Desperate for advice on replacing dead 255K BTU furnace in 3200 sq foot house

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Nick> Let's replace windows with outdoor cameras and computer Nick> projectors or flat screen TVs, with fluorescent lights and Nick> doors or push-out panels for fire escapes.
So you see how untenable this position is.
I was thinking a little more about the OP's issues heating his house. It sounds like he's on a south-facing slope. Some of the slopes in that area are steep enough that his lower floor may be off the ground on piers which are illuminated by the sun. Alternatively, there is 2000 ft^2 of upper floor not over lower floor, which may also be on sunlit piers.
In either case, he might be able to build one of your solar closets down among his sunlit piers, then use air blown through that to heat the house at night. It would make the house much more usable, increase resale value, and aesthetic issues with DIY-built stuff would be less important since it's out of (his) sight. Also, in that neighborhood a homebuilt solar closet may not generate adverse comments from the neighbors.
If he can pick up 600 BTU/ft^2/day in February, store it through much of the night, fix the worst of his air leaks, and add some attic insulation, he might get half his heating done with 400 ft^2 of solar aperture and 500 gallons swinging between 90 F and 140 F. That'll save a bundle on the replacement furnace and the bills from same. Depending on the house configuration, there may be 40 lateral feet of sunlit piers down there, so there is some chance of fitting significant solar aperture. On steep hillsides, angling the solar closet glazing slightly (15 degrees) face-up from simply vertical can greatly increase the vertical extent of the glazing without chewing up a lot of real estate. He might implement a 10 or even 20 foot tall face for the collector.
If I were going to do any such thing: - I'd get a contractor to build the footing and concrete pad under the house for the heat store. Someone used to doing foundation work, who won't screw up the existing footings. Have them drill a pier to bedrock if necessary. - I'd go big on the heat store. 1000 gallons if you can manage it. - Use 55-gallon (or 40-gallon if you can get them) used plastic barrels to store the water. - Build the glazing as tall as possibly practical. It doesn't weigh very much and often people don't use steep real estate below their house. - Heat the water directly rather than use an air heater to transfer heat to the water. The EPDM mats seem like a nice solution, but you'll not like the $5/ft^2 price.
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A few things others noted, the BBB is a joke for you to put any faith into. Your prices quoted are sounding very high for what you are being offered. I don`t know your total heating bill for a year but you say 550 for a month of feb. Figure how much your actual yearly heating bill was. There are high efficiency condensing furnaces which are the norm here and do save alot more than an 80% unit. Different manufacturers have different efficiency ratings , they go from apx 93% to a new unit that has 97%. The savings difference is figured on the differential of the 2 units. A 97% will save you 21% over an 80%, not 17% as many think . I personaly would not consider an 80% unit unless yearly heating was only a few hundred. You say Feb was 550 so im guessing 400 was heat so you qualify for high efficiency condensing unit, and that was at last years Ng prices, not todays or in 5 years, my prices are up 70% this year.
You state no ducts can be run to 2 rooms, I find that real hard to believe that something can`t be done as I have just upgraded a 110 yr home without heat in 3 rooms. Flex duct for "Spacepack AC" is run everyday to retrofit old homes and can be enginered to do heat, Ive done it for a hard to plumb room. With a house of that size you are forgetting VS DC zoneable systems that will save 25-50% in running the blower. They are available on the best condensing units and can remove 50% more humidity in summer and give more even winter heat through slower fan operation.
For 2900 Im getting a Carrier infinity 94% with VSDC and special thermostat instaled, your price of 6300 for 80% units sounds extremely excessive.
You had a few unqualified bids that did no load calculation as I see it ranging from 100k Btu to 200k Btu. 100k btu 80% efficient gives out 80k Btu heat. 200k outputs 160k Btu. At 96% efficiency 100k outputs 96k Btu and 200k outputs 192k btu. A 20% increase meaning a 20% smaller unit is needed. A great difference in output you should consider in sizing is output and their efficiency.
For probably under 4000$ you could get a 97% VSDC out putting 120000 btu that is equivilant to a 80% 144000 input unit and save winter and summer through its VS DC motor. With some insulation even this unit would be oversized for your area.
You need to learn about what you need and what is offered and run some real numbers on utility, equipment, costs and paybacks. Run the numbers with todays higher Ng costs and double it for 10 years, then you will realy see that an 80%er is dumb.
You only need the unit sized to keep you warm on the coldest days running 24hrs a day, If you are going to keep the place future insulating will make the difference. Caulking everything will reduce wind iniltration. Insulating curtains and Cellular shades can take the R 1 windows you have to R 5- 6+ likely that would reduce your Btu needed by a very great amount. If you can do it figure the load calc several ways for true sizing needed. I sized and had my AC instaled before I knew this or insulated, so I regret im oversized and humid. There are many sites on heating, windows, insulation you need to learn as your "heating pros" are not helping you they are just instalers. Im no pro but in zone 5 1800 sq I paid 465 last year for Ng down from 2000 by doing my own research and following my ideas, not any salesmans.
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I certainly understand your situation... It took everything I had to buy my house. So been there, done that!
It sounds to me like heating your house is going keep you "broke" from now until eternity!
So I would look at this long term - what is best in the long range of things?
I think energy rates are going to keep going up, up, up. So I think the thing to do would be to eventually install double pane "Energy Star" argon filled windows in your house. This will *drastically* reduce your heating and air conditioning costs. And also you should eventually insulate the heck out of your house.
But this will cost a lot of money, and if you are constantly paying high heating and air conditioning bills, you may never have the money to make the improvements...
So what I would do for now is to get the largest heating unit you can get, and zone the house out. Instead of heating the *entire* house, figure out which rooms or which portion of the house can be heated while leaving the rest of the house unheated. (Close doors.) Perhaps you can move your office elsewhere for the time being?
Then just heat certain rooms or a certain section of the house. This will save you money on energy bills for the time being. Then maybe you could have one window replaced a year with an "Energy Star" window - this will be expensive. Eventually when all windows are replaced and the home is well insulated, your heating requirements will be much less.
Then you should be able to heat your entire home for a more reasonable cost. And at that time, you will not need such a large monster furnace!
Here is the Energy Star web site... http://www.energystar.gov/
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Bill wrote:

Installing "the largest heating unit you can get" and then closing off registers to keep some rooms unheated is a good way to decrease the lifespan and efficiency of the furnace, making your wallet much lighter in the long run.
The furnace must be sized for the particulars of the zone(s) it feeds. If it is desired to have part of the house colder than another, they should be on separate zones by design.
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FYI I have a 3600SQ feet house + finished basement in Toronto, were it is much colder than N. California. Last year I replaced 120,000BTU gas forced air furnace with 100,000BUT High Efficiency furnace and it is more than enough to keep my house worm. Is you attic insulated?
9 months ago, I put my entire life savings into the down payment for a home (built in 1955) in the Oakland Hills (northern california)
My fianc้ and I recently found out that our monstrous 50 year old 255K BTU furnace (70% efficiency in its day) has cracks in 4 out of 6 of the heat exchangers and was emitting carbon monoxide (yikes!). They no longer make residential furnaces of that size, so deciding how to replace it has been an exercise in frustration and confusion. We have gotten 5 separate estimates, all providing vastly different opinions as to what should be done to replace our furnace and adequately and most efficiently heat our home. How is one to know who to trust and believe? My head is spinning from all of the different advice we've been given (which I'll detail further down in this post)
To complicate things further, our home was custom built by the previous owner, and has a very unique open floor plan on the upstairs level, which constitutes about 2600 sq feet of the home. There are 11 registers and 2 large returns on the upstairs level (although both my office and our dining room have NO registers and we've been told they can't be added). The downstairs level accounts for approximately 600 square feet and contains our family room (which has a single register in it)and a guest bedroom with no registers in it.
The entire length of the house, on both levels, has floor to ceiling windows facing south that provide a breathtaking panoramic view of the bay. However, they are older windows, with metal frames, and are very inefficient -- the house loses a lot of heat when it is cold through those windows, yet when the sun is out the vast southern exposure beams through the house, heating it sometimes to the point where I literally feel like a dog locked in a car on a hot summer day. We are in the hills, and it can get windy, meaning it can get super cold at night. Yet when the sun is shining, it actually heats up to the point that by mid-afternoon I'm opening windows because it's too warm -- even in November (although once the rainy season starts it will be cold all the time -- I know this from our first month in the house, last February, wherein we got a $550 PG&E bill that almost gave me a heart attack... -- after that I had tried not running the heat, but even with wool sweaters my fingers were still too cold to type and you can't operate a touchpad with gloves on..)
We have a home warranty, which should cover the cost of replacing the furnace, although it turns out that the list of uncovered items is much larger than what is covered.. The home warranty sent out Company A to provide an estimate for the furnace replacement. They came back with the suggestion of replacing our 70% efficient 255K BTU furnace with an 80% 100K BTU furnace to the tune of $6300, $2100 of which we would have to pay out of pocket. As we were shocked both by the price, and by the size of the unit they were suggesting (how could this adequately heat our home?), I did a little researching on the Better Business Bureau website and found Company A had several unresolved complaints filed against them. Not good.
I decided to get some estimates of my own, and had 3 separate companies come out to the house. Companies B & C each suggested getting a single 80% efficiency 155K BTU unit. However, we were concerned whether even this would provide adequate heating AND we were informed both by the home warranty company and by Company E (who provided estimate number 5 as a 2nd opinion on behalf of the home warranty company) that it is illegal to install a furnace larger than 125K BTU in a residential home in California. Is this true? If so, I'm even more bewildered as to who to trust, as Company C is Sears - a brand I thought was highly reputable.
Then there was Company D, which is a member of the BBB, has no complaints filed against them, and is also an authorized installer for Home Depot. This company provided the most thorough examination of our home and took into account the materials it was made of, the layout, and all of the windows, in addition to the square footage, in making their recommedation. They suggested getting two seperate 80% efficient 100K BTU furnaces and using a "twinning kit" to make the units operate as one, providing a total of 200K BTU to heat the home. In addition to seem the most knowledgable of the contractors thus far, they also had worked with our home warranty company in the past (and is only no longer on the list of approved contractors b/c they didn't send their latest proof of insurance over, which they are now doing so that we might be able to have the home warranty company authorize their doing the repairs)
When we called the home warranty company and told them of Company D's recommendations, the home warranty rep who answered told us that twinning is not a proper furnace installation, and could actually cause our home to blow up! The home warranty company said they wanted to send another company out of their choice for a 2nd opinion (the abovementioned Company E).
When Company E showed up, they told us they would recommend putting in two 80% efficient 90K BTU units -- that were twinned! We told them what the home warranty company said about twinning, and they said that was inaccurate and that they did twinning systems all the time and it was the only way to heat a home of our size, and that the same home warranty company had previously authorized such repairs in the past.
Yet when we next spoke with the home warranty company, we found out that Company E had actually sent in a completely different job estimate to them, with recommendations of a zoned system with a single 125K 80% efficient BTU unit for the upstairs, and a 75K 80% eff. unit for the downstairs. As such, there would be extensive ductwork modification that would need to be done to zone the system, leaving us with almost $2900 in uncovered costs.
(thanks for your patience if you're still reading this far!)
By this point I felt like my head was spinning, and could not understand why the contractor who came to our home would tell us they would be installing 2 twinned 90K BTU units, only to then send an estimate to the home warranty company for an entirely different job. The home warranty rep suggested I call Copmany E and ask why there was a discrepancy between what they'd told us and what they told the home warranty company, and to explain why they'd want to do a zoned system over a twinned system.
I'm already beyond 'house poor', so if I'm going to be spending this much money I want to know that the job will be done right, that the house won't "blow up", and that we will actually have enough heat for our home (particularly the upstairs level)
So I called Company E, and was told that the estimater said he thought it would be more efficient to do the zoned system. When I expressed my concern as to whether the single 125k BTU unit could really heat the 2600 sq foot open floor plan windows everywhere upstairs of the house, which had 11 registers, not to mention the fact that the downstairs level only has a single register and no returns I was told they'd have to call the guy who did the estimate and then get back to me. They later called me back and said "Yeah, he said you could do it as twinned". I then asked why did he submit it as being a zoned system to the home warranty company, to which I didn't really get an adequate response. I also could not get an adequate answer over which would actually be the better choice for my home, but that if I went with the twinning it would only save me $235 for the install of a second thermostat (how can that be? wouldn't all the extra ductwork modification needed for zoning drop the price down if the system were twinned?)
I am looking to cut costs b/c I'm pretty broke right now, but not at the expense of safety, comfort level, or decreasing the value of the house by not getting the right furnace installed. Meanwhile we have no heat, and I've no idea which (if any) of these contractors I can trust.
This is my first home, and I've been told by numerous friends who have been homeowners for far longer that it is *very* difficult to find a good HVAC contractor - and of course, no one had any they could recommend. I feel like I just don't have enough information to possibly make a decision as to whether to go with a twinned system, or a zoned system, which contractor to choose, etc.
I literally am desperate for some advice from those who are more knowledgable regarding heating issues. TIA for the help, and also for having gotten this far in my huge rambling anxious post!!!
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snipped-for-privacy@gmail.com wrote:

He's probably right. Your situation sounds like a good fit for zoning.

You probably lack qualification to determine whether 11 registers has anything to do with 125kBTU, but they should be able to give you an answer if you ask the right questions. They proposed to rework the ductwork anyway, right? That means they're already seriously thinking about the air balance and heating needs of the two zones.

The answer doesn't match the question. Are you sure your question didn't mention twinning or whether it could be done cheaper with a single zone?

The communications between you and the estimator are "filtered" by the guy on the phone. Chances are good that's where your problem is in getting adequate response. He might be asking the estimator the question he thinks you're trying to ask, and giving you the answer he thinks you want to hear. Ask to speak directly with the estimator if you can.
Here's what I think happened. The estimator told you his initial impressions upon seeing the system you already had and ballpark guestimating by the total square footage of your building. After closer inspection and further consideration of your unique building, he determined that you'd be better off with zoning and with certain deficiencies corrected. So they provided their recommendation to the warranty company for what you should really get done.
I'm going to guess that your questions give the impression that you're looking to save costs, so they're offering you a cheaper but less optimum alternative.

You have only one register and no return on the first floor? Offhand, it does not sound like your ductwork is appropriate, but I can't see it from here. It could be that most of the ductwork modification is to provide some to the first floor, which you may need in either case.
If you have two stories, generally the better choice for comfort and energy efficiency is zoned. When you bring costs of installation and upkeep into the picture, comfort and energy are traded for dollars. For some, a single zone is "comfortable enough" and "efficient enough" not to justify the added expense of zoning.

I think contractor E sounds more "with it" except for the communication problems, which let's face it might be at least partially on your end of the phone. It's tough to be an educated consumer untill you've already consumed a bit ;-)
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