In 1994 I bought a new furnace. It is not very high efficiency, but high enough to need a power vent. It is now 27 years old. The heat exchanger is not rusty. It could use a new motor on the vent blower, cause one of the sealed bearings is I feel a little noisy. It has broadly serviceable parts, for instance the vent motor is bolted on and could theoretically be replaced.
My mum had a similar vintage furnace. I think it was a little older. It ran perfectly well, and was also very serviceable. In 2008 my mum, who was feeling her age, somehow decided to blame feeling cold on the furnace. Someone used that to sell her a new high-efficiency furnace, which cost at the time in excess of $5000. I tried to explain to her that there was no possible way for the new furnace, by virtue of its increased efficiency, to ever offset the cost of prematurely replacing a perfectly functioning furnace. But it was to no avail.
In 2013 the fan died. That was a $1200 part I think. It was however covered by the warranty. In 2020 the vent blower got very noisy cause a bearing was going. But you can’t just replace a bearing. That would be too sensible. Because of the intentionally unserviceable design that meant not just a motor, but an entire panel full of electronics had to be replaced. The replacement is a cheap plastic assembly that surely cost less than $100, possibly less than $50 to manufacture. And that assembly installed was $2800.
And it gets worse. The service person said that most times they see a 12-year-old high-efficiency furnace they have to disconnect and condemn the unit. Mum’s new furnace is certainly near the end of its life in 2021. The reason for this is the same as how it is high-efficiency. Instead of using waste heat to vent the furnace the unit has a secondary heat exchanger, which dramatically reduces the temperature of the power-vented exhaust, resulting in condensation and moisture and inevitably corrosion.
Meanwhile while it could die tomorrow, or in another decade or two, my old furnace just keeps running tickity boo. The older furnace that my mum replaced at exorbitant cost would probably still be running fine if it had been maintained. And the replacement mathematically would have taken perhaps decades to offset the net cost of replacement with increased efficiency. Except new furnaces do not last decades.
It would be completely unsurprising if you took into account the real net cost of a new high-efficiency furnace, including cost of disposal of the old unit, manufacture and maintenance of the new unit but particularly amortized that over the absurdly short lifespan of the equipment, the newer furnace almost certainly has a much larger footprint than any older lower-efficiency furnace. Replacing the old furnace with the new, high-efficiency unit was a gross waste of resources.
It upsets me that so much of our response to climate change consists mainly of this kind of poorly thought out false-economy.
This foolishness pervades much of small-e environmental activism. A certain kind of person keeps demanding broad action without any calculation of cost or consequence. I keep seeing calls to replace oil and gas, not just without any real plan to offset that energy, but in complete denial that we would need to build the electrical generating capacity to joule-for-joule replace the energy we currently get from fossil fuels. And for many that is a dream of wind and solar that despite being almost none of our supply after decades of investment is a dream too many cannot wake up from. Or “renewable energy” a political concept that is used to lump hydroelectric and biogas, both environmental no-nos, in with wind and solar to pad out the numbers, which otherwise can be summarized as, “almost none.” People, quite rightly, want to replace an old unsustainable energy economy, but you cannot do that with by pretending a worse, or nonexistent alternative is a solution.
And as usual what I am arguing for here is again the safest, and cheapest technology we have at our disposal to generate large amounts of electricity, nuclear power. And right there, a great many people who might ever read this came to a complete intellectual stop. “Never nuclear!” But without it, we are not going to start moving away from fossil fuels. Without building quite a lot of nuclear electricity generating capacity we are going to continue to demand change in a rapidly heating world without ever starting to implement anything we could actually transition toward.