5 Biggest Heating Mistakes to Avoid This Winter

5 Biggest Heating Mistakes to Avoid This Winter
Jerad Kingery
Service Manager

I am the Service Manager for Fire & Ice Heating and Air Conditioning. I and my team coordinate and perform all maintenance and repairs of the HVAC equipment we service.

About This Article

As a homeowner, you’re going to make mistakes, and that’s ok. We cover the most common HVAC mistakes we see every year in furnace systems.

We all make mistakes. There’s no shame in admitting that. But some mistakes are more costly than others.

Cook your dinner for too long, and it may be a bit dried out but still edible. It’s not ideal, but it’s not the end of the world. But if you accidentally leave it in the oven while you go grocery shopping, you could come back to smoke, bad smells, and fire alarms going off.

On a scale of “overcook your dinner” to “burn your house down,” HVAC mistakes are usually somewhere in the middle. But the worst mistakes can cost you thousands of dollars in repairs and replacement costs across the life of your heating and cooling system.

We see these mistakes every year. And each one is avoidable. So I’m here to walk you through the most common mistakes, as well as what you can do to prevent them.

Furnace

Mistake #1: Not Changing Your Furnace Filter

Oh, you can just wait another six months to replace that filter. It’s not like the system is going to shut down because of an old filter…

...right?!

This is a mentality we encounter a lot, and it damages homeowners’ HVAC systems. Even I’m guilty of it, when I know I shouldn’t be. My daughter has bad allergies, for example, and when the filter gets dirty, we notice an uptick in her allergic reactions. It acts as a trigger for me to replace the filter, but really, it shouldn’t take that to prompt us to get a new one.

A dirty filter does a lot of things, none of them good.

  1. Your blower motor has to work harder to move the same amount of air through your system, which increases your energy bills.
  2. This same extra work will slowly degrade your system over months and years, to the point where you’ll have to replace it many years sooner than if you kept a clean filter installed at all times.
  3. You will have more dust, pollen, allergens, and even viruses in the air as a result.
  4. A clogged filter can affect airflow in ways that result in certain areas of your home not getting enough heating or cooling.

The net cost of this mistake can easily be in the thousands. The other cost is in your comfort and health, since your furnace and AC can’t operate properly without a clean filter.

Why It Happens

Your furnace - and thus your filter - is usually in a home’s basement or utility closet. So it’s out of sight. And you know the old phrase, “out of sight, out of mind.” It’s true here.

The other reason is more psychological. It’s true that your system will almost always continue to run with a dirty filter, so replacing the filter never seems urgent. But what we don’t take into account is how much harder the system is working to provide you with the same airflow.

The Solution

The solution to this one should be obvious: set yourself a reminder to replace your filter. How often should this be? It depends on the filter type, but every filter should have a recommended replacement schedule printed on its side.

It also depends on your home’s conditions. Do you have multiple pets? Bad allergies? Smoke in the home? These factors can cause a filter to clog prematurely.

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Mistake #2: Shutting Off Too Many Registers

Every year the news station I watch will run a segment on “Prepping Your Home for Winter” and it usually talks about adjusting the registers in your home. Not using those upstairs bedrooms anymore? Go ahead and shut the registers to them, the news segment will suggest.

But is this responsible?

The answer is a little bit complicated, and it’s due to one big factor that news crews aren’t trained in: Airflow.

Airflow is everything in HVAC, but it’s something that even some technicians don’t fully understand. If you’re heating part of your home, you might think you’re saving money. And if your home is zoned properly, you absolutely can save money doing this. But in a standard, non-zoned home, this just means that the warm and cool pockets of air are mixing together, which sends your furnace mixed signals. The result can be that your furnace is shutting on and off too often, causing wear and tear and cutting down its eventual lifespan.

Your ductwork is also designed to contain a certain amount of airflow, at particular pressures. By shutting down large portions of the ductwork by closing registers, you’re increasing the pressure on other portions of the duct system. The end result can again be damage to your system over time, and reduced efficiency.

With all that said: you can still shut off registers, but need to be aware of these factors. The best way to know how many registers are too many is to talk to an experienced HVAC professional.

Why It Happens

Maybe your favorite chair is right next to a register, and you don’t like the air blowing directly on you. Or maybe you don’t use a particular room unless you have company over, so you like to keep the registers shut off in that room, to redistribute the warm air to the rest of the home.

These are a couple of common examples, but there are many others like them. And they all make sense when you look at them individually. It’s only when it’s taken too far that it can become a problem.

The Solution

A conversation with an HVAC technician when they come for a routine maintenance visit is probably the best first step. They’ll be able to walk you through any considerations that can affect the health of your system.

More broadly, there’s nothing wrong with occasionally closing down vents for various reasons. But it shouldn’t be the default state that you leave them in, and you should try to be strategic about when and how you do this. Because overdoing it with closed vents is a bigger issue than always leaving them open.

Mistake #3: Not Using All of Your HVAC System’s Capabilities

HVAC technology has come further in the last 10 years than it did in the previous 50 years. And because a lot of homes aren’t yet up to modern HVAC standards, the next 10-20 years will see a revolution in how sophisticated the average American home is.

This is good news, because it means more efficiency and greater comfort. But it also means more options and, occasionally, more complications.

For example, take variable-speed air conditioner technology. This is more efficient, more comfortable, and basically better in every way than standard, single-stage cooling.

So what if I told you that not all contractors know how to properly calibrate a blower motor to accommodate a variable-speed system? When this happens, it’s the equivalent of having a computer with a lightning-fast processor, but only allowing it to play Minesweeper and Solitaire.

These more sophisticated systems also bring more thermostat options for a homeowner to parse. Who here has a family member who simply sets the temperature once at the start of a season, then forgets about it for months? This can work, but with newer systems, it may lose some functionality.

The larger list of technologies that can improve your heating and cooling continues to grow:

  • Wifi apps that control the system
  • “Smart home” technology that can adapt to your needs
  • Ducted humidifiers and dehumidifiers that can often be controlled from the central thermostat
  • Remote sensors for thermostats that can help to provide a more even temperature throughout your home
  • Two-stage and variable-speed technology that increases efficiency

If this seems intimidating, don’t let it worry you!

Mistake #4: Not Getting Yearly Furnace Maintenance

This is probably the biggest one, because it can solve a lot of the problems caused by the other mistakes listed in this article.

HVAC companies deserve some of the blame here, because we’re bad at talking about the value of maintenance. To a lot of people, a yearly tune-up just feels like an unnecessary fee they have to pay every year, like an unused extended warranty that the guy at Best Buy or Wal-Mart talks you into.

The problem is that good tune-ups deal with a LOT of real problems, and no system can operate efficiently without regular tune-ups.

So when an HVAC technician comes to your home, they’re trained to fix your system. But they’re often not trained to talk about what they’re doing, and more importantly, why they’re doing it. These communication steps would go a long way to educating homeowners on the necessity of good maintenance.

Why It Happens

Your system didn’t break down last year without maintenance, right? So what’s another year?

This is a common mentality, and much like the filter example above, it’s technically true in some cases.

What gets lost, though, is the loss of efficiency and the overall health of your system.

Quick question: how long should your HVAC system last? 5 years? 10 years? 20-30 years? With regular maintenance, you can absolutely get to 20-30 years in some cases. But you’ll never get there going “one more year” without a thorough tune-up.

And in the short term, 10% less efficiency might equate to $100 in the first year, then 15% less efficiency and $150 in the second year. But pretty soon, you’re inviting $1000+ repairs and a system that is overworked.

Read more: Cost of Waiting to Repair or Replace HVAC Equipment

The Solution

Get a tune-up in the fall every year for your furnace, and your AC in the spring. That’s it. If you don’t like having to remember it, most contractors will offer maintenance plans so that you’re paid in full (often at a discount) for a full year in advance.

Mistake #5: DIY HVAC Repairs and Installs

DIY videos and tutorials exist out there for the adventurous. But I speak from experience when I say that it rarely works out as well as expected.

Sometimes I’ll be in the middle of an inspection or tune-up, and I can tell that something has been installed or maintenanced by someone other than a licensed HVAC technician. Often, this isn’t the main AC or furnace system, but something like a humidifier, or adjustments made to ductwork as a result of construction in the home.

Often, these are people who are very handy and are able to do a number of household repairs without issue. That kind of ingenuity is awesome! And they have the right idea that preventative measures can improve the health of your system. But it can also get you into trouble if you take it too far.

The full list of risks involved with DIY HVAC make this an even more daunting proposition:

  • HVAC equipment includes electrical work, metalwork, can sometimes include carpentry, involves combustible and flammable materials, as well as advanced physical concepts like airflow and ductwork design. There’s a reason our techs get 200+ hours of training every year. It’s to keep up with the speed of change in technology.
  • Improper repairs to equipment can result in voiding manufacturer warranties. Usually these are good for around 10 years, but we’ve had to replace equipment after only 3-5 years due to faulty DIY repairs that voided the warranty.
  • Worst-case scenario, you permanently damage your HVAC system. But even with a sub-par installation, you’re losing efficiency and comfort, and risking these larger problems.

Why It Happens

This one’s easy. It’s to save money. We all have that desire. And DIY really can save you money...if it works right. The long-term risks of DIY are why we categorically recommend avoiding it, though. Your home and your safety aren’t worth it.

The Solution

So what should you be doing on your own? You can replace your own filter, though this can also be handled at yearly maintenance by a professional. Some older gas systems also have pilot lights, and with the proper precautions, a homeowner can fix a faulty pilot light.

Beyond that, it really does pay to use a trusted professional.

RELATED: The Complete Guide to Home Furnaces

From Mistakes to Solutions

Mistakes help to keep us in business, but we still hate to see them. It’s far better for us to be in a home twice a year for routine maintenance, building trust and keeping our customers happy, than it is to watch as people try to grapple with problems that are preventable.

The other thing to remember is this: mistakes are ok, as long as you’re learning from them. As a company, we’ve made mistakes as well. But we use it as a way to improve our business, and thus improve the lives of our customers.

So now that you know some common mistakes to avoid, you’re better prepared not just for the winter but the entirety of your time as a homeowner. If we can be of service to you during this time in any way, give us a call or reach out here on our website. We’re looking forward to working with you!

Read more:

HVAC Buyer’s Guide

How Much Does a New Furnace Replacement Cost in 2021?

Will a High-Efficiency Gas Furnace Save You Money?

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