Friday, October 31, 2014

New furnace and air conditioner

The short story

My parents frequently use the phrase "the joys of home ownership." My latest "joy" was replacing my furnace and air conditioner. If you yourself are in the market for a new furnace and/or AC and you live in or around the Twin Cities, then you can reap some benefit from my already-done research, and I'll include the quotes I received later in this post. Ultimately, I chose Sedgwick Heating, because they had a combination of the best price, good warranty, were recommended to me by a coworker, and are a locally-owned business. This last part was important to me because, in other words, their reputation matters more to them than it would a large corporation. Long story short: they did well, and I'm satisfied. If you end up using Sedgwick because you read this blog post, please mention my name, because I think I get a gift card or something for the referral :)

UPDATE: I can no longer in good conscience recommend Sedgwick. I've had several hardware issues due to what appears to have been either defective parts or workmanship at installation, and while they did make a couple trips to fix things free of charge, they've since stopped standing behind their work.

The longer story


It all started when one of my coworkers mentioned he was getting quotes for his own furnace replacement, and I learned that furnaces ought to be replaced every 15-25 years (so I'm told). That got me wondering: "how old are my furnace and air conditioner?" Fortunately, both my units were still working fine, but I knew they were getting up there in age, and figured it might behoove me to start gathering quotes for replacements - after all, I'd much rather schedule that work proactively, leisurely, and on my own timing, than in the middle of January when it's negative 40 and the furnace decides to give up the ghost.

Turns out my old furnace was manufactured in 1987 and installed in 1988, so 27 years old, and my AC was installed in 1980, or 34 years old. I think my grandparents got their money's worth out of that purchase! That discovery reinforced my decision to look at newer, more efficient models. Autumn seems to be a popular time for furnace replacements, with lots of sales/discounts/rebates to be found, at least up until they hit the "busy" season (after the first hard freeze). I went in figuring, incorrectly, a ballpark of $5,000 for the work, which was a few thousand dollars short of reality. (as a result my bank accounts are currently depleted; no more big spending for me in the near future!)

All told I had five companies quote me for a full furnace and air conditioner replacement. Two of the companies were recommended by coworkers (including Sedgwick, the company I ultimately chose), one other I found from Google searching, one is a conglomerate energy company, and one is the company that installed my house's previous furnace for my Grandparents. I attempted to contact a sixth company that was recommended by another coworker, but they did not return my inquiry, and frankly by that point I already had enough numbers floating around that my head was a little dizzy.

Below is the breakdown of my five quotes. It's worth noting in a couple cases the actual paper quotes I received were near-undecipherable; some companies create quotes in an easy-to-read fashion, but some seem to rely on convolution in order to keep you from understanding where your money is actually being spent. It's also worth noting that, for two of the companies, I contacted the sales rep again after I'd learned more about different options, to ask for a tweaked quote with a better warranty, better air filtration, or a lower-rated air conditioner (more about those in the following sections), and that was no issue for them to generate revised numbers. Lesson being: if you want to change something on your quote, don't be afraid to ask - the salesmen were, in my experience, more than happy to work with you in order to try to win your business.

Company Brand Furnace Price Furnace Efficiency AC Price AC Efficiency Warranty
Labor / Parts
Total quote
(with air purifier, after rebates and any discounts)
Company 1: Single-Stage   $3,570 95% $3,330 13.5 SEER 1/10
(upgrade to 10/10 for $1,855)
Company 1: Two-Stage Trane $4,395 97% $3,000 13.5 SEER 1/10
(lifetime on heat exchanger)
(upgrade to 10/10 for $1,855)
Company 1: Modulating Lennox $4,695 98% $4,630 17.8 SEER 1/5
(upgrade to 10/10 for $1,855)
Company 2: Two-Stage Carrier Performance $4,100 96% $3,505 16.5 SEER 10/10
(complete furnace replacement if it breaks in first 5 years)
Company 2: Modulating Carrier Infinity $4,780 98% $3,810 21 SEER 10/10
(complete furnace replacement if it breaks in first 5 years)
Company 3: Two-Stage York $4,225 96% $6,675 16 SEER 10/10
(20 years on heat exchanger)
Company 3: Modulating York $5,200 97% $6,675 16 SEER 10/10
(20 years on heat exchanger)
Company 4: Two-Stage Ruud $4,465 96% $3,738 14 SEER 5/10 $8,126
Company 4: Modulating Carrier Infinity $5,375 97% $5,080 16 SEER
5/10 $9,162
Company 5: Two-Stage Goodman $4,710 96% $3,550 13 SEER 10/10 $8,006
Company 5: Modulating Goodman $5,750 98% $3,550 13 SEER 10/10 $9,232

If you're interested in names and contact information for any of these companies, email me

The poor guy first on the list had to explain everything to me, as I was [practically] clueless, but as each subsequent salesman visited, I got smarter and smarter. I learned furnaces come in several varieties: single-stage, dual-stage, and modulating (which is a fancy way of saying, basically, 65-stage). In I'm-not-an-expert lingo: a "stage" is how high the furnace comes on, like, 100%, or 50%, or somewhere in between. My previous furnace was a 100,000 BTU single-stage, which means it was either on at 100%, or off. (A BTU, or "British Thermal Unit", is approximately the heat you get from striking one match). This is different from a dual-stage furnace, which can come on at either 50%, or 100% power. A modulating furnace can come on at anywhere between ~35-100%. And a smart thermostat can figure out that, in order to heat the house X degrees for example, it needs to burn at 50% for 2 hours. My understanding is this doesn't really save you any money on gas, because you either burn at 50% for those 2 hours, or at 100% for 1 hour, either way you use the same amount of gas, but the house's temperature stays more even and less roller-coastery with a more-than-1-stage furnace.

The number of stages is different than saying "high-efficiency," which is another consideration. My old furnace was [allegedly] 80% efficient, meaning that for every dollar I spent on gas, 20¢ went up the chimney as wasted heat. High-efficiency furnaces range from 95-98% efficient, wasting only 2-5¢/$. You can get HE furnaces in single-stage, dual-stage, or modulating. After the first company came out, I didn't even ask for 80% quotes, because I knew I was interested in an HE furnace.

HE furnaces use a two-pipe intake/exhaust system, which in homeowner-speak translates "new holes in your exterior wall." Because the furnace is so efficient at re-using heat (which is how it gets to 95%+ efficiency), the exhaust air no longer has enough energy to rise up out of a chimney stack, necessitating the run of a PVC pipe out the side of your house. They run a second pipe alongside it for fresh air intake. There are rules about where these pipes can exit the house - not over a sidewalk, not within so many feet of another opening (like a window, or other vents), etc, but in my case we were able to run out the side of my house that no one ever sees (win!). Inside the house, the PVC pipe must angle down 1/4" per horizontal foot, so that any moisture runs back into the furnace instead of collecting in the pipe. This means it is to your advantage to run as short a distance as possible, so you don't have pipes hanging too far down from the ceiling. I was fortunate that my installers were able to cut two holes in my basement ceiling and run the pipes adjacent to the floor joists, above the sheetrock, so I don't have anything hanging down. This made me very happy.

As far as brands of furnace, what I've gathered is Trane, Lennox, Carrier, Goodman, and Ruud are all fairly good (some older models in some of those brands may have been not-so-good, but newer models are fine), and the only one to avoid is York. Again, this is "so I'm told." Researching brands of furnaces I and my coworker observed that, when you're reading online reviews, many of the issues people complain about would be better attributed to the installation / installers, than the furnace manufacturer. Therefore, read online reviews with a readily-available salt-shaker (grain of salt? get it? hahaha).

Lastly, I mentioned my previous furnace was 100,000 BTU. All five salesmen agreed that for the number of square feet in my house, that was overkill, and my new furnace need only be 60,000. I'm really hoping that'll help save on my gas bill this winter.

Air conditioner

In addition to furnaces, I learned a little bit about air conditioners, though not as much because I live in Minnesota, and I only get to use my air conditioner about 10 days out of the year. One of the salesmen drew this metaphor: if you're buying a car, and you only have to commute to downtown, it's not worth spending thousands of dollars extra to get a car with a few more mpg. But if you commute to Rochester (80 miles away), then spending the extra money for a fuel-efficient car is worth it in the long run. In my case, living in Minnesota, an air conditioner is the commute to downtown, and a furnace is the commute to Rochester - aka the furnace is where you want to invest the most money for efficiency because you'll see the most return on investment, whereas with the air conditioner it's okay to skimp a little bit.

Air conditioner efficiency is measured in SEERs, or "Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio." The state-mandated minimum for new ACs installed in Minnesota is 13 SEERs. (for comparison: I heard estimates anywhere from 4-8 SEER for my old 1980 AC unit). I decided to purchase a minimal 13-SEER AC, because I'm a little-old-gramma who's always cold and so I rarely use air conditioning - no sense spending extra thousands of dollars.

That's pretty much all I learned about air conditioners. Oh, wait, no, there was one more thing: when you get a new AC, ask your installer to replace the pipes, rather than clean the old ones. Something about the old vs new coolant. Google that for more information.

Air filtration

From each salesman I also asked for quotes about air filtration units. This is a big deal for me, who suffers from year-round allergies. Each company had different solutions which made it difficult to compare. In the end, my installed system includes a 4" MERV 16 filter, and a fancy UV light that kills mold and other biological junk. Additionally, the new fan is significantly more electrically-efficient than before, so I can afford (and it's suggested) to run the fan 24/7, continuously filtering my house's air. For practical numbers, my installers said the new fan should cost ~$4/month to run, where the old one would have cost ~$30/month (which is why I never ran the old fan - too expensive). My next electric bill will tell whether that $4 number is about right.

Prior to having my new furnace installed, I did have my ducts cleaned, something I learned you're supposed to do every 3-5 years. Oops! I moved in in 2006 and have never had my ducts cleaned. I wonder if that's been part of my allergy struggle? There are a bunch of duct-cleaning companies out there; the key factors are: it should take a couple/several hours, and they should use some sort of device that goes into the ducts and knocks junk loose, rather than relying only on air pressure. Ask your installer if they have a company they recommend, or if their company does duct cleanings themselves.


After deliberating and finally choosing a company and model of furnace+AC (as noted in my introductory paragraph, I chose Sedgwick Heating), my final big decision before the installers arrived was what kind of thermostat I would like. My original quote included a non-wifi Honeywell programmable thermostat, but I was tempted for several days by dreams of having a Nest intelligent thermostat (with the future potential of expanding into the Nest-brand smoke+CO detectors I've longed for). Money didn't need to enter my consideration, as the Nest was marginally less expensive than the Honeywell.

After a lot of review-reading, I opted against the Nest because I wanted fuller control over the scheduling - never having had a programmable thermostat before, and being a control-freak, this was my primary deciding factor. With that said, I admit I also experienced a bit of a "get off my lawn" moment in not wanting a thermostat that was wifi and/or internet-accessible, because I shared my coworker's opinion about the security risks of an Internet-connected thermostat. Which is too bad, because the Nest thermostat resembles HAL 9000, and that would have added some very nice geek-points to my abode.


My salesman, Dan, told me to expect the installation crew anywhere between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m.; the first installer arrived at 7:45 a.m., so right within the expected time frame. When I showed him the basement, he responded "ooh, nice and clean around the [furnace] area!" - I guess I did a good job moving everything out of the way! We talked about where I'd like the HE pipes run in the ceiling, and he said they should be able to finish by around 3 p.m. or so. He started tearing out the old furnace while he waited for his coworker to arrive with their second truck. I forget which man was which, but my two installers were Adam and Grant, and both were friendly and respectful. Whenever they came inside they changed shoes, thus limiting how much dirt got tracked into the house. They also laid down a rug at the top of my staircase where there is a patch of carpeting, though I did still have to vacuum that area at the end of the day. Not a big deal, because it was due for a good vacuuming, anyway.

Mid-day, I actually left to get my hair cut and meet a friend for lunch, but gave the installers my number in case anything came up. Lunch was literally only a block and a half away, so I could skedaddle home quickly if needed. Otherwise I just sat upstairs and caught up on emails all day. At one point I did wander downstairs to see how things were going, and saw parts strewn (in an organized fashion) all about, but they cleaned up very very well. We did our final walk-through at about 4/4:15 p.m., and they'd vacuumed downstairs and left it looking nice. By 4:30 p.m., I'd written the check (3% discount for paying cash), and they were gone. That sure beats the 12-hour install one of my coworkers had with a different company!

All-told there were only two "hiccups", neither of which detracts from my two-thumbs-up recommendation of Sedgwick. Hiccup 1: they didn't vacuum my stairs as part of their cleanup, and there was a small amount of dirt / outside debris left. That's okay, I needed to vacuum up all the cobwebs that had grown anyway. Hiccup 2: they were also supposed to replace a vent in my bedroom, but they didn't have the right size vent cover in their trucks (totally understandable - I know you can't stock every possible replacement part in a truck!). I said they could just drop one off and I'll screw it into place - that hasn't happened yet, I think they forgot about me, but I contacted my salesman Dan, and he said he'd get that sorted out. Seriously, those were the only things that weren't perfect, and if that's the *worst* I can complain about, I call that a well-done and successful installation!

Oh, and one other hilarious "hiccup," (hilarious because I work as a software-tester and so am used to this) : the programmable thermostat kernel-panicked while they were demoing it to me. The installer seemed a little flummoxed, whereas I laughed.

One addendum for tax season

For the 2014 tax year (and hopefully for future tax years), you can get up to a $200 tax credit for installing a new high-efficiency furnace and high-efficiency fan. See IRS form 5695, lines 22b and 22c.

Photos: old furnace and air conditioner

Photos: during installation

Photos: new furnace and air conditioner


Mom said...

Great descriptive narrative, with solid information and wonderful photos! Thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

That's awesome! Providing yourself with a new air conditioner and a furnace is really a brilliant decision. That will really set you up for a very long time, no matter weather conditions you may be put through. Thanks for sharing that, Jeremy! All the best to you!

Tommy Hopkins @ AccuTemp

Brett Rogers said...

Having your own home does have a lot of joys that come with it. Having a good, working furnace and a well-installed air conditioner are a few of those things that make a homeowner jump for joy. In any case, it's a good thing you did a lot of research before settling upon a decision in which units to buy. Good job on that, Jeremy! Kudos to you! :)

Brett Rogers @ Flame Furnace

Unknown said...
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Jane Fox said...

You've got a talent for making something as potentially mundane as furnace and air conditioning replacement seem really interesting! This was a very informative post, and I really appreciate it. Your A/C may be the around town driver, but I'm pretty sure mine is the long commute, so I'm looking for a great system to help me keep cool, especially right now in this hot summer. I'll be doing more research, but thanks for the helpful article!

Lane Pemberton said...

Being independent is really fun in terms of the rewarding feeling you get when you provide for your own needs. Well, having a well-installed A/C and furnace is really a big achievement, since these household equipments are must-haves during extremely cold nights and hot weather. In any way, thanks for sharing your “latest joy” with us, Jeremy! Kudos and all the best to you!

Lane Pemberton @ Metcalfe Heating & Air Conditioning