qualifies you for a $200 Federal tax credit, plus the Amana costs $700 less than the equivalent models from other brands (at least in the estimates I got) and has a better warranty. Since we have two people with allergies and asthma, three furry critters, and a bunch of friends/family with allergies, we also opted to add the $800 superduper HEPA filter (a Trane CleanEffects, which was $1695 from the snake oil guy).

And then we come to the tricky decisions: ductwork and zoning. First, ductwork:

California requires that you test all ducts and seal leaks any time you do a furnace replacement. In some zones including Oakland, buying a 92%+ furnace exempts you. However, it’s still true that leaky, poorly insulated ducts are a bad thing, because they let heat out and pollutants (like mold, and my crawlspace’s rat-shitty-dust) in.

Snake Oil guy said this is bad, bad, bad, we need to redo all the duct work; you wouldn’t have to, you’re exempt, but we really ought to, especially if we’re zoning and messing around with all this stuff anyway.

Code Freak guy looked at all the dust and crud that appears in stripes on my old ductwork and said, “That’s normal–leaks suck in air, so the insulation filters out the dust and you see dirty areas. It’s not big deal, because the insulation filters the stuff. You see this all the time.” But he said they could test and fix up leaks for another $600.

Family Business guy said they looked basically okay, but that if we redid them we’d probably get a performance gain about equal to that of the new furnace vs. old, and that doing so would also give us the opportunity to resize and rebalance things so that the house is more evenly heated (we’ve found that the living room and master bedroom are much colder than the small rooms, which is not surprising given that they’re bigger, glassier, and fed by vents exactly the same size as all the other rooms).

Iraqi guy said they’re basically okay “but they need some care. We’ll check them over and do some re-sealing.”

As for zoning, Snake Oil guy of course extolled its virtues and built it right into his price. Code Freak guy said not to bother, it wasn’t worth it. Family Business guy said it’s nice but not necessary, but then said that he himself has a crappy old furnace like mine in his house, and after he zoned the house, he’s been able to put up with it for another 20 years. He didn’t think there was a strong case for or against zoning in our house, but said we’d like it if we did it. Iraqi guy said not to bother, because it only really works when the house is divided into distinct areas like a two-flat; with my open-plan, all the heat’s going to move everywhere on its own anyway, so it’s kind of pointless.

We ended up deciding yes on the ductwork and no on the zoning. All this is costing us $6134, minus a $300 PG&E rebate, a $200 tax credit, and supposedly up to $1K/yr savings in energy use, but we’ll see about that. If that savings actually comes through, we’ll also get a PG&E discount for reducing our average monthly consumption by whatever percent it is they set as the goal–I think it’s 12%, but don’t quote me.

Fortunately, Family Business guy had a cancellation for today which meant we’re getting our furnace before rather than after the weekend. His guy Jeff is banging away downstairs putting in the furnace now, which he said would take him pretty much all day, and a crew is coming on Tuesday to redo all the ducts. On Monday night I plan to crank the house up to 70-something so we’ll make it through another furnace-less day on Tuesday.

Finally, now that the cows are safely outside in the neighbors’ pasture, we’re looking into a lock for the barn door: I priced out wood-burning stove inserts for our crappy sheet metal fireplace that looks nice but sucks heat out of the house, and we’re giving strong consideration to spending just shy of $3K to install one that can heat up 1200-2000 sq ft, or possibly even one size larger. I also looked at gas fireplaces and wood pellet stoves, but it seems to me that with this spiffy new furnace, the heating power of greatest emergency use to us is a backup system works no matter how many utilities have gone out of service. So, gas is out. As for wood pellets, those stoves use motors and electricity. And if I don’t have something that takes logs, what am I supposed to do with the huge oak tree that is now a stack of logs under my stairs? Or the big fallen branches on the hill behind my house that look like kindling waiting to happen?

Anyone got opinions on this puppy?