updated 11/20/2007 12:19:18 PM ET 2007-11-20T17:19:18

As families face record-high heating bills, the Energy Department on Monday issued new requirements for residential furnaces — although critics say the new rules will do little to save consumers money or push more efficient equipment onto the market.

The new standard, which would replace 15-year-old regulations, requires all residential gas furnaces to be 80 percent efficient by 2015. Critics argued almost all gas furnaces sold already meet that level, meaning it will do little to spur new technology.

Energy efficiency advocates had argued for a minimum 90 percent efficiency, a level already achieved or exceeded by about a third of the gas furnaces sold, or for regional standards with more stringent requirements in cold-weather areas.

The Energy Department rejected both options, maintaining it has no authority to issue regional standards — a position some energy efficiency advocates dispute. Energy legislation now before Congress would specifically allow regional standards.

The new federal requirements would increase the minimum efficiency standards for residential gas furnaces from 78 percent to 80 percent and oil furnaces from 78 percent to 82 percent, which about a third of oil furnaces already meet. Efficiency levels for oil and gas boilers also would increase.

Idea is to curb energy losses
The percentages reflect the amount of heat put out by a furnace compared with the energy actually produced by the fuel that is being burned. At 80 percent efficiency, one-fifth of the energy produced by the natural gas is lost.

Efficiency advocates said the greatest potential for energy savings and reduction in carbon dioxide, a leading cause of global warming, rests in improvements in natural gas furnace efficiency.

About 3.2 million gas furnaces are sold every year, compared with about 120,000 oil furnaces and about 300,000 oil and gas boilers, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

The Energy Department said in a statement that the new requirements would save the same amount of energy over the 24-year life of a typical furnace as the total energy used by 2.5 million households over a single year.

The new standards "will not only cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, but they also allow consumers to make smarter energy choices that will save energy and money," Andy Karsner, the department's assistant secretary for efficiency and renewables, said in a statement.

Activist: 'Very disappointing'
Consumer and efficiency advocates scoffed at the government energy-saving projections as far less than what is achievable.

"It's a do-nothing standard," said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Boston-based Appliance Standard Awareness Project, a private advocacy group. "If you care about efficiency it's kind of a joke. It's very disappointing."

A third of gas furnaces sold already are 90 percent efficient. Four states — Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maryland—_ have already set their own furnace standards, with several other states expected to soon do the same.

A 90 percent efficiency standard for gas furnaces "would provide more than 17 times the carbon savings" as the new regulations, said David Goldstein, energy program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. A typical consumer would save 11 percent on a home heating bill with a 90 percent efficient gas furnace, compared with many of the units now being used, according to ACEEE.

The new furnace standards were issued under pressure from the courts. In January 2006, the department announced a plan to eliminate a 30-year backlog on appliance standards and issue new standards on 18 appliances over the next five years.

The department had asked the court for more time to consider the impact of high natural gas prices on its furnace regulations and possibly consider the tougher 90 percent standard for gas furnaces. But the court rejected a time extension.

The Energy Department "didn't need a do-over," said Charles Harak of the National Consumer Law Center. He said the department is 13 years behind a legal deadline for setting new furnace standards and has had extensive analysis of the 90 percent efficiency option.

The new standards, to go into effect in 2015, would replace requirements that were issued in 1987 and went into effect in 1992.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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