Energy efficient furnaces use a surprisingly large amount of electricity to blow the air around your house. Part of the problem is the pressure drop of the ducts, but quite a lot of energy is lost bowing air through the dust filter. An energy-saving idea: replace the filter on your furnace twice a year or more. Another idea, you don’t have to use the fanciest of filters. Dirty filters provide a lot of back-pressure especially when they are dirty.

I built a water manometer, see diagram below to measure the pressure drop through my furnace filters. The pressure drop is measured from the difference in the height of the water column shown. Each inch of water is 0.04 psi or 275 Pa. Using this pressure difference and the flow rating of the furnace, I calculated the amount of power lost by the following formula:

W = Q ∆P/ µ.

Here W is the amount of power use, Watts, Q is flow rate m3/s, ∆P = the pressure drop in Pa, and µ is the efficiency of the motor and blower, typically about 50%.

With clean filters (two different brands), I measured 1/8″ and 1/4″ of water column, or a pressure drop of 0.005 and 0.01 psi, depending on the filter. The “better the filter”, that is the higher the MERV rating, the higher the pressure drop. I also measured the pressure drop through a 6 month old filter and found it to be 1/2″ of water, or 0.02 psi or 140 Pa. Multiplying this by the amount of air moved, 1000 cfm = 25 m3 per minute or 0.42 m3/s, and dividing by the efficiency, I calculate a power use of 118 W. That is 0.118 kWh/hr. or 2.8 kWh/day.

At the above rate of power use and a cost of electricity of 11¢/kWhr, I find it would cost me an extra 4 KWhr or about 31¢/day to pump air through my dirty-ish filter; that’s $113/year. The cost through a clean filter would be about half this, suggesting that for every year of filter use I spend an average of $57t where t is the use life of the filter.

To calculate the ideal time to change filters I set up the following formula for the total cost per year $, including cost per year spent on filters (at $5/ filter), and the pressure-induced electric cost:

$ = 5/t + 57 t.

The shorter the life of the filter, t, the more I spend on filters, but the less on electricity. I now use calculus to find the filter life that produces the minimum $, and determine that $ is a minimum at a filter life t = √5/57 = .30 years. The upshot, then, if you filters are like mine, you should change your three times a year, or so; every 3.6 months to be super-exact. For what it’s worth, I buy MERV 5 filters at Ace or Home Depot. If I bought more expensive filters, the optimal change time would likely be once or twice per year. I figure that, unless you are very allergic or make electronics in your basement you don’t need a filter with MERV rating higher than 8 or so.

I’ve mentioned in a previous essay/post that dust starts out mostly as dead skin cells. Over time dust mites eat the skin, some pretty nasty stuff. Most folks are allergic to the mites, but I’m not convinced that the filter on your furnace dies much to isolate you from them since the mites, etc tend to hang out in your bed and clothes (a charming thought, I know).

The previous house I had, had no filter on the furnace (and no blower). I noticed no difference in my tendency to cough or itch. That furnace relied for circulation on the tendency for hot air to rise. That is, “free convection” circulated air through the home and furnace by way of “Octopus” ducts. If you wonder what a furnace like that looks like here’s a picture.

I calculate that a 10 foot column of air that is 30°C warmer than that in a house will have a buoyancy of about 0.00055 psi (1/8″ of water). That’s enough pressure to drive circulation through my home, and might have even driven air through a clean, low MERV dust filter. The furnace didn’t use any more gas than a modern furnace would, as best I could tell, since I was able to adjust the damper easily (I could see the flame). It used no electricity except for the thermostat control, and the overall cost was lower than for my current, high-efficiency furnace with its electrical blower and forced convection.

Robert E. Buxbaum, December 7, 2017. I ran for water commissioner, and post occasional energy-saving or water saving ideas. Another good energy saver is curtains. And here are some ideas on water-saving, and on toilet paper.