Gas furnace owners, listen up: It’s time to call the heat-and-air guys and get your furnace serviced. It’ll cost you somewhere around $75-$150 for a typical service call, maybe less if somebody’s running a special. Don’t whine and cry about the money. Regular service will make your furnace last longer, and, more importantly, it’ll give the heat-and-air guys a chance to find problems that could burn your house downor fill your house up with deadly carbon monoxide.
The older your furnace is, the more likely it is to have problems. If you don’t know how old your furnace is, here’s how you find out: Locate the data plate. It’s a sticker or a metal plate, usually inside the furnace, behind the removable front cover. Pay special attention to the numbers at the beginning and end of the serial number. Most of the time, you’ll find two numbers together that tell the year the furnace was built. For instance, the serial numbers on my furnaces contain the combination 85. That’s because my furnaces were built in 1985. Some newer furnaces have a simple born-on date, like Budweiser. For instance, the data plate might say 9/85, usually in the bottom right corner.
In the 15 years I’ve been doing home inspections, I’ve learned three things about gas furnaces. With a view toward home safety, I thought I’d pass them along.
1. A whole lot of people get their gas furnaces serviced seldom, or never.
You need to get your heat-and-air system serviced twice a year. Once in the spring, before it gets really hot, and once in the fall, before it gets really cold. Little known fact: Not getting your A/C system serviced in the spring can kill your furnace. When the A/C system runs, it produces water, which can leak into your furnace and turn it into a rusty mess. A springtime service call should prevent that.
The fall check is to make sure your furnace is clean and safe. Over time, furnaces rust. Furnaces with rust all over the burners are inefficient, and could be dangerous. Vent pipes (which is what we call furnace exhaust pipes), can get clogged or come apart. Faulty vent pipes can dump carbon monoxide into your house. If you’ve got problems like these, you want them fixed now, before you start running your furnace every day.
2. A whole lot of heat-and-air contractors do a sorry job of cleaning and servicing gas furnaces.
Between now and Christmas, I promise I’ll go to at least 20 houses where the homeowners will tell me that they just had the furnace cleaned and serviced. But when I open up their furnace, I’ll find a gallon of rust on the burners. Several times this year, I’ve opened up a furnace and found a heap of cicada bodies, left over from the summer of ’98. That’s a pretty good indicator that nobody has cleaned the furnace.
You can discourage this kind of slipshod work by looking inside the furnace before the heat-and-air tech leaves. I know that the guys who service my heat-and-air equipment are doing a good job because I check behind ’em every now and then. It’s not hard to pop the cover off a furnace, and look inside. Anybody can tell the difference between clean and dirty.
3. Most, if not all, condo furnaces are improperly installed.
Fact: If you’re living in a condo, and you’ve got a gas furnace, there’s probably something wrong with the installation. As far as I can remember, we’ve found at least one of these problems every time we’ve inspected a condo:
Vent pipes touching things that will burn: Typically, a mid-efficiency gas furnace is vented with B-vent, which is a double-wall pipe. B-vent is supposed to be kept at least an inch away from anything that will burn. In condos, the furnaces are usually crammed into closets, and the B-vent is usually jammed up against paper-faced insulation, wood trim, or wall and ceiling board.
Return air duct too close to the furnace: The return air duct should be at least 10 feet away from the furnace. The idea is to prevent toxic combustion products (such as carbon monoxide) from getting into the ductwork. Often, in condos, the return air is simply drawn through the bottom of the furnace.
Not enough room to work on the furnace: There should be room enough for a grown man to sit in front of the furnace, so he can take the covers off and service the thing. We often find condo furnaces that have never been serviced, because nobody can get to them.
If you’ve got these problems, get them fixed. It doesn’t matter if it’s been that way since the condo was built, and it doesn’t matter if all the other condos have the same problems. We’re talking about basic safety here. Take up a collection, and get every furnace in every condo fixed. You’ll sleep better on those cold winter nights.
Visit Walter Jowers’ Web site at http://www.nashvillescene.com/~housesense, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.