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Clean-and-Check Can Prevent Future Furnace Problems

Few things in life are more inconvenient than your furnace quitting in the middle of the night during a frigid January in Pittsburgh. And few things are more dangerous than a furnace with a carbon monoxide leak.

Most people are still enjoying the last days of summer and haven’t given their furnaces much thought. That can be a mistake, warn HVAC specialists in the North Hills.

“If I could stress any one thing, it’d be that it’s extremely important to get a clean-and-check twice a year,” said Bruce Hagmaier, owner of H&C Heating and Cooling of Gibsonia. “Do it once in the spring for your AC and once in the fall for your furnace.”

Hagmaier said that he learned this lesson the hard way after neglecting his own AC unit, only to have it get so dirty and full of debris that the compressor quit working. “It may seem like a pain to get it done, but routine maintenance can prevent costly repairs down the road,” he said.

Denny Rozanski, the owner of Seasons Heating & Cooling in Allison Park, said to make sure to choose an HVAC service company that does a proper cleaning and inspection. “Make sure that they’re pulling apart the drain pan and looking for any clogs,” he said. “You’ll probably laugh, but bugs cause more problems for furnaces than the parts of the furnaces themselves.”

Bugs and other debris can get into the drainpipes of high-efficiency furnaces, clogging them and causing the furnace to stop working properly. Rozanski said when a clean-and-check is done correctly, it finds and clears the debris. “They also should be cleaning the flame sensors every three years for newer furnaces,” he said. “Once your furnace gets to be more than 15 years old, you should probably have that done every year.”

Catching problems early can mean the difference between going without heat for days or weeks and ensuring that you have a warm home this winter. Ongoing supply chain issues that started during the early days of COVID have affected the HVAC industry, especially high-efficiency furnaces with microchips in their control boards, said Rozanski.

“Because of the pandemic, the equipment we need for repairs and replacements is not always sitting there waiting for us,” he explained. “There have been times when I’ve had to wait months for furnace installations because of (micro)chip shortages.”

Other times, Rozanski said that he’s found himself “MacGyvering” HVAC systems with temporary fixes to keep them operational while he waits for parts or replacement units. “I don’t like to do that, and I’ve never done it without the knowledge or permission of the homeowners. But sometimes you have to come up with quick fixes or risk people going without heat.”

Some furnace manufacturers, like Lennox and Trane, have experienced the most shortages and supply chain interruptions. “Last year, I had issues getting plastic replacement parts from Lennox for their furnaces,” said Rozanski.

Hagmaier said that Trane often requires authentic Trane parts for replacements to avoid voiding warranties, and that their furnaces are not designed to take generic replacement parts. “I’ve not had any issues with the other brands. I can usually get what I need within 24 hours,” he said.

To combat supply chain issues, Rozanski said that he bought extra supplies over the summer for some of the most common replacement parts he needs. “Hopefully I can make it through the winter without any shortages,” he said.

Both men said the most common problems they see with furnaces during the winter months include:

  • Failure to ignite. This is probably the number one issue that Hagmaier and Rozanski see with natural gas furnaces each winter. A telltale sign that it’s happening is when a furnace either doesn’t kick on at all after trying or kicks on and turns right back off without running fully. A broken flame sensor is usually the culprit. Other causes can be dirty furnace filters, malfunctioning pilot lights, or a defective thermostat.

  • Unusual sounds. If homeowners hear squealing sounds when their furnaces turn on or off, it’s time to call an HVAC professional. Other noises that aren’t normal from a furnace include grinding and scraping, rumbling or repeated clicking. Some sounds signal a replacement part is needed. Other times, an HVAC unit replacement might be necessary.

  • Weird smells. Burning smells coming from a furnace require immediate attention. Turn off the furnace and call an HVAC specialist right away.

As a rule, most high-efficiency furnaces should last at least 20 years before needing replacement, said Hagmaier. Rozanski said depending on the issue, it can sometimes be more cost-effective to replace a furnace than to repair it, so he always gives his customers a choice.

“With all of these electronic components, today’s furnaces can be pricey to repair,” he warned. “If your control board goes bad, it can sometimes cost a thousand dollars or more to replace it. You can practically have a new furnace for that amount.”

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