by Marcus Pickett
As it is with so many things, you probably hardly notice your home's heating system unless something goes wrong. Then it's a mad scramble. Is it a fan, a hose, a belt, a compressor, an electrical short, a thermostat malfunction? If you wait until your heating system fails, you've waited too long. Here is what you need to know about your heating system to put yourself in the best position to deal with the inevitable repairs as your system ages.
This is the first, simple step in maintaining your home's heating system. For new heating systems, review your warranties from both the manufacturer and the contractor who installed it. Your manufacturer may claim to offer a 10-year warranty, but often these warranties are invalidated if the problem stems from improper installation or customer abuse. Just like other forms of insurance, expect your company to try to get out of paying claims. Plus, it's a great idea to have your system inspected shortly before the warranties run out.
For older systems, hire a professional to inspect your central heating at the beginning of fall. This time frame allows you to contact HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) contractors in the off-season between summer and winter. During this time, you can often negotiate lower rates. Some contractors may even offer free inspections to start drumming up business for the winter season. The average forced-air heating system has a life expectancy of 15 years. Is your system getting close? If it is, along with monitoring the condition of your furnace, you should start saving for a new system with long-term cost savings.
When your heating system does go kaput, one of the most commonly asked and most-difficult-to-answer questions is whether to repair or replace the unit. You may not have the money to replace your heating unit, but it's hard to justify a repair if it costs more than $500 for a unit that may last only one or two more years. You're going to hire a pro for heating system work anyway, so don't make this decision without consulting the experts. In fact, you should solicit at least three estimates. You may be surprised to hear wildly different recommendations, but even experienced, knowledgeable contractors can disagree about the best course of action. Just like an old car, your heating system might break down again in six weeks or six years.
Likewise, if you do need to call in a professional to fix your system, ask as many informed questions as you can. What's wrong is a natural place to start, but don't stop there. Ask about the general condition of your heating system, what other areas are susceptible to damage, how many more years of service you can expect, and what you can do in the meantime to extend its lifetime. These questions will increase your ability to troubleshoot problems in the future and possibly repair them yourself.
It's notoriously difficult to reliably portray the costs of heating system repair or installation. Without knowing what part of the country you live, how big your home is, or what level of energy efficiency you expect from your system, it's impossible to quote a reasonable estimate. We can, however, show you national averages for both cost and time of common heating system projects. These figures represent projects actually completed by homeowners and collected by ServiceMagic, the leading online resource connecting homeowners to home improvement contractors.
Among the inconsistencies worth noting is the average cost to install a furnace versus a heat pump. Heat pumps are more energy efficient and more expensive units to install. Their limited heating capacity, moreover, makes them popular in smaller homes and in homes with more mild winters, skewing the costs accordingly.
-- Marcus Pickett is a senior home improvement writer with ServiceMagic.com. He has written more than 1200 articles on managing your home and home improvement trends.