Little-Known Home Energy Hog Gets First Efficiency Standard

This entry was co-authored by Meg Waltner, NRDC's manager of building energy policy.

Secretary of Energy Moniz announced today that the Department of Energy has finalized the first-ever energy efficiency standard for an appliance in many American homes that uses more energy per year than a new refrigerator and new dishwasher combined. It’s not the heater or air conditioner as you might think, but the fan that circulates the air from these appliances to the rest of your home.

While you probably don’t spend much time thinking about them, these "furnace fans" use about 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year -- either as part of a furnace or to move  cooled air in homes with central air conditioning -- making them among the biggest energy hogs in a typical household. That’s about to change with today’s Department of Energy (DOE) efficiency rule – the first of its kind and one that we see as an important step forward.

DOE estimates the new standard to cut energy waste would save an average consumer between $340 and $500 over the life of a furnace fan and reduce national energy use by almost 4 quadrillion BTU (“quads”) over the life of the rule (by comparison, the United States uses about 100 quads per year). Overall, the new rule will save consumers a net $29 billion in reduced energy bills from fans purchased over the next 30 years and will reduce emissions by 180 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, resulting in billions of dollars in benefits.

Put another way, furnace fans sold over the next three decades will save as much electricity cumulatively as 47 million homes use in one year.

A rule whose time has come

The new rule, which reduces furnace fan energy use by about 40 percent, was first proposed by the DOE in October. It was a move NRDC praised as a sign that the administration is serious about meeting President Obama’s efficiency goals of reducing carbon pollution by a cumulative 3 billion metric tons by 2030 through standards for appliances and federal buildings, which he announced one year ago today.

When you add these standards to the more than 30 new or updated appliance standards finalized since 2009, the DOE is more than two-thirds of the way to achieving this carbon reduction goal.

After public comment, the rule was announced today. It puts furnace fans on the list of important efficiency standards that President Obama described as “not all that sexy” but that yield big benefits in reducing carbon pollution, saving money on energy bills, driving innovation in manufacturing, and creating jobs.

Efficiency is the cheapest, cleanest, and fastest way to reach our energy goals and NRDC sees it as a major energy resource, making today’s move important both symbolically and practically.

A fan by any other name

Furnace fans, or “air handlers,” consist of the fan and motor, housing, controls and other elements necessary to circulate heated or cooled air through a home’s duct system, using almost 10 percent of a typical home’s electricity in the process. 

Typical furnace fans now use permanent split capacitor motors, but more efficient motor types, such as brushless permanent magnet motors, can reduce energy use in furnace fans. These brushless permanent magnet motors maintain efficiency even at reduced speeds and can also increase indoor comfort by better maintaining airflow requirements.

Next up: residential gas furnaces

Couple the savings from furnace fans with even stronger standards for furnaces and we’re talking about good news for consumers’ pockets as well as climate change.

Now that a court settlement has been approved, DOE will have to establish new minimum energy efficiency standards for gas furnaces, providing an opportunity to press for even stronger energy-saving standards for furnaces. Over 44 million American households use a gas furnace to supply their heat and while these standards could have already been providing savings to consumers to the tune of $10.7 billion in lower heating bills over the next 30 years, the settlement announced in April ends the delay and paves the way for potentially even higher standards.

Efficiency standards bring many benefits

Under federal law, the Department of Energy sets minimum energy efficiency performance levels for household appliances and commercial equipment under a specific schedule and evaluates the opportunity for even greater efficiency by establishing new standards, all driving manufacturers to continually improve while providing the same level of service and comfort.

Currently, the DOE sets standards for more than 50 products, representing about 90 percent of home energy use. The result is a highly effective way to reduce energy consumption, address climate change, reduce carbon emissions, and improve consumers’ pocketbooks and lives.

We are pleased that the rule on furnace fans offers an example of how the process can yield big energy savings for the nation.