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Is My HVAC Ready for Winter?

Before the cold weather returns, it’s vitally important to make sure your home’s HVAC system is ready. While different types of furnaces require somewhat different maintenance, most forced-air systems share common requirements.

Why is it so important to ensure a heating system is maintained correctly before the heating season? There are a few reasons every homeowner should take whatever steps are necessary so their furnace is ready for winter. They include:

Safety - A heating system that’s maintained is far less likely to create safety issues while it’s in use. One common issue to avoid is allowing carbon monoxide to enter the home. A routine inspection allows property owners to note obvious issues that must be corrected, like loose vent pipes.

Comfort - When a furnace isn’t operating as designed, it’s difficult to keep a home’s temperature at a comfortable level. A malfunctioning furnace can result in overly cold or warm conditions. While some solutions to comfort issues are relatively easy to correct, it’s generally a good idea to have an HVAC expert examine the system and repair any issues discovered.

Saving money - Whenever a furnace doesn’t function properly, it’s likely the system’s operating costs will go up, sometimes dramatically. To keep operating costs to a minimum, it’s always a good idea to make sure no issues need correcting.

Remember that most homeowners can do minor maintenance and routine visual inspections, but repairs or diagnosing significant issues should always be left to HVAC professionals. So, what steps can property owners take to make sure a furnace is ready for winter?

Shut Off the Power Before Doing Anything

Your safety is always important, so heating industry experts always recommend shutting off the power to the HVAC system before doing any type of maintenance. In most cases, there will be a shut-off switch near the furnace. It probably looks like a light switch, but a single breaker could also be present.

If there is no shut-off device near the furnace, shut the power off at the main electrical panel. Hopefully, your electrical panel is labeled correctly so it’s easy to identify which circuit powers the heating system.

If there is no shut-off device at the furnace and you’re unable to identify the correct breaker in the panel, it’s probably a good idea to contact an expert for help rather than trying to take care of maintenance yourself. An electrician may be needed to install a shut-off device at the furnace or determine which breaker controls the furnace power supply. If you’re able to shut off the power to the furnace, you’re free to move forward with your inspection and maintenance.

Change the Filters

The first item on your list will be to inspect and change the filters. It’s generally easy to find replacement filters at a local store, but it’s far easier to have high-quality filters delivered to your home. You’ll always know the filters you’re using are the best option available for your home heating system. You will need to remove the front panel from the furnace to access most filters and examine the furnace.

During the heating season, HVAC experts routinely recommend checking your home’s furnace filters at least once per month. During extreme cold, when the furnace is running a lot, it makes sense to check them more often.

Dirty furnace filters reduce the heating system’s efficiency, which increases your monthly utility bills. It’s far cheaper to replace a filter than it is to pay those higher utility bills.

Another reason to keep those filters clean is indoor air quality. When a home is closed tight during the winter, dust and other contaminants are constantly recirculated through the home. That exacerbates any family members’ health issues, especially respiratory problems.

Check for Any Unusual Sounds

All furnaces will make some noise while in operation. Most homeowners are familiar with those sounds and don’t even notice the noise. However, if any unusual sounds are heard or the level of noise changes dramatically, it’s time to contact an HVAC expert for advice. Rather than risk an injury, turn the system off and let the experts diagnose and repair the problem.

Inspect or Update the Thermostat

All heating systems are controlled by a thermostat. The thermostat is generally located in a central area of the home that’s away from exterior doors or other sources of drafts. When they are functioning correctly, thermostats monitor the air temperature and control the furnace. They signal the furnace to run when the temperature drops and shut off once the desired temperature is reached.

Some homes have multiple thermostats. That means it’s important to understand which thermostats control specific areas. If uneven heating occurs, one or more thermostats may need to be replaced.

Remember that modern thermostats include features that were not available in the past. Smart thermostats can modify a system’s settings during the day and even notify a property owner if there is a system malfunction. That’s a valuable feature to have.

Newer thermostat options also make it possible to cut utility costs, as they’ll automatically reduce the settings when no one is home and restore the ideal temperature prior to family members returning.

Schedule Duct Cleaning

Duct systems move heated air to the various rooms in a home. Return air ducts move air from the home to the furnace for heating. Both types of ducts will need periodic cleaning, as dirt and various other debris will enter the systems and collect in those ducts. That means the air quality in the home will suffer.

If dirt is visible on the grills over the hot air ducts, it’s time to have the ducts cleaned. Check the ducts frequently for signs of dirt collecting on the covers. When HVAC experts are in the home to provide maintenance or repairs, they will generally check the duct system to determine if cleaning is required.

Make Sure Air Ducts are Not Blocked

One common issue in homes is heating ducts being obstructed by drapes, furniture, or other items. It’s always a good idea to walk through the home to ensure there is nothing obstructing any heat ducts or return air ducts. Allowing obstructions will significantly decrease the heating system’s efficiency and reduce the home’s comfort level.

Again, keeping your heating costs to a minimum is always important. Making sure every duct is not obstructed will help with that effort. Even having one blocked vent will reduce the unit’s efficiency, so routinely take the time to make sure no one in the home has blocked any supply or return ducts.

Check the Belt

Forced air furnaces use a fan system to circulate the heated air and draw in cold air from the return air vents. There is a belt from an electric motor to the fan, and that belt may need adjusting or replacing from time to time.

There will be some type of adjustment available to ensure the belt can be kept tight. In most cases, it will be relatively simple to tighten the belt if it’s loose, but never take chances. If you’re unsure how to tighten the belt, contact an expert for help.

If the belt shows obvious signs of wear, replace it before it breaks. If significant cracking is present, it’s time to replace the belt. Again, if you’re unsure how to proceed, let an HVAC expert handle the repair.

Consider Installing an Air Cleaner

The EPA now recommends homeowners monitor their home’s indoor air quality and take steps to mitigate indoor air pollution. Over the past few years, homeowners and contractors have sealed homes to the point that very little fresh air is introduced. That means polluted air continues to be recirculated through the home.

Many health and HVAC experts are now recommending installing some type of air cleaner to improve a home’s indoor air quality. There are several options to consider, so it pays to contact an HVAC contractor for recommendations. In many instances, the recommendation will include adding some type of fresh air intake to make sure the home has a constant supply of fresh air throughout the heating season.

Create a Maintenance Schedule

Home heating systems should be monitored throughout the winter. Most HVAC experts recommend checking specific heating system components numerous times during the winter to prevent major issues from developing. Since different systems have different requirements, ask your HVAC service provider to recommend a schedule.

Be Proactive Rather than Reactive

It’s always better to deal with furnace issues as soon as any problem is discovered. Delaying repairs is never prudent, as the costs involved tend to go up rather than down. Of course, the most important proactive practice is to keep those furnace filters clean.

Remember that using the best-quality filters will always be beneficial and, ultimately, save money. If you don’t know what type of filter your furnace uses, check it now. Most filters are just under the access cover of the furnace or behind the grill of a central return air vent. The filter should have the size printed on it but, if it doesn’t, measure the filter and order the appropriate replacements now to make sure you have filters available throughout the winter. Using a subscription service makes it easy to have a supply on hand.