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Cheap Furnaces Buying Guide

The average furnace has a lifespan of 15 to 20 years, so if yours is approaching that age, you might want to have it checked and stash some money away for an eventual replacement. Plan to replace your furnace in the off-season -- spring or fall -- when heating-and-cooling contractors have more time and flexibility.

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You may be able to negotiate better prices, especially on installation and service warranties. You can get estimates from several local contractors and have time to weigh your options. (Note: Unless you're well-trained, never attempt to install a new furnace yourself. Doing so incorrectly can put you and your family at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning. A DIY job could also mean forfeiting the warranty.)

The good news is that cheap furnaces now are significantly more energy efficient than even 10 years ago. So, while you'll take a hit initially by replacing your old unit, you'll save money in the long run on your energy bills. For instance, if your furnace has a 60% efficiency rating (as many older models do), a new 80% efficiency furnace will cut your monthly gas bill by about 30%. A cheap furnace with 90% efficiency can potentially cut your gas bill in half, so you should recoup the investment if you plan to live in your home a while longer. Plus, if your replacement furnace carries an Energy Star label (meaning its efficiency is 85% or higher), you may also qualify for a tax break or rebate.

There are several types of furnaces designed for different home sizes, efficiency levels, and fuels. Most modern American homes use natural gas furnaces (which this article focuses on), though some feed on oil or propane. An older home might have a wood or pellet furnace. In most cases, the furnace also uses electricity to power a fan or blower, which moves the heat through ducts in the walls.

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If you're unsure what kind of cheap furnace you need, the nameplate on your current furnace should tell you the fuel type, efficiency rating, and how much heat the unit produces, either in British thermal units (BTU) or watts/kilowatts (W/kW). That number has to do with the size of your home and the energy required to heat the space. A 1,500-square-foot home might need a 60,000-BTU furnace, for example. Most furnaces top out at about 100,000 BTU. Very large homes may have multiple heating and cooling zones with a furnace for each zone.

Some of the most popular furnace brands on the market today are Trane, Rheem (which also makes Ruud), Carrier (which also makes Bryant), Lennox, Tempstar, Goodman (Amana), and Coleman. Experts at Galt Technology and HVAC-Talk point out that although there are differences among these brands, most furnace manufacturers use the same suppliers for major parts, such as heat exchangers and blower motors, as well as electronic circuit boards. As a result, experts suggest looking at the overall repair record for each brand, as well as the reputation of the installer and the warranty, before making a final choice.

You'll find cheap furnaces ranging from $1,000 to $3,000; high-end furnaces can cost $5,000 or more. Note that these prices are just for the unit and do not include installation, which raises the cost. The price will also vary depending on your home size. To get the most accurate furnace price, have an HVAC contractor come to your home and give you a quote.

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The biggest difference between a cheap furnace and a pricey one is the efficiency rating. Higher-end furnaces also have bells and whistles such as variable-speed blowers (cheap furnaces tend to have one or two speeds, whereas premium furnaces have more than two) and fancier air filters. More expensive furnaces, if sized and installed correctly, also tend to run more quietly than budget models.

In this buying guide, we've outlined the major features to consider when buying a cheap furnace and provided some reviews and comments about certain brands. Unlike with other products, such as TVs, we can't recommend specific models. The new furnace you choose will depend on the size of your house, the fuel source, and your energy needs. However, we can offer general performance feedback about certain series of cheap furnaces, based on the assessments of experts and customers who have used the units in their homes.

The cheap furnaces we admire most are the popular and highly recommended Trane XL80 Series (starting at $1,600) and the Carrier Infinity Series (starting at $2,500). The Carrier Infinity 96 is the only unit we found in this price range that carries the Energy Star label. We also like the Lennox Merit Series (starting at $2,000) for its solid reputation and positive expert feedback, as well as the extremely affordable Payne gas furnaces (starting at about $1,115), which carry long warranties. The reliability of Goodman furnaces (starting at $1,500) seems to have improved in recent years, but we're still reluctant to recommend the brand; experts note that it will take a while to see whether these furnaces can stand the test of time.

by Raechel Conover (Google+ Profile)

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