Your Home - Fall 2010 - Energy Saving Tips
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Fall 2010
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Preparing Your Home Heating System for Winter - Part 1

As winter approaches with its guarantee of ice, snow, and frigid temperatures, homeowners should begin to take action early to prepare and protect homes for the season. Preventing any potential problems ahead of time, well before the chill of winter arrives will inevitably save headaches and money in the long run.

Careful planning and preparation will ensure that utilities will run efficiently during the winter and that will save time, money, the environment and a potential world of frustration.

Ensuring that the heating system is up and running properly is the most important factor to consider for a winter-ready home. In addition, spending additional time to check for proper insulation throughout the home is better than spending money and wasting resources.

Home Health

Before any discussion of a home’s heating system can be had, it is important to note how important that system is to the overall health and air quality of the house. An unhealthy home can make you and your family sick. With windows and doors closed all winter it wouldn’t be a bad idea to consider adding an air duct mount germicidal protection system. These air purifiers sterilize air and destroy bacteria, viruses, and mold. Very popular with allergy and asthma sufferers they are a great addition to any home, because they destroy many airborne pathogens.

Newer homes are built air tight for increased efficiency, but that means the home cannot breathe and air becomes stagnant. Duct mounted units clean various pollutants and toxins from the air in the entire house, not just a room.

Furnaces that aren’t cleaned properly, or that are poorly maintained are known to contribute to carbon monoxide poisoning. Low levels of carbon monoxide may be present in your home right now. These low levels don’t really affect adults much; many times it goes unnoticed, but children and animals can be greatly affected.

If you notice your children with frequent dizziness or headaches, seek medical attention and get the heating & ventilation system checked out by a professional to eliminate the possibility of low level carbon monoxide poisoning in the home. Call a qualified professional to check the heating & ventilation system. There are many dangers that can be prevented by having the HVAC system checked and cleaned annually.

If your home also has one or more fireplaces make sure to call a local chimney sweep too. Creosote ash is a great fire hazard, and chimneys are lined with it once they’ve been used enough. Get it cleaned, have the ‘draft’ checked to make sure air is pulling up through the chimney and not coming down into the home.

You can check this yourself with a match. Just light it and blow it out. Keep it right at the fireplace door and watch the smoke. It should pull into the chimney naturally without any help. If it doesn’t, or blows downward, you’ve got a downdraft. Don’t use the fireplace until this is corrected.

Have the damper checked too. The lowest cost solution is a roof-top damper which the chimney sweep can install in about an hour. Use and/or installation of a chimney cap is also recommended. These keep raccoons and birds out of the chimney and shield from snow, rain and sleet as well.

Heating System Maintenance

Heating and cooling systems are usually trouble-free and easy to maintain. Efficient operation is a function of good regular maintenance. No matter what type of heating and cooling system you have, there are several things you can do to keep the system in top condition.

You will need a few tools and materials, including screwdrivers, a flashlight, pliers, wrenches, a hammer, a level, newspapers, rags, brushes, and a vacuum cleaner. A few specialized materials are also required: motor oil, fan-belt dressing, refractory cement, and duct tape. These materials are available at most hardware stores and home improvement centers.

When a heating or cooling system malfunctions, any one of its three components — heat/cold source, distribution system, or thermostat — may be causing the problem. If the furnace or air conditioner doesn't run, the malfunction is probably at the source. The furnace or air conditioner may have lost power. Fuel may not be reaching the unit. If the fuel is gas or oil, it may not be igniting.

If the furnace or air conditioner turns on but the warm or cool air isn't reaching the rooms of your home, the problem is likely to be the blower or distribution system. And a faulty control, or thermostat, could keep the system from turning on or could cause it to turn on and off repeatedly. Whatever the problem, start with the simplest procedures. In most cases, all it takes is patience and common sense.

Working on heating and cooling systems can pose serious dangers. It is important to be aware of the following safety factors:

  • Before doing any work on any type of heating or cooling system, make sure all power to the system is turned off. At the main electrical entrance panel, trip the circuit breaker or remove the fuse that controls the power to the unit. If you're not sure which circuit the system is on, remove the main fuse or trip the main circuit breaker to cut off all power to the house. Some furnaces have a separate power entrance, usually at a different panel near the main entrance panel. If a separate panel is present, remove the fuse or trip the breaker there.
  • If the fuse blows or the circuit trips repeatedly when the furnace or air conditioner turns on, there is a problem in the electrical system. In this case, do not try to fix the furnace. Call a professional service person.
  • If the unit uses gas and there is a smell of gas in your home, do not try to shut off the gas or turn any lights on or off. Get out of the house, leaving the door open, and immediately call the gas company or the fire department to report a leak. Do not reenter your home.

To keep the heating and cooling systems in top shape, have them professionally serviced once a year. The best time to have a furnace serviced is at the end of the heating season. Maintaining in the off-season often gets a discount and service is likely to be prompt. Have the a/c unit checked at the same time.

Dirt is the biggest enemy of any home's heating and cooling system. It can waste fuel and drastically lower efficiency. Dirt affects all three basic components of the system, so cleaning is the most important part of regular maintenance. Lubrication and belt adjustment at the furnace are also important.

The heat/cold source is the most complicated part of the heating and cooling system, and it's the part most likely to suffer from neglect. Problems in this area may also lead to distribution problems. Whatever heat/cold source your system uses, give it regular attention to prevent problems.
Before starting work on a heating or cooling system, take a moment with a preliminary checklist:

  • Make sure the unit is receiving power. Look for blown fuses or tripped circuit breakers at the main entrance panel. Some furnaces have a separate power entrance, usually located at a different panel near the main entrance panel. Some furnaces have fuses mounted in or on the unit.
  • If the unit has a reset button, marked reset and near the motor housing, wait 30 minutes to let the motor cool, then press the button. If the unit still doesn't start, wait 30 minutes and press the reset button again. Repeat at least once more.
  • If the unit has a separate power switch, make sure the switch is turned on.
  • Check to make sure the thermostat is properly set. If necessary, raise (or, for an air conditioner, lower) the setting 5 degrees.
  • If the unit uses gas, check to make sure the gas supply is turned on and the pilot light is lit. If it uses oil, check to make sure there is an adequate supply of oil.

Cleaning The Filter

The filter in the furnace can be a determining factor in the health of a home. A dirty filter in the furnace decreases the efficiency of your furnace, as the furnace has to work harder to pull air through the intake. Better filters improve the air quality by removing pollen, bacteria and mold spores from the air within the home. The filter can also be responsible for extra dust throughout your house. So by replacing or cleaning the furnace filter, it can cut down on cleaning efforts elsewhere. Planet Green has noted that in addition to keeping the air (and surfaces) in the home clean, routine furnace cleaning can cut energy costs by 5 to 15 percent.

Again, before doing any work on any type of heating or cooling system, make sure all power to the system is turned off. Cleaning­ a furnace filter is pretty simple, especially if using disposable filters and it shouldn't require any special tools. The most complex thing you might have to wield is a screwdriver, and, depending on the model, that's probably just to remove the front panel of your furnace to get to the filter.

After locating the filter, remove it and examine it. If it's a disposable filter, cleaning is as easy as inserting a new filter and putting the panel back. A disposable filter usually looks like a piece of pleated paper enclosed in a cardboard frame and an open cardboard, metal or wire grid. Some disposable filters are not made of pleated material; these might have a sheet of fiberglass material inside.

Permanent filters require a little more elbow grease, but the health of the environment is definitely worth the extra effort. A regular vacuum or a shop vac and a sink or garden hose are the most important tools for cleaning a permanent furnace filter. Beyond that, simple household items like toothbrushes, scrub brushes, toothpicks or cotton swabs are also useful to clean the furnace and its vents.

To clean a permanent filter, use the vacuum to get the majority of the loose dirt. Then use a scrub brush or damp cloth to remove stubborn particles. If you have access to a shop sink or outdoor hose, go ahead and rinse the entire filter. Make sure to let the filter dry before putting it back in the furnace housing (This is a SAFETY FACTOR: remember that water and electricity do not mix). Most reusable filters have drain holes to speed up the drying time.

While waiting for the filter to dry, use the swabs, toothpicks and toothbrush to clean the area where the filter sits. In addition to replacing or washing the filter, you can also clean the blower assembly and motor housing. During vacuuming, washing and cleaning of the unit, you will most likely encounter a lot of dirt, dust and grime; consider wearing a dust mask.

Lastly, always take care to return everything to its proper place. Make sure to reinstall everything properly, leaving the correct amount of space between the filter, vents or any other equipment within the furnace. Restore all power settings and test the unit by adjusting the thermostat in order to engage it.


Some nice green grass
Some nice green grass

From the Editor
Saving Energy

Saving energy is on everyone's mind this Fall. From worries over winter energy costs to concern for the environment, there are many ways you can reduce your home's energy output.


Preparing Your Home Heating System for Winter
Part 1 | Part 2
Cleaning out the furnace

Spotlight On

Find out about what type of insulation you ahve in your home and how it works

Go Green
Energy Efficiency Audits
Professional energy audits expose problems that are invisible to the eye

Energy Saving Do’s and Don’ts

Switching to a timed thermostat can make a real difference in your energy usage


Some nice green grass
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