It’s been a busy year. It almost feels like we completely skipped over spring, summer and fall and found ourselves barreling head first into winter like a kid on an out of control snow sled. With those cold days just around the corner, now is the time to make sure all your heating equipment is safe to operate and ready to go when you need it. After all, you don’t want to learn that your furnace needs to be repaired by spending a freezing night regretting not having found out sooner.
Keeping the Home Fires Burning
There’s nothing like a toasty fire roaring in the fireplace, except maybe for forced air heating that distributes heat evenly throughout the house. Hey, old fashioned fireplaces are romantic, but they’re not the most efficient heat sources out there — that’s why forced air heating was invented and is subsequently the best thing imaginable when there’s snow on the ground.
Most of the time, the furnace and blower are the kinds of things people really pay zero attention to. You just set the thermostat and magic heat comes out of the vents magically. You may have never even given a second thought to any sort of maintenance plan for this equipment at all.
While that’s not unusual, you’ll be a lot happier if you adopt one this year.
Getting your furnace ready for the big chill isn’t all that difficult and takes just a little time. All you need to stay warm all winter are these three simple (not so secret) steps:
1. Remember the little things, they matter a lot. Check your furnace filter! Whether it’s just a little dirty or has three inches of dust on it, give it a toss. This is a good time to consider investing in an electrostatic filter that allows you to clean and reuse it again and again. Depending on the size of your furnace filter, they start around $30 and go up from there. An electrostatic filter can be washed often, keeping the air cleaner and making it easier for the furnace to do its thing.
While you’re at it, don’t forget your condensation line. If you just said, “My what?” take a look around the furnace until you find a tube or plastic pipe that goes from it to a pump or drain. That neato little tube tends to accumulate algae and other build-up, until it plugs entirely. Running vinegar through it once a month will help keep it flowing freely and your furnace performing at its best by moving any condensation away from the system. This is especially important if you’re using a heat pump, since it’s essentially an air conditioner with a valve that can go either forward or reverse, depending on your desired results.
Last, check all accessible ducts for air loss. Sure, you like your crawlspace and attic, but maybe not enough to share your heat with them. The tighter your ducts, the more air pressure in your system and the less heat loss you’ll experience. This is by far the most difficult part of basic furnace prep for winter.
2. Call your favorite HVAC professional for a cleaning and inspection. Yes, you cleaned the filter, but there are a lot of parts inside your furnace where dirt and dust collect over the years. If you’ve never had your furnace professionally serviced, now is the time. A pro will look over your air handler and heating elements to ensure they’re safe to use this winter. A cracked heat exchanger is no joke. This is how people die from carbon monoxide poisoning.
While you’re at it, maybe consider asking for a recommendation for a CO detector.
3. Put together your heating backup plan. This goes double if you live somewhere very cold, like Maine. If you live somewhere that’s not really cold at all, like Texas, your plan could be buying a coat. In Maine, or even New Jersey, you’ll want to choose an alternative heating source in case your furnace goes out. Even with a thorough inspection, you could have a small, but important, part go bad, throwing your furnace all out of whack.
Some good options (no, the fireplace sans blower is still a bad option) include infrared heaters or electric oil-filled radiators with safety shut-offs in case they tip. Combustion heaters should never be used indoors without proper ventilation. If you’re planning for a short-term heating solution, just until your furnace is fixed, they can be a lot more trouble than they’re worth. However, if you really want the warmth of wood heat, pellet stoves and catalytic wood stoves can make safe and energy efficient alternatives.