By Mitch Kuffa
Let’s inspect your furnace! Let’s get your furnace in shape before the frost arrives. A majority of homes have what is called a gas forced air furnace. This is a unit that heats air and then forces it to different parts of the house through a ductwork system. What should you know about a gas forced air heating system, what can you look for and what can you do to help maintain it? As the days cool, your furnace will run longer and longer and it’s better to discover any problem sooner than later. Here are a few helpful hints as it relates to the above:
1. Make sure your filters are clean. Keep in mind that there are many different types of filters available today with the basic ones being the most popular and the least expensive. Some of the more sophisticated types can get more costly but are worth it. But no matter what, it is imperative, for proper function and efficiency to have a clean filter.
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2. Remove any combustible materials away from the furnace (and also away from the hot water tank).
3. Most furnaces are fueled by natural gas, and this type of flame typically burns nice and blue. If the flames flutter or are orange the burners may need to be adjusted.
4. See if the vent pipes are secure, sealed at the joints and have no openings or holes. Older furnaces should have the metal flue pipes pitching upwards (since they are exhausting carbon monoxide and are leaving the furnace via gravity in lieu of having a forced vent fan). Some new furnaces often have a vent fan located in the flue to force the waste gas out. This option is worth it.
5. Your blower motor should be humming quietly. Most furnace motors need to be periodically oiled (typically through a small oil port, at the center side of the motor). This should be done by a professional.
6. Check to see if the fan belts are snug to the motor when running (should not be loose or “squealing”). The “squirrel cage” fan should not be vibrating or shake the furnace when in operation.
7. If you have a humidifier, clean and maintain it or shut it off. When inspecting houses, many times I’ve seen the damage done to the furnace by an overflowing and un-maintained humidifier.
8. Check the thermostat reading and see if the set heat desired coincides with the thermometer located in the thermostat or the air temperature in the room (after the furnace has run for a while). If you have your thermostat set at 68 degrees, the thermometer and room air temperature should be close to the same. Incidentally, the new and popular computerized thermostats, that can change the setting several times during a 24-hour cycle are a valuable upgrade when it comes to saving energy. They can be set to shut the temperature down during the night when the occupants are sleeping, turn the temperature up a half-hour prior to waking up in the morning, etc..
9. Turn the furnace on and check the heat flow through the registers. This is especially important if you have a crawl space or a two-story home. Many times you will find that certain rooms have strong airflow, while others give you very little. Most systems have dampers on all the runs that can be adjusted to give you the airflow you desire. Typically, the shortest runs closest to the furnace should be shut down while the farthest runs should have the dampers wide open. Due to the fact that hot air rises, if you have a two-story house, you may want to close the damper openings for the heat runs leading to the upper level.
10. When was the last time (if ever) that you had your ductwork professionally cleaned? The prices to have this done vary widely, but are worth it. Having this done minimizes allergies, helps avoid colds, etc. and you may be surprised what comes flying out of your ductwork (golf balls, dead mice, feathers, just to name a few).
11. Run the furnace for approximately 10-15 minutes and then (while the furnace is still running) very carefully check to see if the outside of the furnace has any “hot spots.” The presence of these can indicate possible interior problems. But remember, I have seen some of these “hot spots” able to peel the paint right off the metal.
12. Does the furnace run through its cycles in a normal fashion or does it turn on and off often (could indicate the need for repair or adjustment)?
13. Are there any visual signs of rust on the inside or outside? Is there any evidence of water having backed up through the flue line or chimney? Maybe the humidifier is leaking or if you have central A/C possibly the small PVC condensation line is dripping.
14. Are all the ducts secure (especially important in crawl spaces)?
15. Do all the registers work?
16. If your furnace is older (more than 10 years old) do the following if possible. Take the door off, be still and watch the flame when the fan turns on. It should not change, flutter, move about or change color. If the fan affects the flame, it can be a sign of a more serious problem. Most importantly, if a furnace is getting older, it should be checked and serviced regularly by a licensed heating contractor. The average life expectancy of a gas forced air unit is approximately 20 years, but I have seen some fail seriously at 7 or 8 years and many to last 30+ years. Keep in mind that a failing furnace can be dangerous because it can allow the carbon monoxide and flue gases to “bleed” into the air you breathe as opposed to being expelled through the vent. These gases are colorless, odorless and tasteless. If you happen to have a hot water boiler and system (in the lieu of a gas forced air system) please realize their basic function is very similar except that the hot water system pumps heated water instead of heated air and a hot water system is much easier to analyze and detect flaws because when it fails there is dripping, squirting and collecting water. This water is not colorless, odorless or tasteless, but rather very conspicuous.
Inspections By MJK
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Mitchell J. Kuffa Jr. has been in the construction industry since 1967. In that time, he has worked as a construction superintendent, general superintendent, and construction manager for several large developers in the state of Michigan.
He has been a licensed Michigan residential builder since 1977, was an incorporated general contractor for 11 years and has built and/or run the construction of approx. 3,500 residential houses, apartments, commercial structures and/or light industrial buildings.
In 1981 he started the first private home inspection agency in Michigan and to date has personally performed approx. 16,000 inspections for a fee.
Since 1981, Mr. Kuffa inspects properties and acts as a construction consultant for the Michigan Department of Mental Health (group homes), UAW Legal Services, numerous lenders, several non-profit organizations and for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Mr. Kuffa is a federal housing fee inspector and FHA 203K mortgage loan consultant, works with several attorney’s as an “expert witness”, has been appointed by the Michigan circuit court system to act as a Receiver in several cases concerning construction litigation and teaches a series of construction classes (for misc. school districts, community colleges, Michigan State Housing Authority, etc.).
Mr. Kuffa has been a member of the National Association of Home Inspectors, in good standing, since 1983.