Furnace repair

A licensed Energy Resource Center technician inspects a home's furnace. File photo

Dear readers: The passing of Labor Day reminds me that the heating season is not too far off. 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, um, shall we say, overdiagnosis this condition. They are anxious to sell you a new furnace, and 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 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 gas company or the Fire Department.

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 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 to let humidity escape and to discourage mouse occupancy.

Furnace duct cleaning has been heavily advertised as a way to clean up your indoor air environment. Do you need this service? Let’s analyze the possibilities. It’s sometimes asserted that builders leave all kinds of crud, trash and debris in the ducts of new homes.

In fact, after they install the new furnace, heating contractors cover the register openings in each room with a rectangular metal plate that keeps the lumber and sawdust out of the system for most of the construction.

At or near the final inspection — just before the heat vents are installed — they use a powerful shop vac to suck out any material that may have fallen into the holes. So in almost cases, owners of brand new homes don’t need any additional duct cleaning services

How about older homes? After 10 years or so, it’s worth checking out your duct system to see if it needs help. Over the years, these galvanized metal tubes can accumulate layers of household dust on their insides.

How much depends on your lifestyle and the quality of your furnace filters. Homes with humidifiers will deposit more crud quicker, and the presence of pets can also accelerate the process. You can check the individual heat runs with a small mirror on an extension probe and a bright light — or your cellphone camera if it will fit. If you spot deposited layers of dust and pet hair instead of shiny metal, it’s time to call in a duct cleaner.

Many larger heating contractors either have a duct cleaning crew on staff, or they can recommend someone they trust. It’ll cost several hundred dollars for the service — more or less depending on how many heat runs you have and how difficult it is to access them. Bottom line, though: Most homes don’t need it.

Ken Moon is a home inspector in the Pikes Peak region. His radio show airs at 9 a.m. Saturdays on KRDO, FM 105.5 and AM 1240. Visit www.aroundthehouse.com

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