When the weather in Oklahoma City, OK is at its worst, you can count on your HVAC system. Modern HVAC systems have turned many uninhabitable regions into prime real estate. With heaters and air conditioners, people can live in areas regularly reaching triple-digit or below-freezing temperatures. Modern HVAC systems regulate indoor humidity, filter indoor air, and maintain comfortable, healthy conditions. The best of these systems also take a limited toll on the natural environment.

How Do HVAC Systems Affect the Environment?

All HVAC systems need input to produce heating and cooling. Some equipment types run solely on electricity. These include electric furnaces, electric heaters, air conditioners, and heat pumps.

Others burn fuel. In some parts of the United States, consumers have fuel-combusting furnaces that rely on coal, propane, or heating oil. However, gas-fired furnaces have long been the top choice throughout the nation.

Natural gas burns both cleaner and hotter than other fuel types, and gas-fired furnaces heat homes quickly. This makes this natural gas ideal for areas with long, chilly winters and near-constant wintertime heating demands.

Fuel-Combustion and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Unfortunately, no matter how clean-burning gas-fired furnaces may be, all fuel-combusting appliances produce greenhouse gases. These emissions result from incomplete fuel combustion, and they contain:

  • Carbon monoxide (CO)
  • Methane (CH4)
  • Nitrogen oxide (NOx)
  • Nitrous oxide (N20)

Fuel-burning appliances also produce multiple volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including benzene, formaldehyde, and other gaseous contaminants.

Greenhouse emissions from HVAC systems trap radiation from the sun’s UV rays in the earth’s atmosphere. Over time, this has a progressive warming effect that alters the natural biomes and habitats planet-wide. Global warming is also responsible for melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and increasingly severe weather.

In the United States, gas-fired furnaces must be at least 80% efficient. At this efficiency level, gas-fired furnaces convert just 80% of the fuel they consume into heat energy and lose the rest as exhaust gases. To compare, electric furnaces, heaters, and heat pumps convert 100% of the electric energy they use into heat and don’t produce any emissions.

HVAC Refrigerants and Ozone Depletion

When it comes to the detrimental effects of HVAC systems on the environment, fuel-combusting heaters aren’t the only culprits. Despite using only electricity, even your home’s cooling equipment takes a cumulative toll. With air conditioners and heat pumps, the primary environmental concern is their refrigerants. AC and heat pump refrigerants have long contained ozone-depleting chemicals like hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). In addition, according to research by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, air conditioners alone release 1.95 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually.

In heat pumps and air conditioners, refrigerant is the lifeblood that drives temperature control. It is the most essential element in the heat transfer process. Refrigerant absorbs heat and carries it either indoors or outside to create the temperatures that residents want. Fortunately, AC refrigerant manufacturers have been strategically refining their products for decades to arrive at refrigerant types that don’t impact the ozone or contribute to global warming.

What Is Grey Energy Use and Why Does It Matter?

Grey energy is often overlooked when comparing the environmental effects of different heating and cooling system types. While fossil fuels directly produce greenhouse emissions during heater operation, electric furnaces have a carbon footprint as well. In many regions, fossil fuels are still being burned to produce electricity. Thus, although an electric furnace doesn’t burn fuel, fuel combustion is necessary for its electricity supply. This fuel use is known as grey energy.

How to Choose the Best Heating Equipment for Your Home

For efficiency’s sake, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) created the annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) rating system. This rating system was adopted by the United States Department of Energy (DOE) to establish minimum furnace efficiency standards throughout the nation.

AFUE ratings measure heating output to the amount of fuel consumed. While gas-fired furnaces must have a minimum efficiency rating of 80%, there are high-efficiency models with AFUE ratings of up to 98.5%. These units turn all but 1.5% percent of the fuel they consume into usable heat and produce very limited amounts of exhaust gases in the process.

You won’t find any variations in the AFUE ratings of electric heaters. Not only do all electric heaters operate at 100% efficiency, but they’re also unlikely to experience any notable changes in efficiency over time.

High-efficiency gas furnaces are slightly larger than their alternatives, and they may require larger storage areas. These units have two heat exchangers rather than just one, larger and more tightly sealed combustion chambers, and other design refinements that minimize energy loss.

Cost Versus Environmental Impact

While many cities, counties, and states have implemented current or future bans on natural gas appliances, Oklahoma has not. With wintertime temperatures often dipping below freezing, natural gas is, for many, the most cost-effective way to heat homes. Not only do natural gas furnaces burn hotter and heat faster, but natural gas is usually much cheaper than electricity.

If your goal is cutting your carbon footprint and saving money, shopping for options in high-efficiency gas furnaces is a good idea. However, if you’re aiming to electrify your home and eliminate CO-producing appliances entirely, an electric furnace might be the right choice.

Tips for Choosing the Best Cooling Equipment

In 1992, ASHRAE and the DOE implemented the seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) rating system. SEER ratings measure the cooling output of air conditioners over an entire heating season divided by the amount of energy consumed over this same time. In 2023, the SEER2 rating system was introduced to account for the significant effects of central HVAC ducting on AC efficiency. SEER2 ratings also compare seasonal cooling output to energy input, but the testing process incorporates the use of M1 blower fans.

In Oklahoma, air conditioners must have minimum SEER2 ratings of 14.3. However, targeting options with SEER2 ratings of 16 or higher will lower your operational costs and minimize your carbon footprint. Under the provisions of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, it could also qualify you for impressive federal tax incentives.

AC Refrigerants

If you own an older air conditioner that’s at or near the end of its lifespan, there’s a good chance that it still uses Freon or R22. Given its classification as an HCFC-refrigerant, Freon was phased out starting in 2010. As of January 1, 2020, Freon is no longer imported or produced domestically.

Freon’s successor, Puron, doesn’t contain HCFCs, but it is an HFC refrigerant. Thus, although it’s better for the environment than Freon, Puron is still far from ideal. In 2024 and beyond, consumers can expect to see more ACs using Opteon XL41, which contains neither HCFCs nor HFCs. In either case, simply updating your old AC to one that uses a more eco-friendly refrigerant is a great way to limit your HVAC system’s environmental impact.

Heat Pumps Can Pull Double-Duty With Astounding Results

In areas like Oklahoma City, the most efficient choice for both heating and cooling is a heat pump. Heat pumps can produce three to four times the heating and cooling energy that they consume in electric energy. In the right conditions, they can operate at efficiency levels as high as 400%.

At All Tech Heat & Air, we help residents of Oklahoma City, OK make informed purchasing decisions to optimize their home comfort. We offer expert heating, cooling, plumbing, and indoor air quality services. We also provide ductwork, insulation, and HVAC preventative maintenance services. Contact us today to schedule an appointment with one of our expert technicians.

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