Homework: furnace inspection before winter

Check your furnace before the weather turns too

Check your furnace before the weather turns too cold. (Credit: iStock)

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Don't wait until the first frost to find out that your heating system is not working properly. Now is the time to get your furnace up and running.

Three heating experts -- Joe McDonald, vice president of marketing at Petro, which serves Long Island; and Michael Matarese, technical service supervisor, and Ed O'Connor, president, both of O'Connor Brothers Fuel in Freeport -- agree that homeowners should have an annual tune up on oil- and gas-fired equipment by a qualified service technician from a reputable company. Doing so, they say, will ensure that the burner is adjusted properly and that the unit is running at peak efficiency. "We do not recommend that homeowners attempt this annual maintenance on their own," McDonald says.

Two of the most common heating furnaces on Long Island are oil and gas. Here are some tips for each type of heating unit that homeowners can do safely as part of the regular maintenance before they have the annual tuneup by a qualified professional.

OIL BURNERS

Oil heat burns 95 percent cleaner now than 20 years ago, due to the latest ultralow sulfur products and biofuels. New York State has gone one step further -- as of July, all heating oil sold in the state is ultra low sulfur heating oil, which is environmentally friendly, burns cleaner and has fewer emissions than traditional heating oil.

Look, listen and feel. Take a good look at your furnace now. You should not have any rust, scale or black soot on the tank. Feel around for any sign of seepage. Turn on the heating system and feel if heat is coming up through the radiators or vents. If there is a banging sound, chances are something is not lubricated correctly.

Check your filters. A clogged or dirty filter in both gas and oil will cause a unit to work harder and longer, causing your bills to increase. Change your filter and make sure it is free of debris, soot and dust.

Keep the area around the furnace clean. Vacuum around the unit and make sure there is nothing flammable close by. Lint from dryers can accumulate near the furnace and create problems with heat efficiency.

Inspect your duct system. See if there are any cracks or disruptions in the duct system

Check your circuit breakers. Oil furnaces have electric power coming to them. That's why when you lose power you also lose heat. The same is true for gas furnaces.

Inspect the flue. A clogged or inadequate flue will cause combustion gases to stay in your house rather than venting outside and can cause a carbon monoxide leak in your home

Thermostats. If you have a programmable thermostat, check the batteries and change them yearly. Make sure it is calibrated correctly so that you can get the temperature you need.

Make sure your tank is full. Don't wait for the cold to find that you ran dry or you don't have enough oil in your tank. Get a delivery now and make sure the fill pipe is easily accessible and cleared of debris.

GAS FURNACES

Conventional gas furnaces work by taking in cold air, cleaning it with a filter, heating it up with a gas burner and distributing warm air with a blower motor through a home's ductwork.

Change filters monthly. Stock up on filters now. When changing a filter to a gas unit, make sure all the power to the unit is off. Make sure the filter is the right size for the unit. Dirty air filters will cause dust and debris to back up into the system and can cause the unit to fail or run less efficiently. Look for a pleated filter MERV (measured filter efficiency) of 8 or higher. It will be more expensive, but will pay for itself in the end. Make sure when you replace the filter that the arrows on the filter point in the direction of the air flow. If you have a reusable filter, make sure that it is completely dry before putting it back. Otherwise, you will be introducing mold into the unit.

Clean the area around the unit. Make sure the area around the furnace is clean and free of debris, especially around the blower fans.

Inspect the pilot light. In older gas units, the pilot light is always on. New units have an electronic ignition to light the flame. Make sure the flame is burning correctly.

Get carbon monoxide detectors. Get working carbon monoxide detectors and change the batteries yearly. They should be placed near the gas burner and near other gas-run appliances. Carbon monoxide from gas leaks is odorless and colorless and can kill you.

Inspect your return vents. If your return vents are dusty or blocked, your furnace will not work efficiently.

Have your duct system professionally cleaned. Clogged, dirty or blocked ducts will impede air flow, so it's a good idea to have the system cleaned once a year.

Fireplaces. If you have a gas fireplace or even a wood-burning one, get it cleaned and inspected by a professional.

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