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How to Prepare Your Heating and Cooling System for Ohio's Winter Season

While winter brings fun activities like holiday parties and ice skating, it wouldn’t be possible to enjoy the coldest months of the year without one critical home component: your furnace. When temperatures plummet, your furnace, heat pump, or boiler keeps your home warm and safe, which is why many people struggle to prepare their HVAC for winter.

According to Ashley Smith, Fox 19 meteorologist here in Cincinnati, she says even in an El Nino year we should all still prepare for harsh temperature drops.

"There will be dramatic wings in temperatures meaning a frigid outbreak or two will be possible this winter," says Smith.

Although many homeowners are nervous about which tasks may be necessary, the right steps help your furnace to perform properly all winter long. The team at Thomas & Galbraith Heating, Cooling & Plumbing understand that HVAC issues can be stressful, and they want to do everything they can to empower proactive homeowners.

Use this convenient guide to learn which steps to take to get your furnace and air conditioning system ready for winter. Find out how to minimize wear and tear to your furnace, and prepare your cooling system for essential storage. Remember, if you need help repairing, replacing, or maintaining your furnace, contact us here at Thomas & Galbraith Heating, Cooling & Plumbing. We are happy to help!

1. Book a Professional Furnace Tune-Up

One of the best things you can do for your furnace is to schedule a furnace tune-up before the coldest parts of winter. Ideally performed in the fall, furnaces, and boilers should be checked, cleaned, and repaired once a year, while heat pumps need tune-ups in the spring for air conditioning and in the fall for heating. Here are a few reasons heating maintenance visits are so essential.

  • Improve efficiency. During routine tune-ups, HVAC contractors go through your entire furnace to check for issues. Everything from belts to ball bearings is visually inspected, and components that tend to develop wear and tear will be tested. Professional tune-ups are designed to improve efficiency so your home heats up with as little energy as possible. By cleaning interior chambers, tightening belts, and lubricating moving parts, technicians ensure that your furnace doesn’t fall below the AFUE rating listed on its own EnergyGuide label.
  • Detect small problems before they snowball. Few things are more stressful than a dead furnace on a night when temperatures are supposed to drop significantly. While it’s always easy to ignore small problems, they could pave the way for a full-fledged system breakdown. However, if caught early on, many repairs are fast, easy, and affordable. Professional maintenance helps homeowners to detect and resolve furnace problems to prevent inconvenient breakdowns and emergency repairs.
  • Extend your furnace’s life. Professional tune-ups can undo 10 years’ worth of wear and tear from past furnace use. Since maintenance visits include essential tasks such as testing the system performance, checking wiring voltage, and measuring carbon monoxide emissions to check for heat exchanger cracks, these simple service calls are what you need to enjoy years of extra service from your furnace.

2. Switch out Furnace Filters

Furnaces have a tough job to do. When the blower fan is running, your system pulls air in from the returns in your home, filters all of that air, and moves it towards the heat exchanger for quick, efficient heating. However, if air filters are dirty or clogged from particulates in your space, your system can struggle.

Air filters are designed to keep the air that you breathe clean and comfortable, while also protecting the furnace itself. If filters become dirty, grime can blow into the furnace cabinet where it can harm efficiency. Delicate furnace components like igniters and burners can become damaged, and your system will need to run longer and work harder to produce heat, which could cause short cycling or a full shutdown of your furnace.

To counteract these problems, air filters should be replaced regularly. Air filters should be replaced at least once every month to 90 days for most filters, but this guideline varies depending on which filters you like to use and your individual household. Large families and homeowners with pets may need to replace their furnace filter once a month, while homeowners who live alone or who don’t occupy the space permanently may not need to change their filter as frequently.

Before winter arrives, take a few seconds to switch out your furnace filter. Get into the habit of checking your filter every few weeks, and replace your filter whenever it appears visibly dirty. If you are planning on doing any painting or renovating this winter, replace your filter after renovation, since these projects can kick up extra dust. Keep extra filters on hand so you can always switch it out if you need to.

3. Get Your Humidifier Ready for Ongoing Use

Cold air can’t hold as much humidity as warm air, which is why many homes become dry during the winter. Unfortunately, low humidity can also make your home feel colder, which can drive up furnace use. To counteract this problem, many Cincinnati, Ohio residents turn to whole-home humidifiers to replenish airborne moisture. Here are a few tips for preparing your humidifier for wintertime use.

  • Turn on your system. Ensure that your humidifier is on. Humidifiers are typically shut down for warmer weather.
  • Clean water reservoir. Remove the water reservoir and clean it carefully to remove limescale and bacteria.
  • Change water panel. Your humidifier’s water panel should be switched out at least twice per season to maximize efficiency. Change it now to help your system to run properly.
  • Clean housing. Take a soft, damp microfiber cloth and wipe down the entire exterior housing along with the intake vents. Remember that only fan-powered and steam humidifiers have intake vents.
  • Inspect supply and drainage lines. Check the water supply line and the drainage line running into and out of the system. Look for signs of previous leaks, such as rust or limescale buildup.

As your humidifier runs, monitor the humidity levels in your home carefully to screen for problems. Consider using a standalone hygrometer to ensure that the humidity setting on your humidifier matches the actual moisture levels in your home. If the system develops problems, it may release too much or too little humidity into your air. Always consult with an HVAC professional at the first sign of humidifier problems to avoid issues like water damage and mold growth.

4. Clean up Your Furnace and Utility Closet

Professional HVAC tune-ups can help the inside of your furnace to stay clean, but it’s your responsibility as a homeowner to keep the outside of your furnace and your utility closet tidy. Here are a few tasks to check off your list to reduce safety concerns during the heating season.

  • Vacuum and wipe down your furnace. Using the brush tool on your vacuum, remove any dirt that may have gathered on the outside of your furnace. After the area has been vacuumed, wipe down the housing. This process keeps dirt from being sucked into the system as it runs.
  • Remove extra stored materials. Keep your utility closet as clear as possible. There shouldn’t be any stored items within six feet of your furnace to maximize airflow and prevent fires.
  • Confirm that access panels are closed tightly. Some furnaces will not run if access panels are loose or have popped out of place. Ensure that all panels and access doors are firmly attached to the air handler or furnace.

5. Program Your Thermostat for Winter

When you are ready to start heating your home instead of cooling the space, take the time to check and update your thermostat programming for winter. Oftentimes, families find that their ambient temperature preferences can vary between summer and winter, so take the time to update your system. Here are a few tips for adjusting your thermostat for winter weather.

  • Select energy-efficient settings. When programming your thermostat, select comfortable, yet energy-efficient temperature setpoints throughout the day. Even lowering your thermostat by one degree can save you money and stress on your system. During times when people will be home, set your thermostat to 68 degrees to maximize efficiency.
  • Adjust for “away” times. Likewise, when people will be away at work or school, lower the temperature setting 10 to 15 degrees for 8 hours at a time. This simple adjustment decreases the amount your furnace has to run, which can reduce energy consumption by as much as 10 % a year.
  • Keep your system set to “AUTO". Keep your thermostat set to “AUTO” instead of “ON,” which can cause the blower motor to run continuously, wasting energy. When the “AUTO” setting is enabled, your blower will only switch on during heating cycles.

6. Check Outdoor Heating Equipment

Heat pumps and air conditioners have an outdoor unit that requires routine care. During the off-season, air conditioners should be protected so they turn on properly in the fall, and heat pumps should be clean and ready to go for their busiest season. Here are a few things to take care of outdoors:

  • Turn off AC unit: Keep your air conditioner from unintentionally being turned on during winter by shutting off the device at the source. AC units have a manual ON/OFF breaker by the actual unit, typically located near where the refrigerant and power lines run into your home. Turn your unit off for the winter, and in the spring, switch the device back on.
  • Clean out gutters and downspouts. Check the rain gutters and downspouts near your outdoor heat pump or air conditioner, and clean them if necessary. If leaves, twigs, or other debris blocks gutters or downspouts, it could cause pooling water or drips that could cover your air conditioner or heat pump. When heat pumps develop a thick layer of ice, they can’t absorb heat as easily.
  • Clean unit exterior. Brush off your outdoor HVAC units with a soft hand broom. Clean away any leaves, grass clippings, or twigs that may have stuck to the fins of your outdoor air conditioning unit. Wipe down the exterior of your heat pump.
  • Weed the area and trim landscaping. Remove any weeds that may have grown next to the outdoor HVAC unit. Trim back landscaping like bushes, trees, and vines to keep limbs and plants, and dead leaves out of the units.
  • Remove extra items. Maintain at least two feet of clearance all the way around your heat pump and outdoor air conditioning unit. Remove patio furniture, children’s toys, and stored items like firewood.
  • Skip the cover. While you can purchase outdoor air conditioning covers, these materials are not necessary, and can even be harmful, since they can allow mold and mildew to grow within the unit. Air conditioners and heat pumps are designed to withstand the elements. However, if you are expecting severe weather, you may want to place a strong piece of plywood over the top of the air conditioning unit to prevent physical damage.

7. Bleed Your Radiator Valves

If you use a boiler that uses hot water radiators, it’s important to bleed the valves on your system before turning on the heating system. Bleed the valves slowly to release pent-up air inside the system. You may hear a gurgling noise as your system releases this air.

Since rust needs air and moisture to corrode metal, bleeding valves is crucial for protecting your boiler. Bleeding radiator valves also helps your system to heat more efficiently, since the entire radiator will heat evenly. When air is allowed to remain in the system, it can create an air lock that prevents the top section of the radiator from warming properly.

8. Service Chimneys

Fireplaces give your family the chance to enjoy a cozy fire on those cold, snowy days. However, if you plan to use your fireplace, you should have your chimney professionally inspected. According to The National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 211 standards, all fireplaces, chimneys, and vent work should be checked annually to make sure the structure is stable, vented properly, and free of potentially combustible deposits.

Additionally, Chimney Safety Institute of America states that any open masonry fireplace should be professionally cleaned of deposits once accumulations reach 1/8th of an inch worth of soot buildup. By scheduling this routine cleaning, you can prevent chimney fires that could spread to the rest of your home. Have your manufactured fireplace cleaned anytime buildup is noticeable.

9. Test All Smoke and CO2 Sensors

The smoke and CO2 sensors inside your home are part of an essential early alert system that protects your family. Check to make sure your equipment is operational during the upcoming heating season by taking care of these tasks:

  • Test alarms. Make a point to test your smoke and carbon monoxide alarms every month. Press the “TEST” button on the alarm to see if the unit sounds. If the unit sounds and a light turns on, you will know the unit is receiving power and operating properly.
  • Replace batteries. 9-volt smoke and CO2 alarm batteries should be replaced every six months. Anytime your alarms start to chirp, replace the batteries immediately.
  • Replace old detectors. CO2 detectors should be replaced every 5-7 years, and smoke alarms need to be replaced every 10. Be mindful of the date stamp on the back of the device, and have backup detectors ready to go when they reach the end of their usable lifespan.

10. Clean Air Returns and Vents

Your HVAC system is like the respiratory system of your home. In order for the system to “breathe,” it has to “inhale” new air from your air returns, before it can warm the air and “exhale” warm air into the rooms of your house. However, if your air supplies are blocked or vents are trapped, your system won’t work properly. Shut vents can cause furnace short cycling or overheating, and blocked air returns can put strain on the “lungs” of your system, the furnace itself, damaging the unit. Follow these tips for ensuring proper airflow throughout your home.

  • Check louvers. If your vent covers have louvers, make sure each of the vents is open wide. Some louvers close very easily, and simply walking by the floor vent could create enough vibration to close the cover. Likewise, old vent covers could have louvers that stick close. Check louvers on vent covers to make sure they are open, and replace any cover that isn’t working properly.
  • Inspect air returns. Check the air supply vents in your home to make sure they are completely unobstructed by rugs, furniture, carpet, and household decorations.
  • Clean covers. Using the brush tool on your vacuum, clean the exteriors of vent covers and air supply grates. If covers are removable, vacuum out the interior section of the duct. This simple cleaning can keep grime from recirculating through your home or becoming lodged further inside your ductwork or furnace.

11. Check and Seal Ductwork

Before the heating season begins, check exposed ductwork for problems. Gaps, disjointed seams, and rips in the metal could allow heated air to pool into spaces where the warmth can’t be used, while simultaneously pulling in cold air. This issue can create massive energy efficiency problems, driving up the price of your monthly power bill. In fact, studies have shown that the average home loses up to 30% of its energy efficiency from leaks in ductwork.

Check ducts for any issues and seal the lines appropriately with mastic or aluminum HVAC tape. If you spot widespread issues, request professional duct sealing. During these appointments, professionals perform pressure testing to spot leaks, and repair gaps, holes, or damaged lines to prevent heat loss. If you find yourself asking, “How can I keep my home warmer this winter,” duct sealing may be the answer you are looking for.

12. Test Your Furnace

The first cold days of winter are typically the busiest for HVAC contractors since many homeowners find out for the first time that season that their furnace isn’t operating properly. However, if you want to get a head start on the rest of your fellow Cincinnati, OH neighbors, test out your furnace early on in the season.

Test your furnace a minimum of three times before the weather is cold enough to demand 24/7 heating. Trying your furnace multiple times gives you the chance to see how the system performs during heating cycles, and to see if your furnace can keep up with the setting on your thermostat. Here are a few tips for testing your furnace or heat pump:

  • Choose a reasonable setting. Before you start your furnace, select a reasonable setting. Choose the temperature you would likely select if you were using your furnace on a typical winter day. Selecting too high or too low of a setting may not give you an accurate idea of how your furnace is performing.
  • Select different days. Don’t test your thermostat three times on the same day. Instead, select three different days with different weather patterns to test your furnace or heat pump.
  • Give the system some time. Give your furnace the chance to run for a decent amount of time. Allow the system to start up, run, and turn off on its own. If you spot consistency issues, write down what your system did.
  • Reach out for help. Anytime you have questions about how your furnace is operating, contact us for help. Our dedicated team can come out, inspect your system, and spot problems before they spell heating trouble this winter.

13. Take the Time to Listen

Good relationships rely on communication, and your relationship with your furnace is no different. If your furnace is trying to tell you something and you aren’t available to listen, you could miss the early signs of trouble. Here are a few sounds you may hear that could indicate furnace problems, and when to reach out for help.

  • As furnaces and heat pumps start up, they can generate a clicking noise. Thermostats may create a click as the contractors connect wires to relay information to your furnace, and the heater itself can click as ignitors attempt to light the flame inside your system. While some clicks are normal, ongoing clicks could signal trouble with your ignition. If they can’t light burners appropriately, the furnace will not light, and your system won’t generate any heat. If clicking persists but your blower does turn on, the sound may be stemming from dirty ball bearings.
  • Muffled hum. When your furnace is operating properly, you will hear a muffled hum of the furnace running and air running through your system. If you notice scraping, rattling, screeching, grinding, buzzing, or rumbling noises, there could be furnace components that are damaged and moving improperly. If you hear any of those strange noises, turn off your furnace until the system can be professionally inspected and repaired.
  • Furnaces and heat pumps can generate a knocking or pinging noise when the heating cycle ends. These slight sounds are caused by natural expansion and contraction within the ductwork as temperatures shift. However, if knocking noises are loud or jarring, dirty air filters could be the culprit. When air stops flowing normally, certain parts of ductwork can heat up or cool down rapidly, generating a loud bang. Check air filters if you notice louder knocking noises. Additionally, loud pops or explosive bangs could signal problems with the ignition and fuel lighting sequence. Turn off your system until it can be inspected if you hear jarring noises.

14. Fix HVAC Problems Early

Routine furnace tune-ups are crucial for uncovering issues that could halt your furnace, heat pump, or boiler. While many problems may not need to be addressed immediately, you should always fix anything you can as soon as possible. Timely repairs can help you to prevent collateral damage inside your furnace caused by running a damaged system. Additionally, repairing furnace trouble early can help you to maximize efficiency, which can save you money all winter long.

Anytime you learn about any issue with your HVAC system, ask to schedule the repairs right away. In addition to protecting your furnace, you may also find that early repairs are easier to schedule and that you won’t have to worry about emergency heating outages in the middle of the winter.

Keep in mind that HVAC systems tend to have the most problems during the last two years of their usable lifespan. On average, conventional furnaces last 15 to 20 years, and heat pumps last an average of 12 years, since they are used for heating and cooling. If your furnace is having trouble and it is approaching the end of its life, consider putting your money into a full system replacement instead of a repair. New systems are more efficient, which could save you money during the season.

15. Check Your Furnace Motor Belt

Your furnace relies on the air handler’s blower motor and fan to circulate air throughout your home. The fan is connected to the blower motor with a belt, which generates the rotational power to move the fan blades. Unfortunately, fan belts can fray, crack, break, or loosen, which can halt movement and stop your furnace. While fan belts are inspected during annual tune-ups, it’s a good idea to check the component yourself before winter to protect your furnace. Here are a few tips for inspecting your fan belt.

  • Check the belt for physical wear and tear. Turn off your furnace and remove the access panel from your furnace cabinet. Check the belt closely for fraying, cracks, or other signs of wear. If damage is present, the belt will need to be professionally replaced.
  • Look at the tension. Fan belts also need to hold the proper tension to operate smoothly. Belts should never have more than half of an inch of give anywhere on the belt. If the belt has more give, it can be adjusted by tightening the motor adjusting bolts.
  • Check pulley wheel alignment. Pulley wheels should be aligned properly to keep the belt from becoming twisted. If the wheels aren’t sitting in alignment, loosen the pulley mounting bolts, adjust the belt, and tighten them again.

16. Check Condensate Drainage System

Condensing furnaces are highly efficient systems that are designed with a secondary heat exchanger that absorbs and transmits more heat. Since exhaust fumes spend more time within the furnace itself, they have time to cool significantly and condense into water. As a result, condensing furnaces require condensate drainage systems to move liquid outside or into a floor drain. Standard furnaces send exhaust right up a flue and don’t create condensation simply because the fumes aren’t inside the system for long enough.

While properly operating condensing furnaces don’t typically create problems, issues with the condensing drip pan or drainage lines can allow moisture to build up or pool near the furnace, which can cause water damage. When water pools inside the condensate pan, it can also trip a limit switch, which stops your entire furnace. Checking to make sure condensation is exiting your furnace appropriately is crucial for your system.

To access your system’s condensate system, open your furnace access door and locate the drip pan. The pan is typically connected to the PVC drain line that exits the system. On a furnace installed vertically, the pan should sit below the heat exchanger. Horizontally installed systems have a drip pan that sits below the unit. Carefully remove the pan to look for problems. Here are a few things to check for:

  • Drip pan damage. Look for rust, corrosion, dents, or cracks in your drip pan. If you spot obvious physical damage, the pan may need to be completely replaced.
  • Drain line clogs or damage. Check condensate drainpipes to check for clogs, cracks, or joinery gaps. Blockages at the entrance of the pipe can be cleared easily, but deeper blocks may need to be professionally removed. Damaged drain lines should be replaced.
  • Condensate pump problems. Your condensate pump is housed in small white box attached to your drainpipe. If you spot water dripping from the pump or the pump isn’t impacting drainage pan levels, it should be replaced.

17. Check Fuel Levels

If you have a furnace that relies on liquid propane (aka LP) or heating oil, you need to make sure you have enough fuel for winter. While some systems aren’t impacted by running out of fuel, it can be dangerous for other systems, and difficult to get if fuel delivery companies become busy during the peak of the season.

Liquid propane should be refilled as soon as your system reaches 20 % capacity. Furnaces that use liquid propane typically use a gallon of propane for every hour of heating. While running out of LP will immediately prevent your system from warming your home, it can also be hard on your system. Propane furnaces that run out of fuel are required by the National Fuel Gas Code to be inspected before they are refilled, since running on empty can cause water to accumulate inside the tank. When water forms inside the tank, it can cause rust and corrosion, since metal reacts with air and moisture. If the system is refilled without checking for these problems, it could cause a dangerous gas leak. Professionals will also need to re-light the pilot light before restarting the furnace.

Heating oil tanks should be refilled once tank readings reach the 2/5 mark on the gauge. Running an oil furnace uses anywhere from two to five gallons of heating oil per day. Running out of heating oil won’t harm your furnace, but it will hamper your efforts to heat your home. Condensation can form on the interior walls of the fuel tank, which can generate rust and bacterial growth. To ward off this problem, fuel lines will need to be bled after refilling the oil to prevent rust accumulation and to improve efficiency. Oil filters may also need to be cleaned or replaced to eradicate system sludge.

To avoid problems, have your fuel tank topped off before the start of the heating season, and consider using a remote tank monitoring device to keep track of your liquid propane fuel levels. These devices attach to your fuel tank and give you instant access to level readings so you can order refills appropriately.

18. Install Zoned Heating

If your home has hot and cold spots, you could benefit from a zoned heating system. Zoning involves installing supplemental thermostats, temperature sensors, and even extra HVAC equipment throughout your home to warm the space according to your preferences.

Areas throughout your home can be separated into climate zones based on their use, room layout, and the people who use the space most frequently. Your HVAC system will be fitted with a zoned heating and cooling panel, and the system may be retrofitted with zoning dampers to control the flow of heated air.

Zoned heating is particularly useful in large or multi-level homes, which can experience large temperature fluctuations from room to room. Rooms with lots of westward-facing windows and homes with second stories can feel warmer and require less heat, while shaded or underground basement rooms may be cooler. Chat with an HVAC professional to see if zoned heating is right for your house.

19. Add More Insulation

Insulation is like an internal blanket for your home that helps to hold in heat generated on the interior. However, if parts of your home aren’t insulated properly, they can allow carefully heated air to escape outside, wasting energy and money. Increasing insulation throughout your home can ensure that the heat your furnace or heat pump generates stays inside, where it can keep your living space warm and comfortable.

Proactive homeowners can add batts of insulation to attics and crawlspaces or turn to a professional to supplement the area with blown-in or spray foam insulation. Some companies can even inject spray foam insulation through small holes created in drywall to prevent heat loss through the walls of your home.

You should also consider having your ductwork insulated to keep warmth from leaching through the sides of metal runs. Insulating ducts can lower heat loss significantly and ensure that heated air pushed throughout your home is as warm as possible when it arrives.

20. Adjust Ceiling Fan Direction

To take some strain off of your furnace and improve the comfort of your home, put your ceiling fans to work. Ceiling fans are designed with a switch on the motor casing that gives you the chance to change the rotational direction of the fan blades.

During the summer, run your ceiling fan counterclockwise to create windchill. During the winter, run your fan clockwise to create an updraft that pushes risen warm air downwards towards you, where it can keep you comfortable. When using ceiling fans, be careful to turn them off whenever rooms aren’t being used.

Prepare Your Furnace with Help from Thomas & Galbraith Heating, Cooling & Plumbing

Keep your home as warm, comfortable, and cozy as possible this winter with help from Thomas & Galbraith Heating, Cooling & Plumbing. With an innate understanding of Cincinnati, OH weather and a team of NATE-certified professionals, you won’t find yourself asking “Where do I turn for HVAC help?”

Instead, you can reach out day or night for the heating repairs and maintenance you need for your system to run at peak capacity. Contact us today to schedule a tune-up or emergency service. We would love to help!

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