It’s Time For Furnace Maintenance
With cold weather rapidly approaching, it’s a good idea to inspect your home heating system to make sure that it’s safe and in peak operating condition.
Ideally, the furnace should be inspected by a heating professional at least once annually just before its initial start-up for the season. Many heating companies offer annual maintenance contracts, which accompany the purchase of a new furnace.
This service is also available for older furnaces, which often tend to require a bit more maintenance. Even if you do your own annual maintenance, the system should be inspected by a heating professional every three to five years.
The first step in a furnace tune-up is filter replacement. Always be sure that the power is turned off to the unit before attempting repairs. The filter acts to protect the blower from airborne dust and dirt which would otherwise damage the motor. The filter also helps to reduce the amount of dust discharged throughout the house. When the filter becomes clogged it makes the furnace motor work harder and results in increased utility bills and decreased efficiency.
The filter is typically located where the cool air enters the furnace — just behind the grille at the cold air return or at the entrance to the blower chamber or sometimes at both locations. For most furnaces the filter slides in and out.
Filters come in many shapes and sizes. Hence, it’s a good idea to bring along the old filter when shopping for a replacement.
Be a smart buyer. Don’t just buy one filter; buy a full case which generally consists of about a dozen. The “per” filter price drops significantly and you’ll have replacement filters handy as you need to replace them every one to three months of blower use.
Homes with pets or homes that are located in dusty or heavily trafficked areas will require more frequent filter replacement. Check with your local utility company for rebate coupons which will further reduce the cost of replacement filters.
Once you have the furnace filter removed and before you install the replacement filter, it’s a great opportunity to tidy up the blower compartment. Use a vacuum cleaner with an upholstery brush attachment to remove dust and debris. Then, again using the vacuum, remove soot and other debris from the interior of the fire box or burner chamber. Use caution when working at the interior of the burner chamber since many are lined with a fibrous material.
Good housekeeping should not be limited to the filters, the blower compartment and burner chamber. It should extend to the ducting and cold air return as well. This is more of a health issue than one that relates to furnace efficiency. This is of special importance to people with respiratory ailments or allergies.
Dust, dirt, pollen, animal dander and other airborne contaminants are pulled into the ducting each time the blower is operated. These contaminants build up inside the ductwork over time and can make the duct system an ideal breeding ground for mold spores, bacteria and foul odors.
Duct cleaning is not something that can be done effectively by the do-it-yourselfer. The process which costs approximately $300 to $500 for the average home uses a powerful portable vacuum along with an “air snake” which is fed through all of the ducting. The air strips the interior of the ducts and feeds the debris into the special vacuum. This process should be performed every one to five years depending upon accumulation. Check with a heating contractor for a referral.
Loose fan belts not only make the furnace operate less efficiently, they can also make quite an annoying racket. For most furnaces fan belt tension can be adjusted at the motor brackets. A properly adjusted fan belt should “give” about half-an-inch. A badly worn belt should be replaced with a new one. Consider having a replacement belt around in the event emergency replacement is needed.
If the furnace is oil-fired, the bearing at the pump motor should be oiled with a few drops of fine machine oil. The fuel filter in the main oil line should also be replaced annually. The burners should be checked every two to five years to make sure that they mix the correct amount of fuel and air for proper combustion.
Smoke emission tests should be made for oil furnaces. Black smudges surrounding the door to the burner compartment are a sign of poor combustion and the need for burner adjustment.
The replacement of the fuel nozzle on an oil-fired furnace with a smaller nozzle can greatly diminish its fuel consumption. This technique is known as “derating” and will cause the furnace to run for longer periods and at the same time consume less fuel. Derating can cost in the neighborhood of $50 and is especially effective on “energy-guzzling” older furnaces.
As with an oil-fired furnace, the burners for a gas-fired furnace or boiler should be checked for proper combustion every two to five years by a heating professional. The heat exchanger should be inspected once each year for leakage or dangerous combustion gases. Many local utility companies will perform this service at no charge or for a modest fee. Whenever the smell of gas is present around the furnace, the gas supply to a gas-fired furnace or boiler should be turned off and the utility company or a heating professional should be notified. The system should not be used until it is inspected and repaired.
One way to make your gas-fired furnace more fuel efficient is by replacing the pilot light with a new electronic ignition system. This can cost between $200 and $300, but will ultimately pay for itself in energy savings.
For homes with forced air heating, the ducting has a great deal to do with the overall effectiveness of the system. Many older homes have ducting which is rusted through allowing heated air to escape into attics, basements and crawl spaces. Poorly sealed connections and non-insulated ducting are other big energy wasters.
Damaged ducting should be replaced with new material. All joints and connections should be secured with screws and sealed with silver duct tape. Non-insulated ducts should be wrapped with insulation. Use one-inch-thick fiberglass duct insulation. The material can be secured at the with silver duct tape.
And, that’s all there is to it.