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Time to Fire Up and Fix Your Home Furnace

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 (iStock)

As the mercury begins to drop and the cold weather rolls in its time to start thinking about one of the most important pieces of equipment in your home: the furnace. It’s something that most homeowners forget about to until it is too late, and, if you had any trouble with yours last winter, now is the time to take action.

Waiting to fire up the furnace until you actually need it could stick you between a rock and a hard place. It happens every year, the first cold snap hits and the phones at the local heating companies light up like Christmas trees and many find themselves going a few days without heat as they compete with every other procrastinating homeowner for an appointment with a service company. Don’t be left in the cold, act now.

Heating systems are usually reliable and require very little repair if they are given regular maintenance. But without this maintenance a furnace could lose efficiency or cease to function all together.

There are my types of heating systems in the home and one of the most popular is a forced air system where a furnace blows heated air through the house. The fuel source can be natural gas, propane, oil, or even electricity.

The easiest way to maintain or troubleshoot your furnace is to first understand how the furnace does its job. There is a heat source which heats up a big metal component called a heat exchanger inside the furnace. A blower mother will then move the air past the heat exchanger, where it is heated then blown to each room through a distribution network of ducts inside the walls. The entire process is controlled through the thermostat.

To give your system a test run, set the thermostat at least five degrees warmer than the current temperature in the room. In a minute or two your heater should come on and you should be able to feel the heat blowing out of the registers. If the system does not come on you can troubleshoot the problem before calling in a pro.

The first place to look is the thermostat. It may sound simple, but check to see that it is turned on. All modern thermostats have an on off switch, but they are not clearly labeled with an “on” position. The “on” position is labeled “heat” or “cool.” Obviously you want to make sure the switch is in the “heat” position. If you have a programmable thermostat be sure you bypass the program by adjusting the temperature number and pressing the “hold” button. If the heater still does not come on you’ll want to check to see if your thermostat has a replaceable battery and check it. There is nothing worse than paying one hundred and fifty bucks or more for a service technician come out to the house just to change a battery.

You can also pull off the face of the thermostat and check for any loose or damaged wires. These little wires can be pulled loose during a remodel or may have not been put in properly by the installer.

If your heater still does not fire up, look for an on/off switch at the furnace itself. It looks just like a light switch and is often attached to the unit itself, or very nearby. Make sure the switch is on. If you have central air-conditioning as part of your system and it worked properly over the summer, then more than likely your switch is already on.

If your switch is on and the furnace has still yet to run, check the breakers in your electric panel. The breaker could have tripped and the solution to the problem could be as easy as flipping the switch. If all switches are on, the problem could be with the cover on the front of the furnace. The cover often has a trip switch which shuts off the system when it is opened. If the cover is not properly closed, the switch can prevent the furnace from running.

If the furnace comes on and you don’t feel any hot air it could be that the furnace is not getting any fuel, or the pilot light is not lit. Check the fuel line and be sure that the valve is turned on. You can tell if the fuel valve is on if the handle runs parallel with the fuel line. If the handle is perpendicular to the line it is in the off position. If at this point you don’t feel any heat you may want to be sure you have paid the gas bill, or have oil in your tank.

If so, check the owner’s manual for instructions on lighting the pilot. If you don’t have the manual, or are not sure how to do it, find a friend who may know how or call in a pro. You don’t want to experiment with lighting the pilot, as things can go boom.

Sometimes the problem could be due to a backup somewhere in the system. Furnaces are designed to shut off if they cannot exhaust properly. Birds and other critters are attracted to the chimney and can nest or get stuck in there blocking the exhaust. Check to see that the chimney exhaust flue is clear of debris. You can do this by opening the clean out for the chimney, which typically is the capped piece just below the exhaust. Or, if you’re ambitious, you can remove a section of the exhaust pipe close to the chimney. Just be sure to put it back properly. High efficiency furnaces are vented with pvc pipe running to the outside of the house which can also be clogged by the same critters.

High efficiency furnaces also have to drain water out of the system during heating. If the drain line is clogged due to sediment or mold it can prevent the system from running. You can simply remove the line and flush it with a little bleach and water and replace it with very little hassle.

If your system runs on electricity you will also want to be sure the outdoor unit is clear of leaves and that the bushes are cut back a couple of feet from the unit to ensure good air flow.

If these simple fixes don’t solve the problem, make a call to your service provider today. The problem could be inside the furnace itself. You could have a faulty burner; the blower motor could be bad; or a host of other reasons. If you don’t have a service provider, get one. Some offer great maintenance plans for only a few hundred dollars a year and they typically cover any problems you may have, and they will keep you up an running all winter. It is money well spent for the peace of mind.

Once you are up and running it is important to change the air filter regularly to keep the system running at peak efficiency. These filters are not only good for keeping the air clean in the house they keep the dust and debris from clogging up the system. Filters should be changed even if they look clean, typically monthly or every three months, not when you feel like getting to it. The filter will be labeled with its anticipated life expectancy.

If your furnace is more than fifteen to twenty years old it is considered a dinosaur. It’s probably an energy hog costing you a lot more to run than you need to spend. With all of the tax credits and special programs available for installing a new high efficiency unit these days, now may be the best time to invest in a new system.

Jason Gurskis is a licensed home improvement contractor based in Mystic Island, New Jersey dedicated to making homes more comfortable, durable, and energy efficient.