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STEVE MAXWELL: Three key questions to ask before you buy a new furnace

This ground-source heat pump harvests heat energy from the soil, concentrates it, then delivers it as warm air to the home. Ground source heat pumps are more expensive to install than air source models, but they are more efficient at very cold outdoor temperatures.
This ground-source heat pump harvests heat energy from the soil, concentrates it, then delivers it as warm air to the home. Ground source heat pumps are more expensive to install than air source models, but they are more efficient at very cold outdoor temperatures. - Steve Maxwell

How’s your furnace working? It’s not too much to say that your furnace, boiler or heat pump is actually a vital life support system during the depths of any Canadian winter. This is why it’s so important to ask yourself three questions before you choose a replacement.  

When should I replace my current system?

If what you’ve got is more than 20 years old, it’s time for replacement. Twenty five years is the absolute longest any heating system lasts reliably, and even then not all systems make it that far. You’re heating on borrowed time with an old clunker, and a mid-winter breakdown could be a real pain. The best free source of detailed technical information I’ve found so far on choosing a new Canadian residential heating system is The Ultimate Furnace Guide. (https://reliancehomecomfort.com/furnace-guide/). It includes information I don’t have room for here. 

Another reason for replacement is a big break down. Let’s say your 15-year-old natural gas furnace cost $5,000 to install when new and has a 20-year expected working life. Using the simplest accounting methods, that’s $250 of working life every year. Theoretically, your 15-year-old furnace still has $1,250 of working life left. Is it worth spending $200 to repair a simple issue that probably won’t need to be fixed again? Yes, I’d say so. Is your old heating system worth a $500 repair? Probably not.

Upgrading an old furnace can lead to energy savings of hundreds of dollars a year. This forced air natural gas furnace is also connected to central air conditioning.
Upgrading an old furnace can lead to energy savings of hundreds of dollars a year. This forced air natural gas furnace is also connected to central air conditioning.

What energy source is best?

Household heating systems don’t actually make heat, they transform energy from one form into warmer air in your home.  The most popular heating energy sources include natural gas, propane, oil and electricity. The main thing to understand is that a dollar spent on one form of energy can deliver a very different amount of heat compared with the same dollar spent on another form of energy. 

A million BTUs of heat delivered by an electric baseboard heater, for instance, costs $44.86,assuming a 15 cent/kilowatt-hour rate. That same one million BTUs of heat delivered by a furnace that’s 82 per cent efficient burning natural gas at 13 cents/cubic meter is only $4.39. That’s roughly 90 per cent more heat from natural gas for the same amount of money. 

So what about propane? If you pay more than $1 per liter for propane delivered to your home (and it’s more expensive than this where I live in rural Ontario), the heat from that propane costs more than the same amount of heat delivered by electricity.

All else being equal, if you’re heating in Canada and your home has access to natural gas through underground pipes, get a furnace or boiler that burns this stuff. Long-term price is low, large supplies are domestically controlled, and Canada has enough natural gas to support current consumption rates for 300 years. Rural areas usually have no natural gas service, so propane delivered by truck is a popular substitute. I suspect few homeowners realize just how expensive propane heat really is. 

This air-source heat pump delivers two- to three times more heat than the electricity it takes to operate. A unit like this can also function as an air conditioner during hot weather.
This air-source heat pump delivers two- to three times more heat than the electricity it takes to operate. A unit like this can also function as an air conditioner during hot weather.

How much insulation does your home have now?

All this talk about efficiency and cost means little if you haven’t already insulated your home to optimal levels. If your attic currently has eight 
inches of insulation and you increase this to 22 inches, you can easily save enough money each year to pay for a week-long tropical vacation at an all-inclusive resort. Walls are more challenging to insulate, but adding an extra layer of rigid foam to exterior walls will save substantial money while also making your house more comfortable. A well-insulated home at 21ºC is more comfortable than a poorly insulated home at 21ºC because of the cold zones and drafts you’ll feel. As usual in life, the better informed you are, the better a decision you’ll make on a new heating system.

Visit STEVE MAXWELL online at BaileyLineRoad.com for free access to hundreds of Canadian home improvement articles and videos.

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