The decision to replace a furnace can be difficult. If the decision to replace hasn’t already been made by circumstance, cost is the usually primary factor in the decision. Can you afford to replace your heating equipment, or can you get one more season out of the old furnace? Boston homes need heating equipment that can tolerate a tough winter, so what should you look at when considering replacement?
The cost of the replacement is certainly a consideration. Many homeowners choose to upgrade (or install) their central air conditioning unit at the same time they change out their heating equipment. While this isn’t strictly necessary, depending upon the type of heating system in the home, homeowners can save thousands of dollars by redoing the heating and cooling at the same time.
The cost of operation is also a consideration. For homeowners with oil furnaces, or oil-fed boilers, the cost of heating oil has risen sharply and steadily while the cost of other heating fuels has remained relatively constant. Heating oil is nearing $4 per gallon now, and this rise in price is stirring bad memories of 2008, when the price of heating oil (at times) was nearing a whopping $5 per gallon. Natural gas furnaces can heat the same space for about 2/3 the current cost of heating oil, and the cost of natural gas is expected to remain steady. (In fact, it’s dropped about 2% in the last 12 months.)
Electric heaters are also very cost-intensive, and because most electricity is produced from coal-fired plants, the carbon emissions related to electric heat make it one of the least green options for heating. You’ll pay about twice as much to heat a given space with electricity as you would spend on the natural gas needed to heat the same space. The cost of electricity is not likely to decrease sharply enough to make it cost-effective in the foreseeable future.
Aside from the cost of the equipment and the cost of operation, another consideration is safety. Very old furnaces (30+ years) normally have asbestos linings in or around the combustion chamber. These linings are considered safe as long as the asbestos doesn’t become “friable” or airborne. (Asbestos can also be found in some old ductwork.) Friable asbestos releases microscopic particles that can remain suspended in air. If asbestos particles are inhaled, they collect in the lungs and the body cannot clear them out. Long-term exposure to asbestos can lead to a particularly difficult form of lung cancer known as malignant mesothelioma.
The potential for health problems is real when the asbestos lining in a furnace deteriorates. New furnaces do not contain asbestos, so this kind of hazard would be mitigated by furnace replacement. In addition, very old furnaces are highly inefficient. By replacing the furnace, homeowners can recover the cost of the new heating equipment in just a couple of years!
An added consideration is that most high-efficiency furnaces vent directly to the outside, bypassing the chimney altogether. Exhaust gases from conventional gas furnaces and oil-burning heaters are vented up the chimney and can damage the interior of the stack over time. To repair this, the chimney may need to be rebuilt or lined, which can represent a significant expense.
In the next few weeks, I’ll look at oil-to-gas conversions, including reasons to convert, the benefits of direct venting for heating equipment, and the environmental considerations of oil heating. In the mean time, if you’d like more information about oil-to-gas conversions, or replacing old furnaces, please contact us at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911 for a consultation.