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Are Annual Furnace Inspections Really Necessary?

By In Furnace Inspections On October 9, 2012


In a recent blog post about fall maintenance for Minnesota homeowners, I mentioned having your furnace inspected / tuned up by a qualified heating contractor annually.  One reader sent me an email asking if this was really necessary – here’s his original question:

I have a question about furnace tune-ups.  You say get one every year – is that really necessary?  What do the HVAC guys actually do to the furnace to “tune” it up?  There’s no spark plugs to replace like a car tune-up, and my understanding is they basically vacuum out dust and inspect it.  Couldn’t the homeowner do this himself?  Or do I really need to pay $80-150 bucks every year for a professional to do it?

I think these are great questions worthy of a post all on their own.

Are annual furnace inspections really necessary?  Furnace manufacturers all recommend annual inspections and maintenance by a qualified technician.  They also have language in their warranties saying that damage to the units caused by improper maintenance is not covered under warranty.  Does this mean that an annual furnace check-up is really required, or the warranty is voided? Probably not, but it’s recommended.  The best analogy I can think of is going to the dentist every six months for a check-up and cleaning; probably not necessary, but recommended.

I’ve heard some HVAC contractors recommend getting newer furnaces checked every other year, but once they’re over ten years old, have them checked annually.

What do HVAC technicians actually do to the furnace to “tune” it up?  It depends.  According to Chris Jirak, a heating guy who has worked for several firms in the Twin Cities over a period of 25 years, the service you get when you purchase a $29 Groupon is going to be quite different from a $200 “tune-up”.  Chris said that every contractor he has ever worked for has had carefully worded language with subtle differences in the descriptions, making it nearly impossible to compare services between different heating companies.  A few services you may have heard of are “safety check”, “certification”, “check-up”, “tune-up”, “basic tune-up”, “complete tune-up”, and “annual maintenance check-up.”

The services provided by different heating contractors will vary, depending on who you call and what you pay.  For example, I recently inspected a boiler in Minneapolis that had a missing flue cap at the exterior, an undersized vent connector, and a rust hole in the middle of the cabinet that was leaking carbon monoxide in to the home.

Boiler leaking exhaust gas

Just a couple months prior to this, a heating contractor had come out to inspect the boiler and given it a clean bill of health.  The receipt for the service call had been left on the kitchen table, so I took a photo of it.

Boiler clean and check

The point is that there seems to be no industry standard for a furnace (or boiler) tune-up, so what’s included in a “tune-up” will vary greatly from company to company.  If you’re going to hire a heating contractor to do a tune-up on your furnace, ask them what they’ll be doing.  Included below is a partial list of generic stuff that different furnace manufacturers recommend be performed annually a qualified heating technician:

  • The vent system needs to be checked for blockage and/or leakage.  This includes the outside termination and the connections at and internal to the furnace.
  • Combustion gases must be analyzed and compared to the unit specifications.
  • The blower access door needs to be checked to make sure it makes a tight seal at the furnace.
  • The fresh air intake grills and louvers need to be checked for blockage.
  • The heat exchanger needs to be inspected for rust and corrosion.
  • The burners need to be checked for proper ignition, burner flame, and flame sense.
  • The drainage system needs to be checked for blockage and/or leakage.  This includes the hoses internal to the furnace.  The condensate drain and trap need to be cleaned, and the water replaced in the trap.
  • The blower wheel needs to be checked for debris and cleaned if necessary – this requires complete removal of the blower wheel.
  • An amp-draw test should be conducted on the blower motor and compared with what is listed.
  • The wiring needs to be checked for corrosion and damage.
  • The filters need to be checked (but this needs to be done much more frequently than annually).

In addition to this list, heating contractors say that they regularly do static air pressure checks, gas pressure testing, and temperature rise checks.

Couldn’t the homeowner do this herself?  Of course… but the only homeowners I know who are knowledgeable enough to do all that stuff listed above also happen to be heating contractors.   If the only thing your furnace tech does is stick a vacuum nozzle in to the furnace and suck a little dust out, sure, do it yourself.  If your furnace tech does half the stuff on the list above, they’re earning their keep.

Before you hire a company to do a tune-up on your furnace, ask what’s included.  The company doing the work should be able to quickly rattle off a long list of stuff they’ll be checking.  Centerpoint Energy is known for offering one of the cheapest furnace tune-ups out there, yet they have a nice list of stuff that says exactly what they do for the money right on their web site.

Do I really need to pay $80 – 150 bucks every year for a professional to do it?  In short, yes.  This is what a professional charges – maybe even more.  For most heating contractors, $80 barely covers the trip charge.  Keep in mind, this isn’t just about safety; it’s also about preventative maintenance.  It’s about sometimes catching a problem before your furnace quits working in the middle of the night.  When you have to hire a heating contractor to show up on a Sunday evening because the furnace stopped working, you’re probably going to end up paying emergency rates.

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

        


About the Author

Reuben

Reuben is a second generation home inspector with a passion for his work. He grew up remodeling homes and learning about carpentry since he was old enough to hold a hammer. Reuben has worked for Structure Tech since it was purchased by Neil in 1997, and is now co-owner of the company. Reuben’s favorite customers are the ones who have a lot of questions; he grew up thinking he was going to be a school teacher because he enjoyed teaching others so much. In a sense, that’s a lot of what home inspections are about, so Reuben truly does what he loves. Reuben has an A.A. degree in liberal arts and has attended most of the Building Inspection Technology classes at North Hennepin Community College. Reuben and his wife are the proud parents of two young childen, Cy Alexander and Lucy Nicole, and have a German Shepherd named Stanley. With two young children Reuben doesn’t have much free time, but he still tries to play disc golf as often as possible during the summer. Reuben lives in Maple Grove, MN. Professional Qualifications / Memberships: *ASHI Certified Inspector *President, ASHI Heartland Chapter *Member, Minnesota Society of Housing Inspectors (MSHI) *Licensed Minneapolis Truth-in-Sale of Housing Evaluator *Licensed Saint Paul Truth-in-Sale of Housing Evaluator *Licensed Maplewood Truth-in-Sale of Housing Evaluator *Licensed Hopkins Truth-in-Housing Evaluator *Licensed Robbinsdale Point of Sale Evaluator *Affiliate Member, Southern Twin Cities Association of Realtors

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10 Comments

  • Matt 12 MONTHS AGO

    Since when does every repairman think that they are worth $100-200. per hour? Greed is the word in this dog-eat-dog world!!!!!!!!!!!!! A bunch of greedy, self-serving pigs!!

    • Reuben Saltzman 12 MONTHS AGO

      @Matt - I take it you're not a business owner? I've had a few homeowners make similar accusations against me when it's time to pay the bill for a Truth-In-Housing Evaluation, and I find it to be extremely offensive. I don't know what an HVAC contractor's costs are, but a few that I can think of off the top of my head are continuing education, licensing, insurance, office space, office staff, uniforms, equipment, vehicle, tools, and marketing. After all of their costs, they might just be making enough to pay their technician's hourly wage.

  • Todd 1 YEAR AGO

    I guess we can all agree to disagree. I believe in the theory that if something is not broke, don't fix it. Recently I had a gentleman come to give me an estimate on replacing my furnace and he took the front panel off to get the pertinent information he needed. He did not replace the panel properly on the front of the furnace causing the furnace not to want to ignite (switch was not made up). Luckily I was able to figure out the problem without calling a repairman in, but not always is that the case for many people. I am sure the same or similar scenarios holds true when a technician fails to put a furnace back together properly right after doing a tune-up in which can result in future calls and more expense. If you want to throw your money out the window, I will send you my address. Common sense and a little mechanical knowledge can take a person a long ways between service calls. If you are the type that struggles to determine up from down, or in from out, perhaps it is wise to spend the money on the tune ups that may or may not lead to more headaches and expense than what I feel they are worth.

  • James 1 YEAR AGO

    Hi Reuben, This article is superb and I appreciate you taking the time to write this. I have showed it to many of my clients if they are on the fence about maintenance. They also thank you for your informative article. Keep up the good work! - James

  • Alice 2 YEARS AGO

    This comment is very late, but I want to make it any way. I have two heaters in my house - one in the attic and one in the basement. I never saw the need for a "check up". One year, after we had owned the house for about 10 years, my husband pressured me to get the "check up" on them because of heavy advertising by multiple companies in this area. Reluctantly I agreed and called one of the larger, but local companies. The appointment was scheduled for a Friday afternoon. I left work early to get there. I told a co-worker before I left that even though we'd had no problems with either heater for 10 years, we probably would after they were inspected,and "tuned". The young man who did the inspection/tune-up found no problems but really, really, really pushed getting a contract for twice a year tune-ups, which would be cheaper than without a contract, and would give us a big discount labor if there was work that needed to be done. I tuned him down despite the heavy pressure. The upstairs furnace quit working on Saturday, and the downstairs one quit on Sunday. Cost quite a bit of money to get them fixed. I haven't had any more tune-ups since then and that was 10 years ago.

  • braided stainless steel wire 2 YEARS AGO

    Speaking in home terms, the furnace is the heart of your home. And just like a heart, a furnace needs regular maintenance too. Without regular check-ups, your furnace can work at a lower efficiency, eat more of your hard-earned income and even cause sickness or death.

  • Property Inspection 2 YEARS AGO

    Great post... I simply loved reading it.Very informative.Thanks for sharing!

  • Charles Buell 2 YEARS AGO

    Reuben, I have been wanting to do this post myself. Thanks for doing it---very well done.

    • Reuben Saltzman 2 YEARS AGO

      Thanks Charles! If you have any info to add, feel free.