Winter furnace safety and maintenance
Updated: May 9
The winter months are upon us, and many people are firing up their furnaces for the first time this season.
As one of the most cost-effective methods of heating your home or business, gas furnaces are commonly utilized throughout the U.S.
While an affordable option, there are risks with operating this equipment. Safe furnace operation is vital to the occupants of your home or commercial space due to the dangerous combustion gases these units create.
Do you test your carbon monoxide detectors regularly?
For safe furnace operation, it is imperative to have carbon monoxide detectors installed within your home, should you have a gas furnace or any other gas products such as stoves, water heaters, dryers, etc. It is also essential to regularly check your carbon monoxide detectors, to ensure proper battery life and function.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends replacing the batteries and testing carbon monoxide and smoke detectors monthly. Carbon monoxide is often referred to as the “invisible killer” as the gas is odorless and colorless, making it difficult to detect a leak.
Initial symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:
- Shortness of breath
Symptoms indicating higher levels of carbon monoxide poisoning may include:
- Loss of muscular coordination
- Loss of consciousness
- Ultimately death
Check out this Carbon Monoxide Fact Sheet from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission for additional information regarding carbon monoxide poisoning and further prevention techniques.
Furnace units go through the process of combustion in order to provide heating functions; therefore, it is essential to keep the space in front of and surrounding the unit clear of clutter, especially items that may be flammable such as gas, paints, cleaners, and adhesives.
It is also recommended not to store cat litter next to your furnace, as this product contains ammonia. Ammonia can accelerate the corrosion of the heat exchanger component within your furnace.
What is a heat exchanger?
The heat exchanger component of your furnace houses combustion gases that create the heat that will be eventually circulated throughout the home. Combustion gases are separated out from the airflow used for heating and are transferred through the flue pipe. This flue will then carry those dangerous gases out of the home and excrete them into the outdoor ambient airflow.
Due to the nature of the heat exchanger component and the deadly gases that it houses, it is vital that this component be professionally inspected, regularly. Over the lifespan of a furnace, this component will slowly corrode. Corrosion leads to points of compromise within the heat exchanger component, allowing for dangerous combustion gases to escape into your indoor airflow.
Most HVAC service providers will routinely assess this system component during fall maintenance calls, to ensure safety.
Should you have a significant water loss that results in moisture intrusion of your furnace, or even a water event that occurs in close relation to your furnace, you should have the unit professionally assessed. Moisture damages accelerate the corrosion of this component.
How often do you change your home air filter?
With our increasingly busy schedules, many homeowners neglect to change this crucial system component as often as they should.
Most HVAC manufacturers recommend that system air filters be replaced once every 90 days or about every 3 months. Should you smoke, or have animals that shed indoors, you may want to replace the filter more often than this.
Though air filter replacement does assist in keeping the air that you breathe clean, this component also helps ensure optimal system efficiency and protects your HVAC equipment from premature failure.
Many systems have multiple filters. Some with internal system filters located at the side, on top of, or in very close relation to your indoor HVAC unit whether it be a furnace or air handler unit. This filter would be different from the one you may pick up at your local home improvement store and change from a hallway or other room register every few months. This system filter should also be replaced regularly.
Should you have trouble determining whether you have one of these filters or the location on your system, contact your local HVAC service provider. They can assist with this and oftentimes will replace this filter for you upon time of maintenance calls.
Is changing my filter REALLY that important?
When an HVAC system becomes heavily clogged with debris, airflow cannot properly pass over the system coils. This results in your system working harder than it is designed to, thus using more energy to keep up with the demand of your thermostat. This not only increases your energy bill but also leads to premature system failure in most cases.
Internal system motors operate at higher amperages, as they are working overtime to keep up with the system demand, while clogged. When motors operate at these excessive amperages for an extended period of time, motor windings weaken and fail prematurely.
In addition to regularly changing your filters to protect your HVAC system, it is also ideal to keep your indoor registers as clean as possible. It is good practice to vacuum or sweep any debris from registers that may accumulate in order to keep internal system debris to a minimum.
Have you ever turned on your furnace the first time of the season and momentarily smelled smoke? This odor could be due to a multitude of issues and should be diagnosed promptly by an HVAC professional upon discovery.
One common root cause of such odors is a dirty evaporator coil. Upon initiation of a furnace unit at the beginning of the season, heating of the evaporator coil may create a smoky smell, due to the component being coated in debris. Should you find the issue resulting in a smoky odor being distributed throughout your home, consider regular maintenance for your HVAC system.
It is recommended that standard residential split HVAC systems be assessed biannually in order to maintain optimal efficiency and ensure system longevity. The furnace unit evaporator coil should also be cleaned, to remove any debris buildup. This is often orchestrated along the cleaning of the condensation drain line component.
A primary function of HVAC equipment is to dehumidify the indoor air. The condensation line is an important part of a furnace unit. This line allows condensation collected from the indoor air to flow from the unit to an outdoor location.
The condensation drain line is susceptible to clogging, due to debris accumulation over time and should be professionally cleaned in order to ensure condensation is properly flowing from the unit. When regular maintenance is deferred, this can lead to serious moisture issues damaging the furnace unit itself, associated ductwork, and areas surrounding the unit.
Many HVAC service providers offer biannual maintenance service plans for customers with standard residential split systems, one of the most common HVAC system configurations.
During the spring, cleaning of outdoor faculties such as condenser units or heat pumps will be orchestrated. In the fall, the indoor unit such as a furnace or air handler unit will be cleaned.