From Scott Carlberg

The Carolinas moved from summer to autumn last week, so clicking on the heating system at home or in business is coming up fast. Energy Consumers of the Carolinas found a few hints about making sure your heating system is ready.* Note that there are various kinds of heating systems. Know your own system and what kind of check-up or fix applies.

Looking over a heating system can be a good safety check for your home. It can save money, too – heating can run a family more than 40% of its utility bills. “By combining proper equipment maintenance and upgrades with recommended insulation, air sealing, and thermostat settings, you can save about 30% on your energy bill while reducing environmental emissions.” (Source)

A foundation for success is preventive maintenance. Find heating system problems before it gets cold. Doing regular maintenance, like changing filters, is important. Then there is an annual check. Here are just a few things an HVAC professionals may check on a heating system.

An Overall Look. Before a unit is turned on, there may be a general observation of the system. It should be clean, no soot or residue. Air filters, belts, drain systems and vents may also be checked.

A Clean Area. Is the furnace area free of debris? Sometimes in the summer storage items may inadvertently get stashed near a furnace. Are there any combustible items that got set near the furnace or in the same room? Make sure flammable products are not in the same room as the furnace. Make sure the airflow is not blocked.

Cracks in the Heat Exchanger. A heat exchanger transfers heat from one source to another. In old hot water radiator systems, the water heats up the radiator (note the name radiator) that warms the air round it. In a modern heating system electricity or gas heats up a coil or the air and the heat is carried through the ducts of a home with a fan. A crack or defect in a heat exchanger can be an especially negative issue. For gas systems, the heat exchanger can be a direct path for carbon monoxide into the home. “The safety devices should be tested to insure in an actual event that the system shuts down. Before every heating season the carbon monoxide detectors in the home should have new batteries installed and all detectors tested to verify proper operation,” says Trevor Coxton, of Carolina Refrigeration Heating and Cooling, Rock Hill, SC.

Odd Cycles. An HVAC pro may run the system to listen and watch how it is working … its cycle, or off/on/off/on again. Is the system running at a proper interval? Airflow issues or even the thermostat are among issues that can create problems.

Noise. Seems simple. Does the system sound right? Any clicks, whines or hissing? Are noises continuous or intermittent? Let a repair person know about these noises.

The US Department of Energy has these hints for heating:

  • Set your programmable thermostat as low as is comfortable in the winter and lower the setpoint when you’re sleeping or away from home.
  • Clean or replace filters on furnaces once a month or as recommended.
  • Clean warm-air registers, baseboard heaters, and radiators as needed; make sure they’re not blocked by furniture, carpeting, or drapes.
  • Eliminate trapped air from hot-water radiators once or twice a season; if unsure about how to perform this task, contact a professional.
  • Place heat-resistant radiator reflectors between exterior walls and the radiators.
  • Turn off kitchen, bath, and other exhaust fans within 20 minutes after you are done cooking or bathing; when replacing exhaust fans, consider installing high-efficiency, low-noise models.
  • During winter, keep the draperies and shades on your south-facing windows open during the day to allow the sunlight to enter your home and closed at night to reduce the chill you may feel from cold windows.
For heat pump systems, according to Coxton, “The most important issues that should be checked before every heating season are these. Refrigerant levels need to be checked prior to heating season. Low refrigerant charge will allow supplemental heating elements to operate more often, causing higher power consumption. Heat pumps have a defrost cycle during the winter months. The defrost board and sensor should be tested for proper operation prior to heating season. Electric supplemental heat should be checked prior to turning system on for the first time. Heating elements are electric resistant heat. They operate the same way a stove element does. If there is lint or debris accumulation on the element  then smoke or even a fire is possible. We get calls every year at the beginning of heating season where homeowners wake up to the smell of smoke and smoke detectors going off due to electric heaters.”

Hardware beyond the furnace may need attention. Duct work in particular. Check duct work for gaps at joints. Says the EnergyStar website: “A duct system that is properly sealed and insulated can make your home more comfortable, energy efficient, and safe, all while helping to reduce your energy bills. However, in typical homes, about 20 to 30 percent of the air that moves through the duct system is lost due to leaks, holes, and poorly installed ducts. The result is higher utility bills and difficulty keeping the house comfortable, no matter how the thermostat is set.”

The US Energy Department’s ENERGYStar division has a heating and cooling guide here.

As Autumn comes to the Carolinas, cold fronts are preparing themselves far to the North. Be sure your furnace or heat pump system is ready.

(*Energy Consumers of the Carolinas reminds readers that they should always rely on expert advice when they prepare their furnaces and heat pump systems for winter. The concepts in this column are general and may not apply to all situations.  Do your homework. ECC is not a technical resource.) 

This additional reading is offered as a sampling of resources. More updated resources may be available.

How to Troubleshoot a Heat Pump.

Types of Heating Systems.

Natural Gas Heating Systems.

Gas Furnace Buyer’s Guide. Consumer Reports.

Heat Pump Buying Guide. Consumer Reports.

Thermostat Buying Guide. Consumer Reports.