Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The upside of low gas prices

Would you rather be paying these prices or .....
The way the media and financial pundits make it sound, we should fret about paying less at the pump.

Say what?

Okay, let's tackle the "downsides" of low gas prices.

The Saudis are pumping the same amount of oil in spite of the glut on the world market due, in part, to fracking in the U.S.

This, in turn, has hammered countries like Russia, Iran, Iraq and Venezuela who rely almost
.... or these?

completely on the high price of oil to run their countries.

Instability in those countries could increase which could result in unwanted consequences.

What they are, who knows.

The intended consequences of high gas prices, though, are well known: Less money to spend on more useful things.

The frackers, from Texas to North Dakota, need oil to be more than $60 a barrel to make a profit. If the price keeps going lower, the frackers may stop fracking until the price rebounds.

So, with lower gas prices we can reduce the horrible practice of fracking that is causing untold damage to our environment.

Also,with less money going to Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the very countries that help fund terrorism throughout the world, we could  perhaps reduce some acts of terrorism.

And with Russia making less from low gas prices, perhaps it will run out money to fully invade Ukraine and, potentially, the Baltic states.

On top of all that, Americans are saving billions at the pump which is freeing up money to spend on other more worthwhile things that could actually improve our economy.

A few weeks ago, when regular gas was $2.20 a gallon, I redeemed my gas points from Safeway and paid just $1.60 for a gallon of gas. I was able to fill up our Honda for less than $20.

Right now, gas at Fred Meyer in Bend is $1.89 per gallon, plus either 3 cents or 10 cents off a gallon for Fred Meyer patrons.

Obviously, the low gas prices are great in so many ways.

The only downside to the low gas prices is that fools will rev up their Hummers and Escalades and go cruising, just to burn the fuel.

Plus, people will buy more gas guzzlers rather than hybrids or electric vehicles. 

Don't be fooled. These low gas prices are just a ruse to get us to resume our wasteful ways.

The sun also rises and so will gas prices. You can drive to the bank on that.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Finding a decent furnace in Bend

New Carrier 80,000 BTU gas furnace
We finally replaced our 24-year-old gas furnace just before Christmas.

Good thing.

We hit record high temperatures over the weekend and expect more of the same today.

Okay, before this recent spate of unusually warm days and nights, the new Carrier furnace has been doing a great job of keeping the house warmer than before while the thermostat is set to a lower temperature than before.

Yes, it's a paradox that doesn't make sense and neither does the search for a decent furnace in Bend.

Our old furnace was also a Carrier high-efficiency (92 percent) furnace that, when it was working,  would blast the house with hot air, but would reach the set temperature of 70 degrees too quickly before the house could warm up all over. It would then cycle on and off.

The reason, according to online sites and two of the three companies we got bids from, was that contractors used to put in bigger furnaces in BTU ratings than was actually needed.
Our old furnace was rated at 115,000 BTUs.

That wouldn't be so bad if the unit was dependable. But, it hadn't been for at least a decade.

When it got really cold, the furnace would not fire up at all. I would have to unplug the unit and then plug it back in to kick-start it. This would usually work, but not always.

When it got brutally cold last November the system would only reach a temp of 65 degrees before cutting off.  The indoor temperature quickly dropped into the 50s.

This was all survivable until we wanted to leave town during winter. It's no fun to come home to frozen pipes that burst and flooded the house. Thank god that never happened to us because we had some good neighbors who would check on our furnace the rare times we did leave for any length of time during winter.

But, enough was enough.

There are more than 100 brands of furnace-makers, but some are made by the same manufacturer and just re-branded. For example, a Carrier is made at the same factory as a Bryant.

In Bend, Carrier, Lennox and Trane seem to dominate. Online message boards are not kind to Lennox or Trane.

Actually, they're not kind to Carrier either or any other brand.

Check out this website that ranks the various furnace manufacturers. 

When you dig through the rankings you find that all of the manufacturers get trashed by reviewers. The "best" manufacturers just have a tad fewer negative marks.

Isn't that wonderful.

But, it gets worse.

Most of the manufacturers have at least a 10-year parts warranty, while the installer usually offers a one-year labor warranty.

Yet, when anything goes wrong before 10 years are up, many reviewers say that the manufacturers blame the installation and don't honor their own warranties.

The manufacturers have legal cover because, unlike for an electrician or a plumber, there is no licensing requirement for a furnace installer. Anyone can do it, if they're handy enough.

The reputable installers bemoan the fact that shoddy furnace shops tarnish the whole industry.

So, we got bids from Bend Heating and Sheet Metal, which installed our old furnace, Central Oregon Heating and Cooling, based out of Redmond, and Home Heating and Cooling in Bend.

Central Oregon Heating and Cooling, after careful measuring, recommended a furnace with 80,000 BTUs.

Home Heating did the most extensive measuring and inspecting of the house and said 65,000 BTUs would work.

Bend Heating, though, dashed in and checked what the previous furnace was rated in BTUs and quickly left. They recommended a unit of 120,000 BTUs.

I didn't really want to go with Bend Heating because whenever they would come out to repair the old furnace, they really didn't know how to do it. Only Central Oregon Heating could actually fix the unit to make it serviceable.

Home Heating recommended all kinds of extra duct work, that would've probably been great, but we just couldn't afford three times what the others were charging.

The other conundrum in buying a new furnace is choosing between a single-stage and two-stage or a multi-stage furnace.

Much of the info you read online, mostly from manufacturers and installation companies, tout the benefits of two-stage furnaces where the unit only uses the last 25 percent of capacity when it's really needed. In essence, two-state units are more efficient, produce more even temperatures and are less costly to operate. However, this paper shows there is little to gain in efficiency with a two-stage furnace.

Also, a two-stage furnace's initial cost is at least 40 percent higher than a single-stage unit.

After much Googling, I found one installer who made the most sense. He claimed that a single-stage unit worked just great, was as efficient as a two-stage unit and was more dependable and less costly to repair.

That clinched the deal for me. Our single-stage, 96-percent efficient unit from Central Oregon Heating and Cooling cost about $3,500. We're supposed to get an additional $352 tax credit.

We also got, at no extra cost, a Honeywell thermostat with wi-fi capability. After installing the Honeywell app on my Moto G smartphone, I can now monitor and control the furnace from anywhere on my phone.

That is sweet.

The 80,000 BTUs seem to be the right amount for our 2,000-square-foot home. The house is slower to heat up, but maintains the desired temp of 68 degrees evenly throughout the house. Since it takes longer to heat up, the unit kicks in before the desired set time so that it reaches the pre-set temperature right on time. In general, the house seems warmer now with the thermostat set at 68 degrees than it was with the old furnace set at 70 degrees.

Since the thermostat is about 13 feet from the nearest floor register, the slower heat-up doesn't trigger the thermostat to shut off prematurely before the house is fully heated as it did with the old single-stage, 115,000-BTU model.

After using the furnace far more than normal over the holidays, our gas bill was $2 lower than the previous month's bill. That's not much, but I expected it to be at least $30 dollars higher for the same period, like last year. Plus, the gas rate escalated this year.

I am pleased, but I'm under no delusions that this Carrier furnace will run great for more than a couple of years.

I'm just hoping it won't cost that much to repair.