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Posted: Thursday, October 10, 2019 9:00 am

If the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) had gotten its way recently, mountain residents would not have been able to upgrade their old, energy-inefficient, home furnaces and would have instead been stuck perpetually repairing them for the foreseeable future. However, local HVAC contractors quickly shot down the idea by working together and confronting the regulatory bureaucracy just two days after the rule officially went into effect.

The amendment to longstanding rule AB1111, which was slated to go into effect on Oct. 1, was set to slap consumers with a Cuba-like mandate that would have prevented HVAC contractors from installing new furnaces in the homes of their Mountain-dwelling clientele. This is because AB1111 states that HVAC contractors who fall under the SCAQMD’s jurisdiction must install ultra-low nitrous oxide (ultra-low NOx) emitting furnaces from now on. At the time of press, no manufacturers have produced or tested an ultra-low NOx furnace that works above 5,000 feet. This means the new rule to AB1111 would have made it illegal for HVAC contractors to install working furnaces in the homes of people living in mountain communities. This ruling would have gone into full-effect were it not for a meeting that took place between SCAQMD members and mountain HVAC contractors on Oct. 3.

“No furnace manufacturer currently produces a furnace that meets the ultra-low NOx emission standards that works above 5,000 feet,” said one contractor, who chose not to be named. “The new rule makes it so that it’s illegal to install any furnace that doesn’t meet these standards. You can repair your old, inefficient, furnace though. So it’s crazy. It’s like the DMV saying ‘You have a 1955 car and you want a new one? Too bad, fix your old one!’ Luckily we came up with a working solution with the [SC]AQMD.”

In the past two years, SCAQMD has used an amendment to longstanding rule AB1111 to levy a “mitigation fee” on consumers who chose to install furnaces that didn’t meet ultra-low NOx emissions standards. The SCAQMD originally put these mitigation fees in place back in early 2018 to encourage HVAC manufacturers to rapidly produce a furnace that is compliant with the ultra-low NOx emission standards, but the fee was inevitably passed from the manufacturer to the consumer. This meant that consumers who bought a furnace for a home above 5,000 feet between 2018 and 2019 paid a one-time mitigation fee because their new furnace didn’t abide by ultra-low NOx standards.

“Every single person who lives in the SCAQMD district who has replaced their heater in the last two years has paid between $200 and $400 in mitigation fees,” the same unnamed contractor said. “All of my estimates over the past two years have had two line items: here’s the cost of the furnace you just bought, here’s the cost of the mitigation fees, here’s the total out the door. In the past two years [AB1111] has collected probably about $20,000 from my customers alone.”

As of Oct. 1 however, rule AB1111 made it completely illegal for HVAC contractors to install heaters that didn’t meet ultra-low NOx emissions standards, despite consumers paying the mitigation fees. Since the current ultra-low NOx furnaces don’t work above 5,000 feet, this means that residents of mountain communities who fall under the SCAQMD’s jurisdiction are not able to legally buy a new furnace under the new ruling.

“I don’t wanna install these (ultra-low NOx) furnaces because I don’t think they’re appropriate or safe to install in my customer’s homes,” the anonymous contractor said. “I think the manufacturers had to rush production of these (ultra-low NOx) furnaces because they had to comply with [the SCAQMD’s] regulations. It’s possible [manufacturers] didn’t do the proper [research and development] because the furnaces don’t work above 5,000 feet. If we’re putting in faulty equipment that may or may not work properly, that’s a bad, bad, bad solution to my customers in Lake Arrowhead who don’t want their houses to freeze during the winter. Most people don’t shut their heaters off all year long so their pipes don’t freeze and burst and flood their house”

However, the meeting between HVAC contractors and the SCAQMD on Oct. 3 came to a resolution that allows HVAC contractors to file an ‘enforcement discretion request’ on the SCAQMD’s website. Contractors are required to submit their enforcement discretion request at least five hours before equipment installation and the SCAQMD said that they will reply within the same business day with an authorization. The service runs 24/7 so that emergency requests can be made at night too. These enforcement discretion requests allow HVAC contractors to buy illegal equipment, legally.

Contractors are also legally allowed to stock furnaces under this new agreement since it was decided in the meeting that the need for an enforcement discretion request only goes into effect once the new furnace is installed.

HVAC contractors, distributors, and manufacturers are currently working to get a proper variance for altitude on rule AB1111 so that things can return to “business as usual,” as quickly as possible, but the earliest that could happen would be early next year.

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