My gas furnace has two options for the blower speed: MED, and MED-HI. It had been set on the higher speed, but that was too harsh, so I lowered it to the slower speed. Does that have any impact on the efficiency of the unit?
After a bit of research, (translated: "mad google skills") I found an article claiming that lowering the blower speed may increase efficiency. I'm not completely convinced on this, since the claim is made by a company that sells variable speed blowers for retrofitting HVAC systems. I would think adjusting the heating element would save more energy than reducing the blower's electric consumption, but I didn't do a study on it myself. (Heat transfer wasn't one of my favorite classes in college - I focused more on dynamic systems, sorry.)
If you really wanted to be scientific, you could perform an experiment and post the results here. I'd go with logging temperature differential (inside temp - outside temp) vs. energy consumption every day for a month with the blower on high and then for a month with the blower on low. That will give you the most reliable results for your particular system.
Here's what to record, in order of importance:
The last two (5 and 6) aren't as important, but more data is always better. (Trust me, the worst thing that happens to me on the job is having inconclusive results due to insufficient data collection during an expensive and time-intensive study.) It shouldn't take more than a few minutes a day to record the data anyway. I'm not sure exactly the formula I'd use to normalize the results, but I'm pretty confident I could come up with some correlation if I had the data to play with. If a clear distinction between the blower speeds isn't obvious in the data, then you're probably not going to save much money either way, so go with what's most comfortable for you.
If the furnace manufacturer supplies different burners for that unit you may be risking premature failure. The heat exchanger can be overheated and burned out if the blower does not remove enough heat. Proper duct sizing can resolve the issue you are having. Sometimes you have to add more ducts to achieve the proper pressure and velocity.
Empirical Engineering Answers:
Yes: you will save electricity costs by running your blower on low.
No: you will not save on gas/oil costs by running your blower on low. Because the slower air velocity over the heat element is transferring fewer BTU units into the circulated air and they simply go up the exhaust pipe.
The NET difference of the above two figures is your savings or cost.
I am currently heavily invested in studying and learning the subject as I commit myself to reducing my winter energy costs this year.
With heating oil at $4.50/gal I can assure you without measuring anything that running my blower on low is NOT more efficient from a $$ perspective. I'm in the process of re-wiring my blower to run on high with the furnace. In support of this: I found the mfr owner's manual for my furnace and in it, it states, "if you have an air-conditioning coil installed, you should switch the furnace blower speed to high to accommodate the decreased air-flow caused by the cooling coil in the plenum."
I have also measured that on low speed my furnace requires AT-LEAST 1 hour of constant running to raise my home temp by 6 deg F. On high speed it takes 30-40 min. With a one-gallon-per-hour burner nozzle that saves me AT-LEAST 30% on fuel oil plus another 20-30 min of blower run time or at least 30-50% run time savings. Now, I haven't done the measurement to learn how much electricity my blower uses on low vs high. But I'm reasonably sure it uses less to run on high vs low then it uses to run on low vs OFF. I do know that my entire furnace runs safely on a 15amp breaker with the blower on high, the burner running, the humidifier running, and the water pump to empty the humidifier running. Thus, my blower can't be using that much electricity on high.
So clearly, running your furnace blower on low is only more efficient IF-and-ONLY-IF the cost of the heating fuel is much much less then the cost of the electricity to run the blower that little bit faster.
Yes--the efficiency of the heat exchanger will decrease. The blower energy draw at a lower speed will be offset by the loss in fan wheel inertia. But you will have a tough time measuring either on your basement Trane.
If you want to solve the air noise problem, move the return air filters out of their hallway locations back to the upstream side of the return air duct at the furnace.
In terms of heat pumps, running the external blower faster may reduce i2r copper losses and hysteresis iron eddy current losses. These two losses comprise the magnitude of heat losses. Narrowing that hysteresis loop will:
Leading to a smaller Hysteresis loop, increasing motor efficiency by reducing iron eddy current losses.
I have a Carrier furnace/heat pump with an expensive control thermostat that talks directly to the heat pump. It allows three constant fan speeds as well as an automatic fan speed and a variable burn rate and compressor and fan speed. During the awake hours I Hold the fan speed at either low or medium. The automatic feature rarely kicks in once at set point. The constant air turn over at a lower set point keeps the house comfortable. At night with an even lower set point I switch the fan speed to automatic.
I could imagine possibly fewer "warm up cycles" (which also include having to power on the fan) might save something (as well as lower fan speed=less electricity)...but as others have noted, while its running (esp. lower efficiency furnace) it is drafting exhaust up the flue which can't be good. Based on some randomly googled comments here: http://www.inspectorsjournal.com/Forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=8998& seems to agree it decreases efficiency but may increase comfort [ex: cold spots or noise level] :)
Especially with a high efficiency furnace, however, it may be that the decreased electric bill saves enough to offset the "loss up the flue" not sure. Various advertisements for variable speed high efficiency furnaces call them "more energy efficiency" (note also the difference between a variable speed blower and a high efficiency furnace, they're separate, for instance you can have a variable speed blower on a low efficiency furnace). Note also that there is always just "one blower" but that blower may or may not be variable speed, etc.
Related: a two stage furnace works by actually shooting less gas out, which might improve its efficiency. Possibly you could do the same here (turn down blower and gas).
Also related, with for instance a variable speed furnace, since it runs continuously and reduces "cold spots" you might find you can set it at a lower degree setting than the off/on kind.
As a side note, lowering furnace (heating) blower speed should apparently only be done if it doesn't reduce the "heat rise" (difference in temperature between the intake and supply air, if I understand it, also known as the "delta T") past the manufacturer recommended value for that furnace. If it goes out of spec then on "very cold days" (when the furnace runs a lot) it could trigger an automatic shut off when the exchanger doesn't end up getting cooled enough, FWIW. And I'd guess you're not supposed to push it too close to the limits as things may change slightly over time (filter will get dirtier, blades dirtier).