Now that fall is here, it’s time to think about the heating season ahead. So here’s my annual reminder to get the furnace checked at your house. This is a vital procedure to keep your family safe during the coming winter. Every heating system — whether forced air or hot water boiler — should be checked out by a licensed heating contractor. This is a good annual habit to establish even for newer homes, because theoretically any furnace can fail at any time. Plus, a well-adjusted furnace will use less fuel and save you money over our long heating season.
I’ve seen advertised special prices for this checkup for as low as $69, although the average is probably closer to $100 or so. Interview your company to make sure — at a minimum — that they will vacuum out the cabinet, adjust the burners if needed, check the electricity loads, inspect the heat exchanger, look at the blower motor, do a carbon monoxide output check and provide a new filter.
If this check results in a scary conclusion — like a bad heat exchanger — you have more work to do. The constant flexing, expansion and contraction of this component, as it heats and cools thousands of times each winter, can produce cracks. So then more than just heat gets exchanged; the gas fumes can get mixed in with the room air, and those fumes can contain carbon monoxide. Some technicians have been known to, er, shall we say, over-diagnosis this condition. They are anxious to sell you a new furnace, and may use this ploy to frighten you into an immediate decision. If you’re advised to install a new furnace, get a second opinion from another contractor. If the two evaluations agree, then you have a sounder basis for your decision.
A busy heating contractor doesn’t need to sell you a new furnace to stay in business, and they will respect your decision to call in another company. I’m amazed at how many radio listeners have told me that the second company has given them a clean bill of health.
So as long as your carbon monoxide detector isn’t alarming and your family and pets aren’t suffering from unexplained flu-like symptoms, you have time to step back and evaluate your need for a new furnace, armed with that second opinion. Of course, if you suspect carbon monoxide is in your home, you must take immediate action! Take the family to a neighbor’s and call the fire department or the gas company.
If you’re purchasing another home, the home inspector you hire won’t perform the exhaustive check of the furnace that you’ll get from a heating contractor. The inspector will do a visual check of the system and maybe a fume test of the room air, but since they are unlicensed they’re not permitted to take the furnace apart.
Speaking of winterization:
It’s a good idea to shroud the outside air conditioning condensing unit. It will stay prettier longer and probably last a few more years in service if it is protected from harsh winter conditions. You can buy an inexpensive plastic cover, complete with a rubber strap, for less than $15. I use a conventional bungee cord to secure my cover, as it creates a more snug fit around the bottom. Leave a 1-inch air space at the bottom to let humidity escape and to discourage mouse occupancy.
It’s also a good idea to open the electric panel and turn off the breaker to the condensing unit, so it doesn’t accidentally start with the cover in place. It will be a double breaker and will have a rating of 25 to 40 amps, depending on the size of the unit.
Dear Ken: Is there a product I can put on a regular window to upgrade to low-e glass to help keep the sunshine and glare out? — Paula
Answer: Low-e glass, of course, is a great choice when you buy new windows. It’s a metallic coating applied inside one of the glass panes. It adds, maybe, 20% to 30% to the energy efficiency of a given window, while adding only 10% or so to the cost. In your case, you could apply a low-e film to the inside glass. Look for it in rolls at the hardware store. There will be several gradations of this stuff — look for the highest number (usually 90+). The application is a little tricky until you get the hang of it. Basically, you apply a water and detergent film on the glass and then slide the film on — after removing its proactive backing. Finally, you squeegee the water out and finish by trim the edges of the new film with a razor blade.
It should really help with that added heat from the sun, plus it will help keep heat inside in the winter. The film can raise the temperature between the glass panes, which might break down the window seals over time. Check with the window manufacturer for their input and advice. Personally, I think it’s worth that small risk to cool down the house.
Dear Ken: I’m ready to move out of my apartment. How can I patch holes in the drywall? — Lisa
Answer: The new, lightweight, acrylic spackling compounds are a do-it-yourselfer’s dream! They go on in one coat and don’t shrink. Gouge out any loose material first and then apply it with your fingers — flush with the wall.
You can even dabble with some wet paper towel to match the textured surface. Let the spackling dry overnight before sanding and painting, and incidentally, if you spill any of the stuff on the carpet, let it dry before vacuuming.
Ken Moon is a home inspector. His radio show airs at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KRDO, FM 105.5 and AM 1240. Visit aroundthehouse.com