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Keeping the House Warm and Cozy Takes a Bit of Maintenance

Getting ready to turn on the furnace? Don't let your energy money go up the chimney

Mary Maertin, together with husband Jeff, has operated Maertin Heating and Cooling on Wolf Road in Mokena for the last 20 years. As the cold weather sets in, she lends some insights into basic information and maintenance tips for keeping residential furnaces running safely and efficiently.

If there is a burning odor when the furnace gets flipped on for the first time "don't be alarmed," said Maertin. "It's just dust on the furnace. It should go away in a few minutes." If it doesn't stop, then arrange for a service call.

For the most part, the homeowner can perform basic maintenance tasks to help keep the furnace running efficiently. She notes that it's imperative to keep the filter clean. Depending on the brand of furnace installed, a homeowner should either change the air filter or clean the permanent one every month.

Meghann Burkhardt, service coordinator for New Lenox-based ATCO, another heating, ventilation and cooling specialist, said it's a good idea for homeowners to schedule a professional tune-up to ensure efficiency and safety.

If homeowners suspect a problem, Maertin said she'll arrange for a service call. The problem may not be a major one. The furnace might need some minor clean up. Part of the cleaning includes a check for carbon monoxide emissions. If the heat exchanger isn't operating correctly, it could release carbon monoxide into the home. "It's rare," she noted, but it's something that a professional would inspect.

She warned that "not everybody needs a full-blown furnace cleaning," which requires tearing the furnace apart to get to the nitty-gritty of the mechanical mechanisms. Newer furnaces run cleaner than those made in years past, and that's due for the most part to electronic ignitions rather than old fashioned hand-lighted pilot lights.

If a humidifier is tied to the system, the filter needs to be changed and the drains cleaned out. If there is a lot of lime in the water, it can build-up and cause the tube to get clogged. The problem then leads to water from the humidifier leaking into the furnace and causing a short circuit.

Furnace Repair Scams

Having been in the business for two decades, Maertin, who is a member of the Mokena, Frankfort and New Lenox Chambers of Commerce, said she's sadly familiar with scams from HVAC companies with no roots to the area. The elderly are especially vulnerable, she said.

"If you get a company that tells you there's a cracked heat exchanger, they need to show you that." A cracked heat exchanger means the furnace is beyond repair; it has to be replaced.

Russ Ward, owner of New Lenox's Best Heating and Cooling, agreed with Maertin. A cracked heat exchanger means the furnace is shot. The danger is carbon monoxide. Since those emissions are odorless killers, he recommends an annual tune-up. "We check the flame to see if it's erratic; we make sure the (built-in) safeties are working."

If someone recommends a new furnace, Ward said, homeowners should be cautious. With costs running anywhere from $2,000 and up depending on the size of the home, he suggests getting a second opinion.

"There're a lot of guys out there calling themselves heating (experts,) and they're not. You don't have to be licensed (in Illinois) for heating or as a general contractor."

He said, "A $75 second opinion is money well spent. You also want to check to see their insurance certificate, and make sure they're paying workman's compensation. That's the law," said Ward, whose company started in 1987. "If they're not paying workman's compensation and somebody gets hurt, the homeowner is going to get sued."

Both Maertin and Ward said there is no need to wait for an inspection before turning the furnace on. The best time to call is in October. HVAC companies generally have more time for tune-ups before the temperature drops consistently.

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