Pre-Winter Furnace Maintenance Checklist
Furnaces, also known as gas forced-air systems, don’t require a lot of work by the homeowner, but a little preventative maintenance goes a long way. A licensed professional should perform most heating and cooling maintenance.
While the most important thing is to schedule professional furnace maintenance every fall, there are many other things you can do to extend the lifespan of your equipment and save a lot of money in the process.
Pre-Winter Furnace Maintenance
Before doing any furnace maintenance, make sure the furnace is turned off and review the owner’s manual for any special warnings or directions. Then, clean the area around the furnace so you have room to work. There should always be a minimum 3-foot clearance around the furnace. Keep any flammable items far away.
Change the Air Filter
Let’s start with the most basic furnace maintenance: replacing the air filter.
The furnace air filter helps capture floating dust and particulates that flow through the ducts. In order to work properly and maintain proper airflow, the filter must be replaced often. While some air filters can be cleaned and reused, most air filters are thrown out and replaced with a new one. Follow the manufacturer’s directions.
It’s important to inspect your air filter once a month. Set a repeating calendar reminder so you never forget.
- Locate the filter chamber and remove the access door or cover. There are a few places where your filter might be. Usually, filters fit in a compartment between the return air duct and the blower compartment. Some models have the filter inside of the main furnace compartment. There may also be a separate filtration unit attached to the air handler.
- Remove the air filter and hold it up to a bright light. If most of the light is blocked, replace the filter. If light can still pass through easily, you can continue to use the filter for another month.
There are many different types of filters to choose from. Ask you local HVAC technician which type of air filter is best for you. We recommend using an air filter with a MERV rating between 7 and 13.
Learn more about why cleaning or changing your air filter is so important.
Adjust the Dampers (If Needed)
Many forced-air HVAC systems (ducts serve as heat and AC ducts) have dampers located inside of the ductwork right near the main air handler. These dampers help to redirect airflow in a more efficient manner for heating and cooling. If you have dampers, there should be a damper lever, handle, or wing nut visible above the air handler near the main supply trunk (aka the plenum).
The seasonal settings should be marked, but if the handle runs parallel to the duct, it is open, allowing maximum airflow. This is the summer (cooling) setting. If the handle is perpendicular or at an angle to the duct, it is closed for the winter (heating) setting. Mark the damper positions “summer” and “winter” with permanent marker for easy reference.
Basically, by closing the damper, you are redirecting the warm air to the lower levels of the home (since heat rises). Opening the damper for air conditioning sends more air to the upstairs.
Check the Pilot and Thermocouple
Your furnace will have either a standing pilot light or an intermittent pilot light depending on when it was installed. Newer furnaces tend to have intermittent pilot lights, which only light when the thermostat calls for heat. Standing pilot lights are always on.
If your furnace has a standing pilot light, make sure you inspect it before the start of heating season. You want to make sure the pilot light is large enough and has the right air to fuel ratio.
If you can’t see the pilot light, you may need to relight it. Follow the instructions in your owner’s manual. There may also be instructions printed on the unit itself or on the inside of the access door. If the pilot light won’t stay lit, try again. If you are still having problems, contact a professional. Make sure that whenever you try relighting the pilot light, you turn off the gas supply and let any leftover gas dissipate before attempting to relight the pilot again.
Once the pilot is lit, take a look at the flame itself. Is it too small? Is it too big? The pilot light should cover the tip of the thermocouple by about ½”. And like the burner flames, the pilot light should be blue, with maybe a small yellow tip.
To adjust the pilot flame light, there should be an adjustment screw at the top of the thermocouple. If the flame is too high, you can turn the screw to the left to reduce pressure. If the flame is too low, turn the screw in the opposite direction to increase pressure.
After adjusting the pilot light, you may notice it is still weak and yellow/orange. Contact a professional HVAC technician to fix it. This may require cleaning or replacing the thermocouple/pilot jet.
If your intermittent pilot light fails to turn on, contact a qualified technician for service.
Check the Burner Flames
The furnace’s pilot light and burners can tell you a lot about the efficiency of the entire system.
The burner flames should be blue all the way through. There may be a very small tip of yellow or orange, but the flame should be a bright blue with a light blue triangle in the middle. If the furnace flames are any other color than blue, such as green, yellow, orange, or red, turn off the furnace right away and contact a qualified technician. Do NOT try to fix the furnace flame colors on your own.
Non-blue furnace flames indicate improper combustion, which means that the flame is not getting enough oxygen. A clean-burning blue flame indicates safe and efficient combustion.
Improper flame colors are so dangerous because they can indicate an increased amount of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is called the “silent killer” because it is odorless, colorless, tasteless, and deadly. That’s why it’s important to have CO detectors in the home — it’s the only way to detect the gas other than identifying its symptoms, which include headaches, nausea, chest pain, vomiting, dizziness, and confusion. Many people describe the symptoms as flu-like.
Make sure you are checking your smoke alarms and CO detectors every month.
Check the Outdoor Furnace Vent Pipes
There are two main locations where you might find your furnace vent pipes: on the roof (natural, vertical ventilation) or the side of the house (direct, sidewall ventilation). Most likely, they are PVC, CPVC, or ABS pipes sticking out of the side of your house: one is the air intake and the other is the exhaust.
Combustion air for the furnace gets drawn from the outdoors via a dedicated air intake pipe. Outgoing combustion gases get sent out of the home via the exhaust pipe.
It’s important that you periodically check the outdoor vent pipes for obstructions, such as bird nests, plants, leaves, and other materials. If the vent pipes are blocked, your furnace may automatically turn off. Blocked vents can also cause carbon monoxide buildup in the home.
Keep plants, fences, and other obstructions far away from the furnace vent pipes to avoid obstructing airflow and to keep your plants from being exposed to combustion gases. There should be a minimum clearance of 5 feet around your furnace vent pipes.
We recommend inspecting your exhaust vent and air intake vents for blockages after a snowstorm. Your vents should be at least 12” above the highest anticipated snowfall.
If you see soot around your vent pipes or stained siding, the exhaust system isn’t working properly. It may have been improperly installed and combustion gases could be reentering the building. Contact a qualified technician right away.
While you’re outside, check the areas around where utilities enter the building, such as vents, pipes, and electric lines. If you see any gaps or cracks, seal them up with weatherproof caulk or expandable foam spray.
If you have a vertical vent pipe system, the pipes will typically exit through the building roof. Vertical systems are typically used for gas-fired boilers. We don’t recommend going onto the roof to inspect your heating vent pipes. Let a professional do that for you during their annual tune-up service appointment.
Seal Up Duct Leaks
According to Energy Star, “about 20 to 30 percent of the air that moves through the duct system is lost due to leaks, holes, and poorly connected ducts.”
If you want to maximize the efficiency of your heating and cooling system, we highly recommend sealing and insulating your air ducts. While you may be able to seal a lot of duct leaks yourself with either aluminum foil tape or mastic sealant, a qualified HVAC company will be able to seal all of the inaccessible areas and add insulation as well.
Here are some ways you can tell if you have leaky air ducts:
- You can feel air movement around duct connections. Try using a thin piece of toilet paper, lit incense stick, or your wet hand to feel for air leaks.
- You have high heating and cooling bills.
- You are having trouble heating or cooling certain rooms in your home
- You have ductwork located in the attic, basement, or crawlspace.
- You notice damaged or missing ductwork.
Sealing and insulating your air ducts will help improve indoor air quality, efficiency, and safety. Contact Brubaker Inc. for professional air sealing and insulating solutions in the Central Pennsylvania area.
Maintaining a Whole-Home Humidifier
If you have a humidifier installed into your furnace system, make sure you are following the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule. You may need to inspect and clean the drain pan, distribution tray, and/or drain hose to prevent mold and mildew growth.
Schedule Professional Furnace Maintenance
It’s very important that you schedule heating maintenance every fall before the heating season starts. Your furnace works by delivering gas to the burners, which is ignited by the pilot flame (or heated element). If the burners and spuds (small orifices where the gas enters) are dirty, they can create safety and efficiency problems.
Soot and other combustion byproducts can quickly cause damage to your furnace. A trained technician should clean your burners, spuds, thermocouple, and more to increase efficiency and extend the lifespan of your equipment.
Do not attempt to remove and clean furnace components yourself since it’s very easy to bend and damage sensitive components. Also, DIY work can void your manufacturer’s warranty and lead to more expensive repairs and replacements.
Annual professional furnace maintenance is the best thing you can do for your furnace. During a seasonal tune-up, our technicians run diagnostics on every part of your system. We make sure the fans run smoothly, the thermostat is programed to your liking, and that all critical parts are not showing signs of wear. If a component needs replacing, we will replace it for you before it gives out.
Consider signing up for an HVAC maintenance plan, such as Brubaker’s Home Maintenance Plan. We service all makes and models of forced air systems, including Rheem, Fujitsu, and many more.
Contact Brubaker Inc. today for comprehensive heating and cooling tune-ups in Lancaster, PA and the surrounding area.
Call us any time to schedule your appointment: 717.925.3173.
24-hour emergency service is available.