It gets cold in Central Ohio, but we’re in Columbus, Ohio, not Nome, Alaska, so we rarely get those polar vortexes that send the temperature plummeting to below zero. And I’m sorry if I just jinxed us with that obvious factoid.
You can have a top-of-the-line furnace or heat pump, perfectly installed and maintained, but those occasional Arctic blasts are going to prevent it from matching your thermostat’s setting. (For the record, the coldest recorded temperature in Columbus was -23 degrees Fahrenheit on January 13, 1912.
So you toss another log onto the fire, huddle together around the glow of the TV, and wish for warmer days while your furnace works overtime. Instead of tolerating the conditions, you can alter them.
Here at Fire & Ice, we’ve lived through our fair share of winters and have installed thousands of furnaces. We know a thing or two about cold weather and HVAC equipment designed to keep you warm. For this article, we thought we’d talk about the limits of your furnace, and some strategies to fight the cold.
Your Furnace Has Heating Limits
It’s unrealistic to expect every room in your home to maintain a 70-degree stasis. But there are ways - some pricey, others not so much - to fight the cold.
But because HVAC is never a black-and-white issue, there are a lot of factors that go into this. Insulation, wind, number, and quality of windows, how many times your garage door is opened, etc.
If your house is in the shade, your furnace will have to work harder. If your home doesn’t have southern exposure, you won’t get as much heat from the sun.
Your system’s performance begins with installation. We are fond of saying that the most important day in the life of a piece of HVAC is installation day. A lousy HVAC contractor can take a great piece of equipment and turn it into a so-so one by ignoring the manufacturer’s specifications, by taking shortcuts.
It may run, and it may run for years. But it won’t reach its potential, and you’ll be stuck with unnecessary repair bills.
In contrast, a good contractor will make sure it’s installed properly, that installation procedures are followed, and that all of the specifications for the equipment are met. Then it requires annual maintenance – at least once a year. Like any mechanical or electrical piece of machinery, it requires thorough tune-ups. It’s similar to an automobile. Your car needs oil changes, air in the tires – little things that can help to prolong its lifespan.
If Your Furnace Isn’t the Right Size
It’s possible that your HVAC contractor cut corners when he determined what size furnace should have been installed. In Columbus, Ohio, we perform a Manual J Load Calculation (determining what size HVAC equipment is required) that is based on a zero-degree day. So, in theory, that means that your furnace is expected to provide heat at 100% capacity at zero degrees. That means that the equipment should be able to keep up on a zero-degree day. During most winters, that covers you.
The purpose of this sizing calculation is to get the proper assessment of your home because having too little or too much power can be detrimental to the life of your system. A system that is too big for your home will start and stop a lot more because it may cool or heat your home too quickly. It will cycle on and off, taking more money to operate, and eventually reducing the lifespan of the equipment. This shorter run cycle also doesn’t allow the warm air to mix with the cool, leaving your home with hot and cold spots.
A system that’s sized too small will run and run and run. A perfect installation and spotless, scheduled maintenance won’t help it keep up with a thermostat’s demands. Not only will you be cold in the winter when it’s sub-zero, you’ll also be cold when it’s above zero. Your fuel bill, no matter if it’s gas or electric, will be higher than it should be, and the system will break down sooner due to excessive use.
Heat Pumps’ Limits
Heat pumps are more popular in warmer climates than the Midwest for a reason. They are a better fit for the southern states, where colder temperatures are less frequent. The heating part of their job can be frustrating in Columbus. Somewhere around 30-40 degrees, heat pumps start to lose their capacity to warm your home.
Depending on the heat pump’s size and features (single-stage, variable-speed, etc.), the drop-off after 40 degrees can be a gentle, diminishing slope, or it can be a dramatic drop-off. Because it’s trying to squeeze hot air out of cold, the colder it gets, there is less warmth in the air to work with. At that balance point, that’s when the auxiliary heat kicks in. That heat is supplied by the heat strips located in the air handler.
Gas Heat vs. Electric Heat
In terms of efficiency, electric heat is more efficient than gas. It creates no waste, so every unit of energy put into it comes out as heat. There are two main problems with electric heat. 1) Electric heat relies on heat strips to produce heat, and the temperature coming out of the furnace’s blower is anywhere from 100-120 degrees F, which is cooler than gas.
And 2) Getting those heat strips hot and then operating the blower is expensive. Electricity is simply more costly than natural gas.
Gas heat is less efficient. Furnaces are rated by their AFUE, a measure of how efficient the appliance is in converting the energy from fuel to heat.
They range from 80% (80 cents out of every dollar put into the system is turned into heat, while the other 20% is expelled as waste) up to 98%. (The higher the percentage, the less waste it creates, and the more costly the unit.)
But gas produces hotter heat than electric: The temperature coming out of the blower from a gas furnace is anywhere from 140–170 degrees F.
Tips to Staying Warm During the Worst of Winter
- If you can cover windows in areas where you spend the most time, do so. Close your window blinds if you have them. Or place blankets over the windows using the curtain rods.
- Drape blankets or plastic in the room openings such as doorways.
- Check your furnace’s filter, and replace it when it’s dirty. A clogged filter interrupts airflow into your furnace, robbing it of performance. Because it can get so dirty air has to fight its way through, it can create excessive static pressure on the entire system.
- Don’t skip annual maintenance. You might be tempted to forego maintenance if your furnace is performing “normally.” I have homeowners tell me that their furnace is 25 years old, and it’s working great. I say, “Well, it’s working, but I don’t know that I would call it great.” There’s a lot of stuff about imperfect equipment that people don’t notice. Even if the furnace is given a tune-up, it still could mean that there are potential cracks in the heat exchanger. When your heat exchanger is cracked, it doesn’t mean that your furnace doesn’t stop working. It keeps on heating, but its performance can be lackluster. (Besides that, a cracked heat exchanger could mean that carbon monoxide might be leaking into your home, a potentially lethal consequence.)
- Replacing your old furnace with a new one. If your furnace is 15 years old or older, it may be time to think about a replacement. Even the cheapest new furnace will likely be far superior when it comes to efficiency, saving you money on your utility bills while providing advanced comfort.
- Close vents to rooms that seem warmer. We don’t recommend closing vents more than halfway. A further closure creates excessive static pressure on the rest of the system. Besides, if your contractor did his job, the furnace should be able to keep the entire home warm - at least until it’s sub-zero. Partially closing vents is a stop-gap measure to a larger problem, but it can work.
- Portable space heater. Inefficient, expensive to run, and capable of heating small spaces at a time, these units are cheap and portable.
- If you have a fireplace without glass doors, don’t use it during extremely cold weather since most of the heat goes up the chimney. A wood-burning stove is more efficient, and stays hot longer than a fireplace. There’s little doubt, however, about the beauty and sound of a roaring fire.
- Utilize ceiling fans to push warm air down. These don’t make the air any warmer (and in the summer they don’t cool the air, either), but it’s a cheap way to create better circulation.
- Apply weather stripping to windows and caulk air leaks.
Ductless Mini-Splits Can Be a Zoned Solution
If keeping your entire home warm is impossible, you may want to try to zone it, partially closing vents in rooms that are used less often in the hopes that more heat will be directed to rooms where you congregate more often.
Or consider a more permanent solution: ductless mini-splits. Ductless mini-splits are an ideal solution for certain heating and cooling problems. They give you a high level of control over your home temperature.
When you think of a mini-split, you might think of a single wall unit. This is the most common type, but is far from the only one.
Residential mini-splits generally go up to five heads. The more heads you have in a system, the more complicated it becomes to properly install, service, and maintain the system.
The biggest factor that affects the cost of a mini-split is the number of “heads” that it has. A head is an individual indoor unit that is connected to the outdoor unit and provides cooling or heating to a room or area.
For problem rooms - ones that stay too cool or too warm no matter what - this can be a perfect solution. You can focus on the rooms that need the warmth the most. Ductless mini-splits work as heat pumps, so they can provide comfort all year long. Some models work at 100% even at negative temperatures, so there’s no drop-off in efficiency on the coldest days.
Humidity Can Help With Comfort
We talk to homeowners about humidifiers when we first sit down with them and discuss comfort concerns. This is especially true if we’re talking about replacing their furnace. If the homeowner isn’t concerned about dry air, we’re not going to push the idea of a humidifier. But we do mention that a 3% change of humidity equals about 1 degree of temperature on the skin. If you add a little bit of humidity, it feels warmer.
Think about summers in Columbus, when it’s 90 degrees and humid. It feels more miserable if the air is saturated. The same is true in winter. If the indoor air is more humid, it will feel warmer, which allows you the option of turning down your thermostat to save a few bucks on your utility bill without sacrificing comfort.
How to Stay Warm in Columbus, Ohio
Our customer service representatives tend to get more complaints about indoor temperatures during the summer than in the winter. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to bundle up than it is to shed clothing.
Or maybe homeowners are more realistic when it comes to expectations about their furnaces during icy blasts. You’ll be cold, no doubt about it.
But if there’s a problem with your furnace, the reality is that you’ll need a service technician to rescue you pronto.
And if you’re in the market for a new furnace, we’d invite you to have a conversation with us about how we can help.
The decision is up to you. You can shiver and put up with it, or you can take steps toward a more comfortable Central Ohio home. Enter your zip code in the graphic below to see if you’re in our service area. We look forward to making your winter a little warmer.