Some scams are so well known they're more jokes than actual threats now. Not too many people are falling for the Nigerian prince email scam or paying extra for an "undercoat" on their car anymore.
But there are still some slick sales pitches that take our hard earned dollars faster than you can say "upgraded charcoal HEPA cabin filter" (a friend learned that $60 lesson on their last oil change).
So when you're told you should get regular tune ups on your furnace, it's natural to question if it is really necessary or just a scam to drum up repeat business. Is a furnace tune up worth it?
Yes, furnace tune ups are worth it. Regular preventive maintenance can make a significant difference in the longevity, efficiency, and safety of your HVAC systems. A well maintained system can last at least 20-25 years as opposed to only the 12 - 15 years that many HVAC contractors claim.
There are even more immediate benefits like preventing costly emergency repairs and lower monthly energy bills. But can't a handy homeowner clean and inspect a furnace themselves? And if not, how do you know the tune up you're paying for is actually delivering on all these promises?
How Does a Tune up Help?
First, lets take a closer look at those amazing claims a little maintenance is said to accomplish.
Longer Equipment Life
Almost all mechanical systems will benefit from maintenance. Imagine if you never got an oil change on your car. Just as driving your car with old, dirty oil can cause extensive damage so can running running a furnace with a build-up of dust and debris.
A dirty furnace or clogged furnace air filter causes the equipment to work harder and harder to keep your home heated. The unnecessary wear and tear can harm the overall health of the equipment and shorten it's lifespan by almost half.
Energy Efficiency (aka Monthly Energy Bills)
Most of the furnaces installed in the last 10 years would be considered "high efficiency". However, the efficiency touted by many manufacturers are based on the equipment running at peak performance. It's one of the reasons why all HVAC manufacturers recommend annual inspections.
The promised savings on energy consumption will quickly disappear when the equipment has to work harder due to poor maintenance.
Annual maintenance can help your heating and cooling equipment use less energy. This sometimes pays for itself in operating cost savings during the peak season alone.
Fewer Emergency Repairs
Maybe you're not planning on staying at your house very long so you're not worried about making a furnace last 20 - 30 years. Maybe you don't have a high efficiency furnace and the difference in monthly heating costs isn't enough to convince you to drop dollars on "just maintenance".
The more immediate benefit of regular maintenance is noticed in avoiding costly repairs. For example, one of the most common causes of furnace breakdowns is a dirty flame sensor. Any thorough furnace tune up performed by a qualified HVAC technician should include cleaning the flame sensor.
And with the complications with newer equipment, like the problems with 2 stage furnaces, you'll want to prevent as many problems as possible.
We all want to feel safe and secure in our homes. Most of us don't think about what unseen hazards are around us on a daily basis because how would we ever relax.
Not to keep you up at night but the heating and cooling system in our home is more likely to cause health issues or even death than almost any other component.
For instance, cracked heat exchangers can leak lethal amounts of the colorless and odorless gas carbon monoxide. The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can hard to detect and are often mistaken for the flu or migraines.
Again, testing the level of carbon monoxide should be included in a thorough tune up performed by HVAC technicians. That is just one potential hazard but I believe that piece of mind is worth the $100 - $200 the average annual maintenance costs.
Can't a Homeowner "DIY" a Furnace Tune up?
It depends on what kind of tune up you are getting. Maybe you got a great coupon is this month's ValPak - $49 for a furnace or air conditioner clean and check!
While it may seem like terrific deal this version of a tune up is likely little more than a basic cleaning of your furnace, a little vacuuming, and a laundry list of recommended repairs that you may or may not need.
At such a low price the company isn't even covering the cost of sending a tech to your house let alone having them complete a thorough tune up of your furnace. At that point you could have definitely done it yourself and saved the $49.
Most companies that advertise a deal like this also offer "real" HVAC tune ups for a higher price or as part of a preventative maintenance agreement. These visits can cost about $100 - $200 depending on where you live, the type of equipment, etc.
With a little advance preparation and the right questions you can definitely find a heating contractor that will deliver all the benefits of regular maintenance.
A qualified heating contractor will have tools required to do a proper furnace tune up that the average homeowner wouldn't invest in or maybe even know how to use. Most of us don't have a combustion analyzer laying around to measure combustion gases (including carbon monoxide).
Even something as simple as cleaning a flame sensor is often misunderstood. Most DIY information on the internet will tell you to lightly sand your flame sensor but that is incorrect. You don't need to sand a flame sensor and you are actually damaging it. This will require it to be replaced much sooner and more often than necessary.
Finally, a qualified technician can tell a lot about how your system is running when performing a tune up. They will notice if there is excessive carbon buildup in your unit, if the air filter is dirtier than normal, if the blower motor sounds off, or even something subtle like the pilot light flickering abnormally.
This allows them to make suggestions for your system before something goes wrong and often they can offer discounts on repairs when done while they're already there for your annual tune up.
How Do I Make Sure I'm Getting a Comprehensive Tune up?
While this isn't a complete list it covers the main areas that need to be checked for a good furnace tune up...
- Using a combustion analyzer, combustion gases must be sampled to make sure furnace is burning properly
- Venting system should be checked for corrosion or leakage to prevent carbon monoxide leaks
- Heat exchanger needs to be inspected
- Electrical wiring needs to be checked for corrosion and confirm tight connections
- Motor and blower wheel needs to be checked for dirt and stability
- Flame sensor should be cleaned and burners checked for proper ignition
- Gas pressure needs to checked
- Drain system needs to be checked for leakage
- All door seals need to be checked
- A new air filter should be installed (depending on your system this may need to be done more often)
- Check for any kind of flooding or water damage
Furnace tune ups are highly recommended. They improve indoor air quality, prevent breakdowns, help the furnace run safer and save money on energy bills. Whether your furnace is new or old, seriously consider getting on a service plan with a good HVAC contractor or at the very least setting a reminder to have annual inspections on your furnace.