In a popular TV infomercial in the 1990s, the host advertises that a person can cook a delicious meal in their rotisserie with two steps: “Set it, and forget it!” Such a tagline worked TV magic for that kitchen appliance, but unfortunately, it’s not great advice for your heating system. If you’re setting the thermostat when you need warmth, but forgetting about the heating unit the rest of the time, you could be burdening yourself with higher energy bills, more frequent HVAC repairs, and less indoor comfort than you deserve.
Life’s solutions are rarely as simple as they’re portrayed in infomercials. That’s why Gordon’s Heating & Air created a list of easy ways to maintain your heating system for better performance and efficiency.
Types Of Heating Systems
Home heating tips take into consideration the type of heating system, and often the brand and model, to determine which maintenance steps apply. Some heating systems are also more common in specific areas of the country.
Our HVAC company in Savannah, GA, serves customers who have furnaces or heat pumps, while less common heating systems in Georgia include boilers, ductless (mini-split) heaters, and radiant floor heat. The only thing that’s worse for a heating system than inaction is following bad maintenance advice. Knowing for sure which type of heater is in your home is the first step to finding helpful tips for proper care.
Furnaces are forced warm-air distribution systems that run on natural gas, fuel oil, or electricity. A furnace has three main components: the air handler, heat exchanger, and furnace fan. The air handler pulls in outside air, which the heat exchanger warms by transferring energy from electricity or a gas flame, and the furnace fan, also called a blower, moves through the ductwork and out of vents in the floors or ceilings of rooms. The efficiency of furnaces, meaning how much energy is produced versus consumed, is measured as AFUE (Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency). In 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy proposed updating the minimum-efficiency standards for natural gas furnaces to 92 percent AFUE; the debate over efficiency standards remains ongoing.
Heat pumps work like air conditioners but in reverse: whereas AC units remove heat from indoor air, heat pumps use electrical systems to pull in heat from the outdoors (either from the air or from geothermal heat in the ground). Heat pumps distribute the warm air through ductwork using forced air distribution systems, similar to furnaces. Most of the energy heat pumps consume is used to move, rather than generate, heat, making them more energy-efficient than furnaces. However, heat pumps, especially geothermal systems, also tend to have higher price tags, which is the reason heat pumps are preferred by homeowners who intend to live and invest in their house for a long time or who value green technology.
Troubleshooting Heating Problems
No matter the type of heating system, you can troubleshoot problems based on three main areas: the heat source, warm-air distribution, and heat controls. If the heating system has totally shut down, the heater isn’t receiving electricity or fuel. If your house is being heated unevenly, with some rooms hotter or colder than others, or the vent air is weak throughout the house, possible reasons could include leaky ductwork or the blower is failing. How about cycling: when set on auto, does the system turn on and off rapidly, or stay off or on for too long? Those problems are likely caused by a bad thermostat connection.
Is it worth your time and effort to find the causes of heating malfunctions for several reasons, starting with the fact that knowing which areas need attention lets you concentrate maintenance efforts where they’ll have the biggest impact. Catching problems early also enables you to fix them, or at least schedule heating service and repairs, before small issues become emergencies. Pointing out any heating problems to the technician also helps them address the root causes faster, saving time on repairs and getting your heat running as soon as possible.
Basic Heating System Care
Keeping a home heating system in top shape requires effort from both sides of the spectrum, which is to say routine upkeep by you, the homeowner, as well as planned, semi-annual HVAC maintenance from professionals. Homeowners have vastly different levels of technical skills — some build hot rods in their garages; others get overwhelmed by IKEA furniture. So while there are online instructional videos for practically all HVAC repairs, it’s important to stay in your lane and only attempt repairs within your ability. Botching an ambitious do-it-yourself repair not only could leave the heater in worse shape, but the work itself can be dangerous (fuel, electricity, and inexperience are a potentially explosive combination). But don’t allow yourself to be psyched out. You can do plenty of maintenance with little technical aptitude.
Proper thermostat care is vital to a well-functioning home heating system. Thermostats communicate with the HVAC controls, telling the system to turn on and off and setting the preferred indoor conditions. The advent of smart home technologies has expanded the variety of thermostats available. In addition to mechanical thermostats, such as the classic turn dial, there are programmable digital thermostats, wireless thermostats, which are operable from Wi-Fi-enabled devices, and the latest innovation, learning thermostats, which program themselves based on how they’re used. Communicating thermostats, which interact with the HVAC systems to troubleshoot problems and provide maintenance reminders, are also emerging on the market. Regardless of the kind of thermostat you have, the device should be treated delicately.
All models contain fragile wires, saying nothing of the advanced electrical components and sensors in smart thermostats. Banging on the buttons, changing the settings frantically, or touching the device with wet hands, let alone spilling a drink on it, can lead to electrical problems like shorts and loose contacts. The thermostats that run on batteries also need to have their power sources replaced regularly. Weak batteries disrupt the communications with the HVAC controls, causing the system to cycle on and off sporadically. Remember to use quality batteries, because cheap ones corrode and can ruin the thermostat’s functionality. Finally, it’s never a bad idea to upgrade to a newer, high-tech thermostat. Just make sure to follow the instructions, or have a certified HVAC technician perform the installation. Setting up the thermostat incorrectly can result in poor heating performance going forward.
HVAC filters block unwanted particles (dust, hair, pollen, mold spores) from gumming up the works, as well as lowering the indoor air quality. Most heating systems, including furnaces and heat pumps, use filters. Ideally, a filter should be cleaned or replaced every three months. Furnace filters are inserted vertically or horizontally and slide in and out freely, while heat pump filters tend to be located in walls and can be removed by unlatching the registers.
When buying a filter, two details to keep in mind are sizes and MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) ratings. Filters have MERV ratings from 1 (low efficiency) to 20 (high efficiency). Higher values trap finer and more types of particles, such as smoke, dust mites, and allergens. MERV rating between 8 and 13 are acceptable for most home air systems. Filters sizes are measured by depth (between 1 inch and 6 inches), height (between 10 inches and 25 inches), and length (between 20 inches and 25 inches).
Sizes are printed on its exterior edge of the filter, but if the writing is too dirty or destroyed to read, use a tape measure to find the dimensions. Most big box retailers and hardware stores sell HVAC filters. However, in rare cases, heating units have custom-sized filters that should be dealt with by technicians.
Schedule Fall HVAC Maintenance
Georgians might not use their furnaces and heat pumps as often as they do their A/C units. However, in the few months that cold fronts and clouds move in, it’s imperative to have an efficient and dependable heating system to keep your family warm. Besides regular DIY maintenance, such as replacing the filter and caring for the thermostat, schedule an HVAC service appointment in the fall to get your home ready for winter.
At Gordon’s Heating & Air, our NATE-certified technicians use a multi-point inspection checklist to provide maintenance on every essential part of a heating system. Our technicians are trained to find potential problems and address them to prevent future repairs. And if replacement parts are required, our vans are filled with tools and supplies, so that we can handle any repairs on-site. Contact us today to schedule spring HVAC maintenance in Savannah or surrounding areas!