Keeping the heating system tuned up is the surest way to make sure your home will be an oasis of comfort when winter arrives.
“Maintenance is the most important thing,” said April Hidalgo, general manager at Maki Heating and Air in Auburn. “You wouldn’t drive your car for 20,000 miles without an oil change.”
An inspection makes sure the system is working properly and it increases the life of the unit. During a maintenance visit, technicians inspect gas burners, the blower wheel and motor. They’ll also check and adjust gas pressure and inspect gas lines for any leaks, Hidalgo explained.
“We replace the air filter and we do a safety inspection — checking the heat exchanger to make sure there aren’t any cracks that would leak carbon monoxide into the home,” she said.
Homeowners should schedule an inspection for every spring and fall. In between times, it is important to change the filter every two months. With proper care, a furnace will last 15 to 20 years.
When the time comes for replacement, the choice of systems can depend on the climate.
“There are furnaces, heat pumps and package units (furnace and condenser combined),” Hidalgo said.
For small areas such as a garage, wine cellar or a room separated from the main building, there are mini-split systems.
“They provide heating and cooling and they are ductless,” she said.
Within each category, there is an expanded list of options. One of the most popular is the eco-friendly two-stage variable-speed motor.
“What it does is provide two stages of cycling — a low and a high,” she said. “The low stage runs at lower capacity to it uses less energy and lowers the amount of power needed to run it.”
The up-front price of that system will be higher but “it is worth it in energy savings,” she said.
The cost to replace a furnace or heat pump runs $5,000 to $12,000. But there are rebates from local utility companies and manufacturers to bring it down a little.
When preparing the purchase a new heating system, Hidalgo advises to get more than one estimate.
“It’s definitely good to have that second opinion,” she said.
As part of purchasing a new heating system, the state of California requires a ductwork inspection.
“The California Energy Commission has set a standard for minimum duct leakage,” Hidalgo explained. “Every time a unit is replaced or installed, the duct system has to be tested for leakage. And it must pass those minimum guidelines.”
UV damage degrades ductwork over time and if animals get access to it, that will shorten the life -span even more.
“Typically we can repair certain areas of the ductwork to get it to pass the requirements,” she said.
Still, Hidalgo estimates that ducts need replacing about a third of the time. The cost for that can run $1,000 or more beyond the cost of replacing the heating system.
For homeowners who heat with a fireplace, pellet or other type of external stove, purchasing fuel becomes a priority in the cold season.
At Renewable Energy Products in Auburn, owner Deedee Vierra recommends compressed sawdust logs and pellets.
“I worked in the stove and fireplace business for quite a few years before I started doing this,” she said. “I heard customers talking about how expensive propane and gas are and how they’re not renewable energy sources and how much cheaper it is to burn wood and pellets, which are from a renewable source.”
While many fireplace logs on the market contain binders, fillers, cardboard, paper, paraffin, petroleum products and sometimes even plastic, Vierra says the compacted sawdust logs do not. In addition, they burn longer and can reduce creosote buildup in fireplaces.
“They actually have tested that through independent testing facilities,” she said.
The compacted sawdust logs she carries are 18 inches long, 4 inches in diameter and weigh 8 pounds. Customers have the option of taking their purchase with them, having it delivered or storing it onsite.
“They pay for the quantity they want and pick it up as they need it,” she said.
She also recommends a non-toxic starter.
“It’s a form of rice paper and a corn byproduct, so there’s very little paraffin in them,” she said. “They’ll burn for 10 minutes plus. They are waterproof so they are good for camping and survival gear.”