Fall is coming quick and now is a great time to make sure your furnace is ready for the winter months ahead. To get started, here’s a checklist for winterizing your whole HVAC system. Beyond getting your current system ready for winter, this is the time of year that a lot of homeowners are thinking about replacing or upgrading an aging furnace. If you’re thinking along those lines, then you’ll want to seriously consider a high-performance motor — or ECM.
What is an ECM?
The acronym ECM stands for an electronically commutated motor, which frankly isn’t very meaningful to the average homeowner. Luckily, other terms for an ECM are variable speed motor and high-efficiency motor. Both of which are closer to describing for the non-HVAC pro how an ECM differs from other furnace motors.
- Variable speed. Traditional furnace motors operate either in on/off states or with three or four “on” speeds: low, medium and high. (You’ll sometimes hear the latter referred to as multispeed motors.) By contrast, an ECM varies its speed in response to changing heating (or cooling) needs. That means you’ll experience precise, consistent temperatures throughout your home and your system will operate more efficiently.
- High-efficiency. The design of the motor makes it inherently more electrically efficient but also because the motor speed varies as needed, it’s not always operating at high capacity. Instead, it operates at lower capacity over a longer period of time. That results in reduced fuel usage and lower energy bills. An ECM runs at about 65 – 75 percent efficiency, compared to about 45 percent for a standard multispeed motor.
Other Benefits of an ECM
Aside from energy savings and improved comfort, ECMs have several additional benefits over traditional motors:
- Lower maintenance. Because of their design, ECMs may never need lubrication, produce less wear and tear on components, and are unlikely to overheat.
- Longer life. The typical life expectancy of an ECM is about 10 to 15 years, compared to about half that for a traditional, single-stage motor.
- Improved air quality. Aside from providing more consistent temperatures, an ECM can also improve your indoor air quality. By running longer at lower capacity, the ECM keeps airflow moving through the system, so contaminants are continually being filtered out of the air.
- Improved system reliability. An ECM motor will ramp up or down as needed when minor changes occur in the duct system such as opening or closing registers or when the air filter loads up. The motor will electronically “sense” the change and adjust the motor speed as needed preventing trouble with the furnace or A/C operating at low airflow.
New Furnaces with ECMs
Many new furnace models now feature ECMs. Surprisingly, they’re not a lot more expensive than furnaces with standard multi speed motors. Keith Hill, resident HVAC expert at Stay Comfy, estimates they add “roughly $600 to $1,200,” depending on other features. At Stay Comfy, we recommend Carrier’s Infinity Series. All three models in the series feature ECMs and they’re all backed by Carrier’s reputation and reliability.
Upgrading to an ECM
If you’re not ready for a new furnace, you can often upgrade your existing system with an ECM. It’s definitely something you’ll want to check out when your old motor needs to be replaced. But before you make a final decision, check with your HVAC pros. Depending on the age and efficiency of your current system, long-term energy savings alone may be reason enough to spend a little more and upgrade your whole system.