Simply Stated Architecture, P.C.

Preparing for Heating Season - Furnace Maintenance

As the nights become cooler, people are thinking about the coming winter and keeping their houses warm. Some of you have already turned on your furnaces. Others are starting the annual competition to see how long you can hold out before committing to the cost to heat your home. Here are some tips and considerations to keep your heating bills in line this winter.

The first tip is to keep it clean. Any combustion heat source will create soot and residue that will lower the efficiency of the heat source. Coal and wood fired furnaces produce the most, and regular cleaning of ash and soot is part of the routine with such systems. Oil furnaces don’t require the regular attention of coal and wood, but for optimum efficiency they should be cleaned once a year before heating season starts. Gas or propane creates limited combustion byproducts, burning fairly cleanly. Recommendations are to clean a gas furnace every two to three years. Other items are checked during annual maintenance - blower and fan motors are lubricated, proper draw at the chimney or exhaust is checked as well as blockage of the flue, and condition of the heat exchanger is checked. So best not to let maintenance go too long for reasons of both efficiency and safety.


Beyond maintenance of the heating system itself, be sure to clean or replace the furnace filter regularly. As dust, lint, and debris builds up on the filter it is harder for the blower to force air through the filter. This results in less efficient heat distribution within your house. The furnace has to actually run longer to push the heat to the extents of your house and thereby increases your heating bill. Depending on the type of filter and factors such as pet fur or other contributors, filters should be cleaned or replaced at least once a year and as often as every two or three months.

At the same time you consider your furnace, also consider your water heater. Two often forgotten items are to check your anode rod(s) and to flush sediment from the water heater tank. Sediment is less of an issue for electric water heaters - where the heating element is suspended in the water - but for oil or gas burners, sediment at the bottom of the tank acts as an insulator and reduces the heat transfer from the burner to the water. In preparation, turn off the water heater or lower the thermostat a few hours before you begin work to reduce water temperatures in the water heater. At the base of the water heater is a spigot. Connect a hose to this spigot and run it to a drain or place a bucket under the spigot. Running the water for a minute or two - or for a few gallons into a bucket - will clear the sediment from the water heater. This is done with the supply valve to the water heater remaining on.

The anode is a sacrificial rod - usually of magnesium or aluminum - that corrodes before the water heater tank. Monitoring and replacing the anode can keep a water heater from rusting out. Once the anode is gone, the water heater tank is what will corrode. There is a large bolt on the top of the water heater - possibly two. This is the top end of the anode. After flushing the water heater in the above process, things will be cool enough to remove the anode. Shut off the water supply to the water heater and drain a gallon or two of water from the water heater to lower the water level within the heater. Then remove the anode rod and check it. Here is a photo of a new anode (top) and a fully corroded anode (bottom). You can see the bolt head at the left in the photo. You want to replace the anode before it gets to the point of the bottom rod in the photo - at this point it is no longer able to protect your water heater and other components are corroding instead of the anode!


WARNINGS: Cleaning and/or replacing your furnace filter is an easy do-it-yourself maintenance item. Your furnace owner’s manual will give you all of the details you need or your furnace repair person can walk you through the process when he is there for the annual maintenance. The water heater maintenance - checking anodes and flushing the tank - are somewhat more involved, but entirely doable for the average handy homeowner. Realize that you are dealing with potentially hot water and water pressure, though. If you do not feel confident in your skills, have a professional perform the maintenance and possibly have him or her walk you through the process so that you can do it in the future.

If your water heater is several years old and you have never done any of this maintenance, it is possible to run into complications with the drain spigot and the anode being corroded in place. Best to let a professional do the maintenance in case issues are encountered and then keep up with regular maintenance in future years if you feel confident attending to it yourself.