The Ultimate Guide to Heating Maintenance for Homeowners
In the United States, heating typically makes up 42% of a home's utility bill. But if a heating system isn't well-maintained, that money could go up in smoke.
Plus, seasons are getting colder. Nobody wants to be caught off guard if a heater dies abruptly.
A well-maintained heater lasts longer and stays efficient. But what does heater maintenance involve? And how much does it cost?
Heating Systems: Overview
Heating systems are part of a house or building. Heating systems take in cold air. Then, they heat the air.
Typically, systems burn fuel to heat the air. But, some use electric power to generate heat.
Once a system heats the air, it pushes the hot air throughout a house or building. Systems use different methods to push the hot air. Fans, ducts, and vents play a role in moving the air.
You can control your home's heating system with a thermostat. This tool lets you input the temperature you want the room to be.
The system responds to this input. It pushes hot air towards the room when it senses that room's temperature dropped below your preference.
What Is an HVAC System?
HVAC stands for "Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning." An HVAC system is a central structure in a house or building.
At its core, an HVAC system is the building's air system. The system not only affects the comfortability of the temperature, it also plays a part in the quality of the air we breathe indoors.
Engineers often build contemporary HVAC systems with filters. These clear the air of pollutants.
Some HVAC systems deal with air pressure changes. These systems can pressurize the air in high-altitude locations. Innovations in HVAC design alter the air's degree of humidity to improve our comfort.
Types of Heat Systems
Not all heat systems are HVAC structures. Small homes may not have a central air system.
And, some central air systems can't cool air. They're only able to heat the air in your home.
While you have a lot of options to heat your home, most fall into one of four categories. These are:
- Standard heating and HVAC systems
- Geothermal energy systems
- Zoned valve HVAC systems
- Direct heat options
Each of these system categories has pros and cons. One might appeal to you more or less depending on your location.
Cost is another variable that could make one option more appealing than another. We will walk you through each option and review the recommended heater maintenance in each category.
Standard Heating and HVAC Systems
The largest heating system category encompasses standard central heating and HVAC systems. You can divide this category into two subcategories. These are:
- Duct systems
- Hydronic systems
A standard central heating duct system starts with a furnace. The furnace heats the air. Then, the system's blower motor pushes the air into rooms via ducts.
A hydronic system starts with a boiler. It heats water until it boils. Then, this system pushes hot steam through a series of pipes.
The pipes connect to radiators. Each radiator heats the room it's in, in response to the steam from the pipes.
Hydronic systems cost more than duct systems. But, they last longer.
Most hydronic systems require less maintenance because they don't use filters. They also work with a wide range of fuel sources.
Duct systems are more energy-efficient than hydronic systems. They also cultivate a warm breeze.
Geothermal Heat Systems
A geothermal heat system is a ground-source heat pump (GHP). One non-profit organization, GeoExchange, advocates for expanding geothermal heat systems.
In many places, the outdoor temperature changes dramatically throughout the year. But, the temperature underground varies only slightly.
Underground air is warmer than above-ground air in the winter and cooler in the summer making this option ideal for milder climates.
GHPs pump this warm air up to use as a heat source in the winter. Then, they bring up cool underground air to use in the summer.
Geothermal systems are energy efficient, but installation can be expensive. Fortunately, hybrid and dual-source GHPs cost less.
Air Source Heat Pump
An air-source heat pump doesn’t burn fuel to heat air. It actually doesn't heat air at all. Instead, it pumps hot air into your home.
Air source heat pumps use a similar mechanism as GHPs. But, these pumps take advantage of a chemical reaction that radiates heat. The pump then catches this heat and uses a compressor to send the heat into the house.
The chemical itself is a coolant. It refrigerates the air it contacts. Air source heat pumps constantly exchange the hot and cold air.
Air source heat pumps can either use ducts or be ductless, while some have short-run duct systems. This means the mechanic only installs ducts in part of the house.
These systems are energy efficient although they do run on electric power.
However, they provide more energy (in heat) than they use. Maintenance for air source heat pump systems is similar to standard heating systems.
Direct Heat Options
Direct heat options only heat small spaces. They do not heat an entire house.
Space heaters are the most common direct heat option. Radiators and convection heaters are both popular choices.
Convection heaters use electricity to heat a fluid that retains heat.
Then, they use fans to circulate air. The hot fluid ultimately warms the air.
Radiation heaters also use electricity, but they emit infrared heat.
Combustion heaters burn fuel to heat air. Legally, combustion heaters must have vents. A fireplace is an example of this type of direct heat option.
All direct heat options heat a single room. They're useful if you don't want to heat an entire house. Also, direct heaters in cold rooms compensate for uneven central heating.
Heating System Parts and Purpose
To get a good handle on heater repair, it's smart to learn the parts of your heating system. Each part of a system has a purpose.
Different parts bear different risks. Some parts are more likely to warp or break than others. This section covers the key parts of the four most popular heat systems.
Most heat systems burn fuel to heat air or water. Some use chemical reactions instead.
Only geothermal systems run solely on electricity. These systems don't require fuel.
The most common fuel sources for heaters are:
- Natural gas
- Petroleum oil
- Vegetable oil (cooking oil)
- Animal fat
Most homes use natural gas as a heat source. Over 50% of Americans used natural gas to heat their homes in 2020.
It's reliable and low-carbon. And, it's less likely to clog the flue with particulate buildup.
Coal is still the most popular fuel source for boilers. People also burn oils and wood, depending on what's available. Coal and wood both leave particulate waste behind.
Air source heat pumps use refrigerants. They absorb the heat these chemicals generate.
The thermostat is a device that lets you control a room's temperature. You input your temperature preference.
It uses this information to turn the heating system on and off. This keeps the room as warm as you like it.
Smart thermostats are newer inventions. These devices learn people's routines and preferences. Then, they adjust heat settings automatically.
Smart thermostats can turn the heat low or off when nobody is around. They can also recommend energy-efficient settings.
Your thermostat may need occasional maintenance. Thermostats require occasional recalibration and cleaning.
A zoned thermostat is part of a zoned system. A zoned heat system uses valves to split off paths in ducts. You can zone both air ducts and hydronic pipes.
Zoned systems enable users to maintain different temperatures in different parts of a house. Each segment (zone) has a thermostat solely associated with that segment.
You can adjust the temperature in just one zone. This will not affect the temperatures in other zones.
A burner is a furnace. This is where you burn fuel for a heating system.
The burning fuel meets the air in the furnace. The burner creates hot air.
This is critical to a standard heat system. The system pushes this hot air through vents.
A hydronic system does not have a burner or furnace. Neither does any heat exchange or pump system. Only central air heat systems use burners.
Combustion is burning. Combustion combines a chemical substance with oxygen.
It may also pressurize or move the chemicals. This creates a chemical reaction that generates heat.
A combustion chamber contains this extreme heat-generating reaction. Both furnaces and boilers have combustion chambers.
Combustion chambers intake fluid. They turn gaseous fluid on an axis, or they pressurize fuel and oxygen.
This burns the fuel at extreme heat. Engineers design combustion chambers to retain this heat. Then, other components use this to heat water or air.
It is critical to maintaining the combustion chamber. Poor combustion chamber maintenance causes fires and explosions.
Only hydronic systems use boilers. The boiler uses heat from burned fuel to boil water.
The boiler heats the water until it becomes mostly vapor and steam. This steam heats the home via pipes.
In some systems, boilers are used to sanitize water. Boiling water kills germs. This way, people can use it for cooking or bathing.
Intake (Cold Air Return)
The intake is a grille with moving parts. In essence, the intake is a register that inhales cold air. Some manufacturers call this part a cold air return.
An HVAC system has multiple intakes. These cover air ducts. An intake has a grille, a damper, and a louver.
The grill is the slatted "face" of the intake. The louver is a set of angled "shutters" that keep out some debris.
The damper is an interior valve. This regulates the airflow.
There's a fan or blower farther inside the HVAC system. This alters currents. The fan, damper, and louver work together to "inhale."
The cold air return takes air from near the floor of a room. It recycles this air back into the system.
Maintaining cold air returns keeps the air recycling process efficient. It also prevents dust and grime from building up. This buildup reduces air quality.
A heat exchanger moves thermal energy from one location or medium to another. Thermal energy is heat. Hot coils, condensers, and evaporators all transfer this energy to maximize heat flow.
Air source heat pumps use evaporators. This device triggers the refrigeration fluid to evaporate.
This chemical reaction releases heat. This is the heat the system pumps into your house.
Some combustion chambers use condensers. These devices increase the pressure of the gas in the chamber. This (in part) induces combustion. That generates heat.
Engineers build heat exchanger coils from conductive metal. Most heat exchanger coils are copper or aluminum.
These coils transfer thermal energy from one part of the system to another. Typically, the exchange is between two fluid parts of the system. Fluids are liquids or gasses.
Coils use space efficiently. This makes them well-suited to solar-water heat systems. Many heat exchanger coils are self-cleaning. That's one less maintenance task to worry about.
A heat pump moves air from one place to another. Geothermal heat systems and air source heat pumps both use these machines.
A heat pump uses mechanical energy to move air. Most heat pumps run on electricity. Many heat pumps give homeowners more energy (in heat) than they use to run.
Heat pumps incorporate a compressor and two coils. Most heat pumps control airflow with thermostatic compression valves.
The electric motor keeps the air pumping. Coils, tubes, and coolants all work together to move the air.
It's important to hire a professional for heat pump repair and maintenance. Some pump parts are fragile. These components deteriorate quickly without proper care.
Condenser and Evaporator Coils
A condenser coil is a furnace coil. This coil is a critical part of "split" HVAC systems.
If a system both heats and cools the air, it typically uses a condenser coil. Heating and air repair might involve fixing these coils.
The condenser coil works in tandem with an evaporator coil. An evaporator coil is an "A-coil."
The evaporator coil holds and chills refrigerant fluid. This is critical to air conditioning.
When you use central air conditioning, coolant, evaporator coils, and internal mechanisms cool the air. Then, fans blow that cool air into the rooms.
The coolant becomes vapor within the tubes. It flows into the condenser coil.
The condenser coil compresses the vapor. It absorbs heat energy from this process. This turns the coolant into a high-pressure liquid.
Then, the coolant liquid flows back into the system. The condenser coil has to deal with the leftover heat.
In some systems, the condenser coil recycles this heat energy. In others, the coil simply disperses excess heat outside.
These coils keep a split HVAC system separate. They also keep it functional. When the coils are well maintained, the system loses less heat energy.
An HVAC system with clean coils doesn't have to burn as much fuel. It can use excess heat to change the coolant's state. This way, the process is more self-sustaining.
A blower is a centrifugal fan. The fan's blades rotate around the hub. This creates an impeller.
An impeller is a specific type of rotor that increases the pressure and flow speed of a fluid. In an HVAC system, that's air. Blowers change the speed and direction of air in ducts.
Blowers and pumps both move air. But, each uses a different physical force to do so.
Pumps push air. In contrast, blowers "throw" air.
The fans essentially toss air particles. It's like how a pitcher winds up, then throws a baseball in a curve.
This increases the air's speed and shifts the direction of air. Blowers, ducts, and dampers work together to move the air where it belongs.
Effective blowers ensure the air comes into contact with the heat wells or coolant. This way, the air is at the right temperature when it reaches your room.
Broken blowers cause serious problems. Without functional blowers, air may not warm up before it spills into your room. Or, it might get stuck in the vents.
Ducts and Vents
Ducts are enclosed passages for airflow. A river flows down a riverbed. Air flows up and down ducts.
Ducts enable different types of airflow. They also allow you to divert air in multiple directions at once.
In a typical HVAC system, supply air, return air and exhaust airflow simultaneously. All three types of air move through distinct, dedicated ducts.
Supply air flows through supply ducts and vents. The system heats or cools supply air before sending it to your room.
Supply ducts only carry this temperature-treated air. These ducts are small. They end in supply vents.
Supply vents have grilles and slats. Supple ducts terminate in supply vents. Engineers set supply vents near the top of indoor walls.
Return air flows through return ducts. These ducts are larger.
The system pulls air from interior rooms through return ducts. Return vents are grilled entrances for this air. Designers build these vents near the floor.
HVAC exhaust air is not harmful. But, it is very hot.
The HVAC system pushes exhaust air out of the building through an exhaust pipe. On the way, this air travels through exhaust ducts.
Ducts are unique to central air heating systems. Hydronic systems and direct heaters don't use ducts.
Heat pump systems rarely use ducts. Typically, a heat pump system will use ducts if a person integrates it into pre-existing ductwork.
HVAC Ductwork Design
A mechanical engineer designs an HVAC system with many ducts. Altogether, this is ductwork. Engineers build ductwork out of varied materials, including:
- Glass wool
- Polyester fiberglass
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
Designers consider many factors when they create ductwork. Designers learn how much ceiling space they have to work with.
Designers also consider whether air needs insulation, whether sound absorption is necessary, and how much of a budget they have.
You'll need different tools to maintain different ducts and vents. Make sure your ducts continue to serve all functions.
HVAC filters are frames with accordion-folded fabric. Filters strain solid particles out of the air.
Each filter purifies the air before it reaches you. The pleated fiberglass, paper, or cloth captures dust, mites, pollen, and pollutants that blow through the ducts.
The return air duct system houses the filters. Most homes have two. They might be just inside the return air duct by the grille. But, some filters are closer to the blower.
Hydronic systems don't use filters.
Heater Maintenance Checklist + How-To
If you want to maintain your own heater, use this checklist. Here, we summarize the top ten heater maintenance tasks.
Doing it yourself can feel empowering. And, it can save you money.
But, please note that some heater maintenance tasks are dangerous. When in doubt, hire a professional.
1. Check Thermostat Settings
To check your thermostat settings, measure the room's air temperature with a thermometer. Compare that reading to your thermostat's reading.
If the readings differ by more than a few degrees, it's time to adjust your thermostat. To maintain the thermostat, clean it or calibrate it.
2. Fix Electrical Connections
First, find low-voltage shorts. Blown fuses cause most shorts. These shorts re-route electrical components and signals away from the HVAC system.
To find an electrical short, turn off the power. Then, use a multimeter to hunt the short down.
Follow all the processes in the multimeter manual. Alternately, use instructional videos. In this process, it is critical to test all safety switches.
To repair the short, you'll need replacement wires. You'll also need a splice kit.
3. Lubricate Moving Parts
This is straightforward, if tedious. Identify moving, mechanical parts in your system. Consult manufacturers manual to discern which lube works best.
Then, apply lube to the machine parts. This reduces friction and wear-and-tear.
4. Clear the Condensate Drain
If your system has a condenser, it also has a condensate drain. To clear this clog, first, shut the system down.
Turn off your pump or AC unit. Then, find the drain line's access point.
Flush distilled vinegar through the line. Let the solution sit for thirty minutes.
Manufacturer recommendations vary. But, the majority of sources advise clearing the drain every other month.
5. Check Start and Shut-Off Cycle Controls
Heating systems have panel controls and switches. These impact the start and shut-off cycle.
Look up your HVAC system's manufacturer. Find a manual or video that shows the panels.
Inspect the switches and controls. Look for damage, grime, melted parts, or disconnected components.
Clean dirty parts. Order replacement parts from the manufacturer. Contact a professional for a complete diagnostic.
6. Check Gas or Oil Connections
To check the connections, go to your furnace or boiler. Observe the point where natural gas or oil feeds into the chamber.
Listen for any unusual sounds. Vibrating and rattling are worrying signs. So is hissing.
Look for any signs of soot or smoke. This can indicate a leak. Other signs include:
- a higher gas bill
- feeling nauseous
- bad smell
- plants and small animals dying suddenly
Install a carbon monoxide alarm near the connection point. Pay attention to any alerts. Do not attempt to repair a broken or loose connection yourself.
7. Check Gas Pressure
Check gas pressure with a manometer. This device reads gas pressure in SI.
Your furnace or boiler will have a place to take a pressure reading. This may be an MPT plug outside the gas valve. Or, it may have a tower connection point on top of the valve.
Connect the manometer and check the pressure. Compare that level to ideal levels.
Chemists note different gases function best as fuel at different pressure levels. Contact a professional if the pressure levels are outside a useful range.
8. Examine Burner Combustion
To examine combustion, perform a combustion test. Use this test specifically on a hydronic heat system.
This makes diagnoses critical for hot water heater repair. A combustion test demonstrates whether:
- your heater runs safely
- your fuel burns efficiently
- the system safely contains
To run a combustion test, get a combustion analyzer, a manometer, an Allen wrench, and a flathead screwdriver. The test is too complex to detail here.
Fortunately, you can turn to the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACAA). This professional organization publishes resources on HVAC maintenance and repair.
But, access is for members only. If you're not a member, you might need to use a subscription portal through a library or university.
9. Check Heat Exchanger
To check a heat exchanger, pay attention to the flame. The flame in the combustion engine should be steady. If it grows or changes dramatically when the blowers turn on, that's a sign of a leak.
Professionals check heat exchangers with a combustion analysis. Or, they run an isolation pressure test.
Please note: if the heat exchanger is dysfunctional, you risk carbon monoxide poisoning. Seek professional replacement services.
10. Change Air Filters
Change HVAC filters every thirty days. To change the filter, turn off your HVAC system.
The filter will usually be between the return ducts and the furnace. There should be an access panel.
The access panel will display the correct filter dimensions. Buy replacement filters in that size.
Then, open the access panel. Remove and replace the filter.
The new filter should have an arrow printed on the side. Make sure the arrow points in the same direction as the airflow.
Close the panel. Turn your system back on.
Heating Maintenance FAQs
We've covered the primary types of heating systems. You've unpacked the ins and outs of system parts. And, we've run through the top ten heating system maintenance tasks.
But, you probably still have questions. Good news! We have answers.
There are five frequently asked questions when it comes to heating repair. Let's unpack them.
How Do You Maintain a Heater?
Every heating system is different. First and foremost, follow the guidelines and recommendations in the manufacturer's manual. If that doesn't clear things up, contact a professional. There are a few truths across the board. To keep air flowing, you need to clear out clogs--both in filters and drains. Do these de-cluttering tasks once a month if you can. Don't wait longer than sixty days.
Also, annual maintenance is a good idea. Get a professional check-up once a year.
Lastly, be aware of the big dangers: fire and carbon monoxide poisoning. Follow all safety protocols to prevent these risks.
When Should I Maintain, Repair, or Replace a Part?
Clean filters and drains monthly. Do a maintenance tune-up once per year.
Repair and replacement recommendations vary. Look up your system's manufacturer and note their recommendations.
You can look through DIY strategies if you want to repair parts yourself. But, know what you're looking for and call in a repair professional if:
- the gas bill jumps
- you hear unusual sounds
- you smell gas
- the system is not heating rooms properly
You can also consult industry publications. The Department of Energy can also recommend a replacement timeline specific to your system.
How Often Should a Heating System Be Serviced?
Get your heat system serviced at least once per year. If you have an HVAC system, check both the heat and AC side annually.
A hydronic system also needs to be serviced every year. Also, make sure you clean your boiler annually.
Geothermal systems need an annual acid flush to clear out the tubing. In the same vein, professionals advise annual maintenance for air heat exchangers.
What Does Furnace Maintenance Include?
Furnace (and other heating systems) maintenance includes a thorough assessment of each system part. We covered some tests and maintenance tasks earlier in the article.
For a full list of tasks, consult your heating system's manual. Ask any repair professional you hire which tasks they cover.
How Much Does Heater Maintenance Cost?
The cost of maintenance depends on what type of heating system you have. The answer to, "how much is furnace maintenance?" varies by location, by system, by the age and the condition of the system, and much more.
It's different than the cost of hydronic system maintenance or geothermal system maintenance.
The Energy Information Administration conducts independent studies on energy in the United States. It finds annual maintenance costs typically range from $90-$200 for most systems.
This doesn't include repair costs.
How to Find Heating Repair Near Me?
If you're wondering, "where is heating repair near me?" you're in luck. You can find a One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning location near you by clicking here.
Get Heater Maintenance Completed Today
As the days get cooler, you’ll want to beat the rush and schedule your annual maintenance as early as possible. Get your heating system checked today, and check it off your to-do list.