Local furnace servicing firms are swamped at this time of year, as homeowners ensure their heating systems will get them through the winter safely and securely. And in some cases, a quick drop in temperature in the fall leads to panicky calls when the long-idle furnace doesn’t come on.
Manny Leonard, owner of St. Albert-based Comfortable Home Systems, suggests once a furnace is over eight years old, it should be inspected yearly. Manufacturers will also insist that to validate a new furnace’s standard 10-year parts warranty, the furnace should be serviced annually. But Leonard believes, realistically, a furnace newer than eight years doesn’t really need servicing more than every two years.
A service technician will inspect a number of parts and functions. Leonard explains that a furnace’s circuit board collects dust, and when a circuit board gets clogged, it may overheat, causing it to crack. Motors, too, draw dust, and if the cooling ports get plugged, the motor can start to fail prematurely.
“Drywall dust and household dust are so hard on furnaces,” Leonard says.
The overheating won’t cause a fire, because safety systems are built in, but the motor will break down, not something you want to experience in the middle of January.
Leonard says furnaces built in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s were inefficient, “but they seemed to last forever.” The exhaust blew up a chimney, where you lost heat, and the bulk of the furnace was essentially a big, leaky tank, with few moving parts. And gas was so cheap, wasting heat through 60-percent-efficient furnaces wasn’t a major issue, Leonard recalls.
Residential chimneys are a thing of the past. Direct venting through pipes on the side of the house has increased heating efficiency tremendously, Leonard says. The minimum efficiency of a modern furnace is 92 percent.
During a service call, a technician will spend an hour to an hour and a half going through a checklist, looking at the system pressures and the motors, which control the air as it’s heating in the furnace and the distribution of heated air through the house. And the technician checks for gas leaks.
“Gas leaks are a huge problem in our industry,” Leonard says. “You can’t smell them because even if there’s a gas leak inside the furnace, it actually ends up getting vented to the outside, so it’s hard for people to know in their house if there’s a gas leak inside the furnace.”
The heat exchanger will also be inspected. A heat exchanger, the device that heats the air inside the furnace, expands and contracts steadily and can become brittle over time, leading to cracking.
Curtis Crouse, owner of St. Albert’s A-1 Heating, says plugged or cracked heat exchangers can be a safety hazard. In the extreme, a cracked heat exchanger can produce carbon monoxide. If the exchanger is cracked, it can burn the carbon dioxide, a by-product of combustion, twice, which results in carbon monoxide, an odourless, colourless, deadly gas.
Crouse sees furnace maintenance like the maintenance of a vehicle. The machine will work better and last longer if it’s taken care of. He points out a few other issues particular to new furnaces.
“If you have a high-efficiency furnace, it’s important to get the condensate trap cleaned out. Flame sensors need to be cleaned.” And a regular inspection will also ensure all the burners are igniting cleanly and burning uniformly.
And take advantage of the warranty, too.
“It would be nice to have somebody come by and catch some things while it’s still under warranty,” he says.
A maintenance service call is also a perfect time to replace air filters. Filters not only scrub the air flowing through the house, but also improve the running of the furnace, itself.
Crouse believes establishing a regular maintenance schedule is key. Booking a call each fall ensures problems are prevented or caught before there’s an emergency mid-winter.
“It’s like a car. If you maintain it properly, it’s going to last longer. Preventative maintenance isn’t a hundred percent foolproof, but you’re definitely tilting the odds in your favour.”