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Before chilly autumn nights set in, you need to make an appointment for your furnace’s annual checkup. Without this yearly cleaning and inspection, a system can wear itself out quickly, pump deadly carbon monoxide into your home, or simply stop working.
We asked This Old House plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey to show us the proper steps that a service professional would follow for an oil-burning forced-air furnace; the basics on a gas system are similar. In both, fuel is mixed with air and ignited, heating a sealed chamber. Fresh, filtered air then blows across the outside of the hot chamber and into the heating ducts. (Homes with radiators have boilers instead of furnaces. These heat water instead of air, but the annual checkup is similar.) In all, the dangerous exhaust from the combustion chamber is vented out a flue or chimney.
Whatever type of system you have, don’t wait until it breaks down to call for service. A clean, well-adjusted heating system will save you money on fuel and prolong furnace life. Annual servicing is cheap—typically less than $100—especially when compared with the price of a new furnace. “You wouldn’t wait more than a year to service your car,” Richard says. “The heat in your house is just as important.”
Before performing any maintenance, Richard makes sure to switch off the electrical power and the fuel supply. The distinctive red power switchplate can usually be found at the top of the cellar stairs or near the burner itself, while the fuel shutoff valve is near the oil tank or on the incoming gas pipe. Note the location of both in case of a future leak or fire.
In the combustion chamber, fuel mixes with air and is ignited, generating heat—as well as carbon soot, water vapor, carbon dioxide, and worse. A buildup of soot can cause the chamber walls to corrode. Richard scrapes out built-up carbon using a small wire brush. Then he removes loose material with an industrial shop vacuum and inspects the chamber for holes or corrosion before replacing the cover.
Richard checks for holes in the exhaust flue that could leak carbon monoxide, particularly where the pipe meets the furnace. Small holes can be patched with foil tape, but corroded flues must be replaced. He also adjusts the flue pipe’s barometric damper, which moderates the chimney draw. “A big, tall chimney in an old house tends to suck too much air, compromising efficiency,” he says. “Your service pro can weight the damper to lessen the draw.
The oil filter (found in oil-powered systems only) prevents small impurities from clogging the oil-burner nozzle, which could result in a misfire that shuts down the system. Richard first closes the oil valve, then removes the old filter and replaces it, setting aside the dirty filter to be disposed of according to local hazardous-waste regulations.
“During the winter, all the air that your family is breathing comes through this filter,” says Richard. “You can’t change it too often, but never let it go for more than a year.” Changing the filter is something any homeowner can do easily. At the same time, Richard checks the blower belt’s wear and tension.
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(The blower, driven by an electric motor, moves heated air from the furnace through ductwork to room vents.) A loose belt can slow the blower, compromising efficiency. If the belt deflects more than ¾ inch when pressed firmly, it can be adjusted by sliding the motor backward slightly.