I was welcomed home to Chicago from visiting family on Christmas Day by a cold house and a gas furnace that wasn't working. The next day a repair tech gave me the bad news about a blown circuit board that would cost over $500 to replace. But I heard that were was a $1500 tax credit for energy efficient upgrades that was expiring at year end. With $2000 in “free money” to spend, I thought maybe furnace replacement might be a better option. At eight years old, the furnace might have more years of life. But it was a “developer special” – that is, a basic workhorse model that was not particularly energy efficient – only 80% Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) rated – or with other features I might like. My hot water heater dated to the same time and was probably closer to needing to be replaced, so why not do them both at the same time? Maybe I would even go super-enviro friendly with a tankless model water heater.
This is exactly what the stimulus was supposed to be stimulating. Unfortunately, the reality didn't work out like I thought it would, and in a way that shows the challenge of doing energy efficiency retrofits in urban areas.
I had my heating company come out to give me an estimate on replacement for my furnace and hot water heater. Immediately, I learned that there were problems. Chief among them is that newer, energy efficient systems recycle heat that previously went up the chimney. This makes their exhaust much cooler, and requires special chimney pipes that are plastic, not metal. My old chimney wouldn't work, nor could a new pipe be inserted through it, since my water heater and furnace shared a chimney and there wasn't room to install all the piping needed. They'd have to punch new holes in my roof. I'm on the top floor of my 14 unit building, which means this is actually doable, but it would cost money and require getting permission from my association. It’s also not something I'd want to take on in the winter unless absolutely required. And, as it turns out, I might not have a big enough gas line required to feed regardless tankless water heater. Tankless units consume less energy overall, but they do burst at higher output, requiring heftier gas supplies.
I decided to just fix the circuit board.
According to the heating company, if I lived in a single family home, this would probably have all been a non-issue. First, no permission would be needed from anyone, and generally furnaces and such are located where you can just punch an exhaust line directly out the side of the house. This makes upgrading a snap. But since I'm in an urban multi-unit building, things aren't so easy. What's more, even though I and the other person who live on the top floor might be able to make an upgrade happen, the other 12 units below us will never be able to upgrade to energy efficient heating because it is impossible for them to run new chimney pipes to the roof. That is, unless a new generation of technology vents through older metal chimney pipes. In essence, then, my building is permanently precluded from installing high efficiency heating – although the structure is less than a decade old.
Gas forced air is the standard heating solution for new construction in Chicago and much of the Midwest. This may not apply to the largest buildings, but certainly to single family homes and most of the new construction condos in Chicago. Being able to upgrade building systems is key to energy efficiency, because buildings are the number one source of carbon emissions. In the city of Chicago, about 70% of all carbon emissions come from buildings. And while multi-unit buildings may be inherently more efficient in some regards, they create huge challenges for upgrades because of all the shared infrastructure and lack of access to the roof, exterior walls, and utility feeds. This might not apply in some cases where there is, for example, a shared boiler where one upgrade takes care of all units. But for most new construction condos outside of high rises, I strongly suspect they were built without energy efficient furnaces and in a way that effectively precludes upgrading to current technology.
This shows the need for infrastructure and buildings that are designed to physically evolve over time. With rapidly changing technology, a “build once for the ages” approach is no longer appropriate. Even if codes were changed to require energy efficient heating at the time of construction or the installation of provisions for gas supply and venting, it would only deal with the here and now. We'd be fools to believe we are never going to want to upgrade things again in the future.
The things we buy become obsolete more rapidly than ever. Consumer electronics companies have solved this with a short product cycles and rapidly declining costs that assumes the things you buy will be disposable. We should think about this principle as applied to buildings, but we're probably a long way off from that.
This is a difficult challenge and one that requires significant thought and trial and error as technology doesn't always evolve like we think it will. I was very proud of myself for being forward looking enough to run network cabling to every room when I renovated an 1898 house back in the 1990s. A few years later wireless rendered that investment in wires itself obsolete.
But it's worth the effort to try to find a solution. From our highways and transit systems, to water and sewer lines, to our buildings, we are facing a huge overhang of required replacements and upgrades, much of the cost driven by a need to bring designs up to new, modern design requirements and the state of the art. We could spend an enormous amount of money doing this only to find ourselves right back in the same boat a few decades down the road when things are old again, and society's desires and technology have moved on to the next generation. In an era of ever greater technology change, finding a way to ride the upgrade curve effectively is an imperative.
Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs based in the Midwest. His writings appear at The Urbanophile.
Photo by Ron Zack