Sunday, January 23, 2011

Old Milwaukee, the Cadillac of Furnaces

Every now and then we need to clean the catalytic converter on our wood stove. This requires a complete shutdown and cooldown and means for a couple days we get to rely exclusively on our antique Old Milwaukee oilburner. According to one repairman, it was the Cadillac of furnaces 50 or 60 years ago, "we can still get parts," and it'll chug along forever with consistent maintenance. He even said he'd keep it instead of buying a new, much more efficient furnace. Ironically, I agree except in the summertime, when it'd be nice to have central cooling. Because we use it as a backup and supplementary to our wood stove, it may not make a whole lot of sense to replace it.

When we bought this house, we paid $1,000 or so to fill the 500-gallon tank and it lasted 18 months. We refilled it half way a couple weeks ago, figuring we don't want much oil sitting around if we decide to get a HVAC unit this year. You can do the math. How long would it take to make a new furnace pay for itself? Very long, unless oil prices went sky high.

"How can we figure?" says Virginia. "You didn't say how much a new furnace costs."

Well, if you figure we spent $500 per winter the past 3 winters, that suggests a very long payoff period. The $4,000 furnace we put in our little cottage lasted 8 years, the same period someone else mentioned from their recent experience. $500 per year times 8 takes us to $4,000, but that doesn't include whatever fuel runs it. Yes, a furnace should last longer than that, but how much longer? Not as long as the Old Milwaukee, bet your booty.

So here we are with a classic choice. Would buying a new furnace be better for the environment? Hmmm. A few years ago I posed a similar question to someone promoting hybrid cars. Should we hold onto our 15-year old Volvo that continues to be very dependable or should we exchange it for a new vehicle? It would save fuel going forward, but what about the cost of producing the new car and the cost of junking the old one? His answer was, keep the old one and buy an efficient new one when it conks out.

"You're comparing apples and oranges," says Virginia.

She's right. A new furnace would offer several advantages: (1) more efficient use of the energy source; (2) as we age we may prefer not having to hunt for firewood, so our $500 per year cost could go through the roof (see, we have costs beyond $500 -- gas for the chain saw, blood, sweat and tears); and (3) a new unit could also cool this hot house in the summertime. Besides, we might be able to find a unit with very low operational costs, such as a geothermal or solar option. And the longer we wait, the more options might present themselves.

I'm not interested enough to do gobs of research at the moment. Maybe you can help me with suggestions.

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