Here's Your Complete Guide to Prepare Your HVAC System for the Cold Kentucky Winters

hvac winter preparation

With winter quickly approaching, furnaces, heat pumps, and boilers will soon be running throughout the day to keep homes throughout Louisville, KY warm, safe, and comfortable. However, before the coldest days arrive, many wonder if their system is up to the task. You’ll want to know, “What can I do to prepare my HVAC unit for winter,” so you can avoid emergency heating problems.

Doing what you can to prepare your system also improves efficiency, cutting your monthly utility costs. Make sure your furnace is ready to run by taking the appropriate steps to test, fix, and maintain your HVAC system. By taking the right steps, you won’t have to ask yourself “Who should I call for this heating system breakdown?”

However, anytime you do run into trouble with your furnace, the team at Jarboe’s Plumbing, Heating & Cooling is available to help. Use this guide to prepare your system for the worst, and remember, you can always give Jarboe’s a call if you need heating maintenance, repairs, or a full system replacement.

1. Schedule A Heater Tune Up

Like any other home appliance, your HVAC equipment requires maintenance to run its best. Routine heating system tune ups are perfect for the fall, but if you missed this window, don’t worry—there is still time before the coldest months of winter. Furnaces and boilers should be serviced once a year, and heat pumps should be checked twice a year, once in the fall before the heating season, and once in the spring before air conditioning season. Here are a few benefits of HVAC tune ups.

  • Boost efficiency. Professional tune ups give professionals the chance to inspect the components of your system and repair or replace damaged components. During a routine heating season, furnaces experience wear and tear that can cause minor performance and efficiency problems. Without routine maintenance, your system’s efficiency can decline below the AFUE listed on the device’s EnergyGuide label, which can increase your energy bills.
  • Spot malfunctioning parts. During tune ups, HVAC professionals test individual components within your furnace or heat pump to spot malfunctioning parts. This careful inspection helps experts to detect and correct your heating system troubles, before the problems lead to a premature breakdown that could leave you without heating. Proactive repairs also save homeowners money, since replacing a few small components is much less expensive than resolving extensive, complex breakdowns. Fixing your furnace proactively is also less stressful than dealing with an emergency heating outage and repair or replacement.
  • Extend the life of your furnace. Scheduling routine system tune ups also helps you to extend the life of your furnace. Because tune ups counteract wear and tear, you can enjoy many more years’ worth of service from your furnace by scheduling simple annual tune ups.

2. Replace HVAC Filters

The air filters inside your HVAC system trap dirt, dust, fine hairs, and other debris that can damage delicate internal parts, reduce efficiency, and impact your indoor air quality. Air filters should be replaced regularly, depending on the type of air filter you select and your home.

Depending on your household, you may need to change your HVAC filter as often as once every 30 days to as infrequently as once a year. Households with many occupants, pets, or homeowners who like to do a lot of cooking indoors could need more frequent filter replacements, while smaller households or infrequently used spaces, such as vacation homes, may need fewer filter replacements. Determine how often your filter needs by checking the labeling on the package, or ask someone on our team what they would recommend for your household.

If you haven’t replaced your furnace filter recently, boost your HVAC efficiency by replacing it now, and then replacing it as soon as it appears dirty. Furnace filters tend to get more use during the winter months, since windows are closed and air recirculates dozens of times a day. Keep extra filters on hand so you always have one ready to go.

While many people are concerned about the waste involved with replacing furnace filters early, the energy you will save by using a clean filter is well worth the update. When filters are dirty or clogged, your furnace has to expend more energy to push air through your home, increasing your utility bills and potentially causing problems like furnace short cycling or overheating. When your furnace overheats, it could cause significant damage to your system, such as a cracked heat exchanger—which can also cause CO2 to leak into your home. Air filter replacement is a fast, easy way to protect your furnace and your family.

3. Prepare Your Humidifier

The air inside your home should have some moisture to keep your space comfortable. An arid space can make your skin dry and increase static, which is why many Louisville, KY residents turn to whole home humidifiers to replenish moisture during the winter. Since cold air can’t carry as much humidity as warm air, humidifiers can keep your home interior at the ideal 30% to 50% humidity levels during winter. Here are a few ways to prepare your humidifier for the cold months.

  • Change your water panel. Your humidifier water panel should be changed at least twice a season. Switch out your water panel to ensure maximum efficiency during the winter.
  • Clean your water reservoir. Remove your humidifier’s water reservoir and clean it thoroughly to remove hard water scale and microbes. Use a few drops of dish soap and hot water to clean the entire interior and exterior of the reservoir, and allow it to dry before refilling and replacing it.
  • Wipe down the housing. Wipe down the exterior housing of your humidifier along with the intake vents that lead to your humidifier’s fan. Keep in mind that only fan-powered and steam humidifiers have these vents.
  • Inspect the drain line. Check your humidifier’s drain line to ensure there are no leaks that could hamper humidifier function.
  • Turn on your system. Make sure your humidifier is turned on. Since humidifiers are shut down in the spring, you will need to manually switch your system on in the fall.

When your humidifier starts running, use an indoor hygrometer to ensure that the setting on your device matches the relative humidity of your home. If the humidifier malfunctions, it could be releasing too much or too little moisture, which could cause problems like mold growth, water damage, window condensation (too much moisture), or dry skin, cracked leather furniture, and excess dust (too little moisture).

4. Tidy Up Your Furnace

While professional maintenance is required to clean out the interior chambers of your furnace and air handler, there are some things you can do to keep your furnace clean, clear of debris, and operational. Here are a few areas to clean up before your system runs this winter:

  • Wipe down cabinet. Using a clean, damp washcloth, wipe down the furnace cabinet to remove dust and dirt particles. Removing this grime helps to keep these particles from being sucked into the furnace air supply when the system runs.
  • Clean utility closet. Never store items near your furnace, as objects can block airflow. Mind the clearance requirements outlined in your furnace manual, and if in doubt, remember that there should be at least 6 feet of clearance around your furnace. Don’t lean items against your furnace cabinet.
  • Secure panels. Some HVAC systems will not operate if panels are not firmly attached to the furnace or air handler. Check your entire system for loose panels so your system turns on properly.

5. Check Your Thermostat Programming

Before you start heating your home this winter, check the programmed temperature settings on your thermostat. Temperature preferences for your family can vary from season to season, and schedules can change during different times of the year. Additionally, adjusting for daylight savings time is important. Here are a few tips for checking your thermostat programming.

  • Choose temperature setpoints. During the winter, try to choose comfortable, energy efficient setpoints for times when your family members will be home. 68 degrees is recommended to maximize comfort without using more energy than you need.
  • Lower thermostat when people are away. When you know people in your household won’t be home, lower the thermostat 10 to 15 degrees to save energy. When temperatures are set back 10 or more degrees 8 hours a day, you can save as much as 10% on your heating bill. Heating less frequently reduces strain on your system, which extends its lifespan.
  • Use the “AUTO” fan setting. When selecting a fan setting, use “AUTO.” This setting triggers the blower to run only during heating cycles, which saves energy. “AUTO” also keeps cold air from circulating through your home when the furnace isn’t running.

6. Winterize Outdoor Equipment

Heat pumps and air conditioners rely on an outdoor component to transfer heat. Prepare your heating system for winter by taking care of these units in the fall, and enjoy more efficient heating all winter long.

  • Clean exterior. Clean any grass clippings, leaves, or other debris off of outdoor units. If material is stuck within the fins of your air conditioner, use a gentle hand broom to sweep away the grime.
  • Remove weeds. Remove any weeds or vegetation growing around your heat pump or air conditioner.
  • Don’t store items near outdoor components. Never store items like firewood, children’s toys, or pool equipment near your outdoor HVAC equipment. Maintain at least two feet of clearance around all sides of the equipment.
  • Trim trees and bushes. Keep trees, bushes, and flowerbeds near HVAC equipment well trimmed. Remove dead trees or branches that could fall onto equipment during a storm.
  • Clean gutters. Clean any gutters positioned overhead equipment to prevent water blockages and overflow. Preventing drips also reduces the risk of rust development and keeps your heat pump from icing over.
  • Turn off your AC unit. Avoid accidental air conditioning use during the winter by turning the system off by using the outdoor braker. Air conditioners have a primary system braker near the unit, typically mounted to your house. Flip the switch off during winter and turn it back on before you run your system in the spring.
  • Skip the cover. You can purchase air conditioner covers, but they are not necessary. Outdoor units are designed to withstand the elements. While you may want to place a piece of plywood on top of your air conditioner to protect it from falling branches during a storm, don’t leave the wood in place permanently, as it could create moisture issues and corrosion inside the unit.

7. Bleed Your Radiator Valves

If you have a boiler heating system that relies on hot water radiators, you should bleed the valves prior to using the unit. By opening the valves at the start of the heating season, you can hear a gurgling noise as air flows from the system. Bleeding the valves removes trapped air, which allows the system to run efficiently. If you skip this step and don’t bleed your valves, your boiler may not heat evenly. The top section of the radiator may not become very warm, while the lower portions may reach the set temperature.

8. Schedule A Chimney Checkup

Before you use your fireplace this winter, have the entire system inspected. The National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 211 standards dictate that fireplaces, chimneys, and corresponding vents should be inspected by a professional annually to check for structural soundness, ensure proper clearances, and to look for potentially combustible creosote deposits.

Likewise, the Chimney Safety Institute of America states that open masonry fireplaces should be swept anytime there is 1/8th of an inch of soot buildup in the system, or earlier if there is glaze in the system. Sweeping eliminates fuel buildup, which can prevent chimney fires that could damage your home. Manufactured fireplaces should be swept professionally when buildup is noticeable, since deposits can be acidic and damage materials.

9. Test CO2 and Smoke Detectors

Your home should have smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors on every level. Keep your home safe by checking these devices at the start of every heating season.

  • Test alarms. Check your smoke and CO2 alarms monthly by pressing the “TEST” button on the face of the unit. The alarm should sound temporarily to indicate that it is operational and receiving power.
  • Replace batteries. Switch out 9-volt alarm backup batteries once every six months. If your alarms begin to chirp, replace batteries immediately.
  • Keep alarms up to date. Smoke detectors should be replaced every 10 years, and carbon monoxide detectors should be replaced every 5 to 7 years. Check the manufacturer’s date stamp on the back of the device during battery changes and testing to replace your units on time.

10. Open and Clean Air Vents

Your HVAC system is designed to create a balanced flow of air throughout your home. However, if vents or filters become dirty or vents are closed or blocked, it could restrict heated airflow, impacting comfort and causing system damage. Before you turn on your heater, make sure all vents are clean and open. Here are a few tips for taking care of this process.

  • Open vent louvers. If you have vent covers that have louvers, they should all be completely open. Never close vent covers in rooms to control the flow of heat. Closing vents can increase air pressure within the ductwork, damaging vent runs, reducing efficiency, and causing the furnace to overheat. If louvers are stuck closed, replace them.
  • Clear supply vents. Air returns and supply vents should be unobstructed. Pull rugs, furniture, carpets, or other stored items away from supply vents to improve airflow.
  • Vacuum and wipe down everything. While checking your air vents, vacuum vents and wipe down the exteriors. Vacuum out the interior of the vent, since crumbs can accumulate in the openings, especially if vents are situated on the floor.

11. Inspect Vent Runs

Simple leaks in ductwork have been shown to account for as much as 30 percent worth heat loss in American homes. By taking the time to check for disconnections, damage, gaps, and even collapsed lines, you can improve efficiency.

In areas where ductwork is visible, like attics, basements, or crawlspaces, use a flashlight to inspect ducts while the heat is running. Dust may accumulate around the leak, so look for any grime. If you spot a leak, seal it with aluminum HVAC tape. Professional duct sealing may be required if the lines are very leaky and visibly damaged.

Repairing duct leaks is crucial, since a sealed line allows heated air to be successfully delivered to the rooms of your home. Leaks can also cause problems, since they allow cold air from unheated voids to be sucked into your lines and moved to rooms, lowering your indoor temperature. If this occurs, you may even turn up the temperature on your thermostat, wasting energy. Schedule a duct inspection and sealing anytime you suspect significant problems.

12. Test Your Furnace Before the Coldest Months

When the temperature outside plummets, many HVAC contractors see plenty of new calls from panicked homeowners who realize their furnace isn’t operating properly. Unfortunately, this influx of business causes longer wait times for clients waiting for service, which can cause uncomfortable delays in home heating. To avoid being one of those frantic callers, test your furnace early on in the year.

Turn on your furnace early on in the fall and check to see if your system responds accurately to the temperature setting on your thermostat. Pay attention to any new sounds or smells your system may make and take note of new issues so you can report them to your HVAC team.

If your system seems to be operating properly, don’t take it as a sign everything is well. Turn your system on at least three times before the coldest parts of the year when you will need your system throughout the day and night. Here are a few tips for checking your system for damage or efficiency problems before the coldest parts of the year:

  • Try on different days. Run your system on different days to test the system’s ability to turn on, run, and turn off properly.
  • Set the system to a good average setting. Don’t set your furnace to a temperature you wouldn’t normally use. Instead, set the thermostat to the temperature you normally use during the winter.
  • Let your system run for a while. Don’t turn your furnace off prematurely. Instead, let it run for some time so you can listen to your unit start, cycle, and when it should.
  • Contact a professional at the first sign of trouble. If your system fails to start, doesn’t maintain temperatures accurately, or seems to be struggling, contact us as soon as possible.

13. Listen for Your Furnace’s Normal Sounds

On the days you test your furnace, clear your schedule so you can listen to your heating system run. Learning the sounds that are normal for your furnace can prevent undue stress and anxiety during the winter. If you spot new, strange sounds, it could be a sign of problems and the need for professional repairs. Listen for these normal noises when your heat pump or conventional furnace turns on, runs, and shuts down.

  • As a furnace or heat pump starts, you may hear a clicking noise within the thermostat and the furnace itself. The clicking noise in the thermostat is the contactors connecting the wires to relay the signal for your furnace to start, and the click inside your furnace is the ignitor starting the burners. While a few subtle clicks are normal, ongoing clicking could mean your ignitor isn’t able to successfully ignite the burners, which could leave you without heat. If you hear repeated clicking but your blower doesn’t turn on, it could stem from dirty, rusted, or worn bearings.
  • Muffled hum. As your furnace operates, you may hear a muffled hum as air is warmed and moved through your home. If you hear any loud, irregular noises like screeching, scraping, rattling, grinding, buzzing, or rumbling, your heating cycle may not be unfolding normally. These sounds may indicate the need for urgent repairs or a full system replacement.
  • Pinging or knocking. At the end of a heating cycle, you may notice some slight pinging or knocking noises as the system cools down and metal panels contract from the sudden cessation of heat. However, ongoing pinging, knocking, or banging noises could be caused by closed or blocked vents, dirty filters, or issues with your ignition. For instance, if your burners are dirty, too much gas could build up before ignition, creating a loud bang when your system does light. If you notice these noises, turn off your furnace and schedule repairs before turning your system back on.

14. Be Proactive About Repairs and Replacement

Whether you have noticed a new issue with your furnace or your annual tune up uncovers problems, never put off repairs. While your system may still be operational, putting off repairs could cost you, since efficiency problems could increase your monthly energy bill, or result in more complex problems.

When asking yourself “What could I do to prepare my heating and cooling system for winter,” remember that being proactive is always the right call. Address any system issues early to prevent heating outages, resulting discomfort, and added emergency expenses. Scheduling repairs or replacement early on in the season is easier, since many homeowners wait until heating outages to reach out for help. Additionally, you won’t have to worry about your family being stranded without heating, which is crucial if you have babies, small children, or the elderly in your household.

Keep in mind that the average lifespan of a conventional furnace is 15 to 25 years, while a heat pump typically lasts 10 to 15 years. If your system is approaching the end of it’s usable lifespan, think about replacing your system before the season starts instead of worrying about repairs. New systems are more efficient and less expensive to run.

15. Check Your Motor Belt

Your heating system relies on a blower motor and fan to circulate heated air throughout your home. The motor is attached to the fan by a belt, which unfortunately can fray, loosen, crack, or even break over time. If this occurs, your system won’t be able to run or heat your home. While this belt is typically checked during your annual furnace tune up, it’s still smart to check it before winter to see if it needs to be replaced.

  • Look for physical damage. After turning off the power to your furnace, check your motor belt for cracks, fraying sides, or any other signs of wear and tear. If you spot damage, the belt might need to be replaced.
  • Check tension. Motor belts need to maintain proper tension to operate properly. There should never be more than ½ an inch of give in any direction. Your belt can be tightened by adjusting the motor adjusting bolt.
  • Inspect pulley wheel alignment. Pulley wheels inside your system should be aligned to keep the belt from twisting. If the belt appears twisted, loosen the pulley bolts, adjust the belt, and then retighten them.

16. Inspect Condensate Drainage System

Condensing furnaces are made with condensate drainage pans and hoses that move excess water out of the system and outdoors. However, if these systems are damaged or clogged, efficiency problems, water damage, or frozen lines may result. Check to see if your high-efficiency condensing furnace seems to be draining moisture properly before the start of the heating season.

Open your furnace access door and look for the drip pan. This condensate pan is connected to the PVC drain line that exits your furnace. Horizontally installed furnaces have a pan that sits below the unit, and vertically installed systems have a condensate pan situated below the heat exchangers. Remove the pan to see if water is present in the reservoir, or if it has been exiting the system appropriately. Also, look for:

  • Drip pan corrosion, cracks, or damage that could cause a leak. Damage may necessitate a condensate pan replacement.
  • Clogs in the drain line. Simple blockages may be cleared easily by removing debris at the start of the line. Deep blockages may require professional help.
  • PVC drain line damage. If the drain running from your furnace is damaged, it should be replaced.
  • Condensate pump malfunctions. Your furnace’s condensate pump will look like a small white box attached to your drainpipe. If water is leaking from your pump or your device isn’t draining water from the condensate pan, this pump may need to be replaced.

Issues with condensate systems can be a problem inside condensing furnaces because they can halt the entire system. These specialized types of furnaces use secondary heat exchangers to capture more energy for heating. As combustion byproducts move from one heat exchanger to the secondary heat exchanger, gasses turn into liquid and create condensation. Standard furnaces don’t create condensation because the gasses aren’t present long enough to turn into a liquid. Instead, they are simply routed out of your home with a flue pipe.

In condensing furnaces, however, any condensation unable to exit the system can trigger a limit switch inside the pan, which can halt your furnace. Excess water can also spill out onto the floor, damaging your furnace and any building materials in your utility closet. Spotting and resolving condensate system problems is essential for protecting your furnace.

17. Check Your Fuel Supply

Many residents throughout Louisville use heating systems fueled by propane (also called LP for liquid propane), since this inexpensive gas is highly efficient and clean burning. Others use home heating oil to warm their homes. However, before you turn your furnace on for the winter, it’s smart to check your fuel reserves. Keep these benchmarks in mind when scheduling fuel delivery:

  • Propane tanks should be refilled once they reach 20 percent capacity.
  • Heating oil tanks should be refilled when they reach the 2/5 mark on the tank gauge.

Different types of fuel burn at different rates. For instance, propane furnaces use about a gallon of fuel per hour of heating. On the other hand, homes that rely on oil furnaces consume about 2 to 5 gallons of oil per day, which can vary based on the weather.

While many people choose to keep a close eye on their fuel reserves, you can also take advantage of remote tank monitoring devices. These connected devices use wireless internet to alert homeowners of fuel levels, maintaining a constant reading of how much fuel you have in the tank. Some systems can even be programmed to notify you when it’s time to order fuel delivery, since fuel shortages could interrupt your home heating or damage your system.

Propane furnaces need to be inspected for leaks before they are refilled. This mandate, set forth by the National Fuel Gas Code, is designed to prevent rust and other internal damage that could result in leaks and explosions. If you run out of propane, water can form inside the tank, creating rust and corrosion. Unfortunately, rust can interfere with the scent of the rotten egg smell added to propane to help homeowners to detect leaks, which is why professional inspection is important. Additionally, after propane tanks are refilled, professionals need to light the furnace’s pilot light.

Running out of heating oil won’t harm your furnace, but it will hamper your ability to heat your home. Low heating oil volume can create condensation inside the tank’s interior walls, creating corrosive rust and bacterial growth. These particulates can clog oil lines and hurt efficiency. To prevent this issue, professionals bleed the fuel lines to eliminate air and moisture, and oil filters should be replaced or cleaned to get rid of sludge.

18. Consider Zoned Heating

It can be hard to keep all of the rooms in your home warm and comfortable, especially if you have a larger home with multiple levels. Since warm air rises and cool air sinks, split level homes are especially prone to stark temperature changes from room to room.

Installing zoned heating is particularly helpful for homeowners with this problem since these intuitive systems can adjust based on the temperatures in individual spaces. Zoned heating is designed to divide your home into different climate zones, which typically consist of rooms on the same level or into areas that are used the same way. By adding supplemental temperature sensors, ductless heating systems, dampers, and thermostats, each zone can be controlled efficiently through a single zoning panel.

19. Boost Insulation Levels

Like a blanket, your home’s insulation allows any heat generated inside your home to stay indoors, where it can keep your family comfortable. Great insulation reduces the workload of your furnace and lowers your energy bill, since the device won’t have to run as frequently to keep your home warm.

Consider increasing insulation levels anywhere you can, with a focus on exterior walls, attics, basements, crawlspaces, and flooring. There are multiple varieties of insulation available, including fiberglass bats that homeowners can unfurl and lay in place, blown-in insulation that can be professionally added, or spray foam insulation that can be piped into place or injected into walls to bolster levels. Insulation can also be added around ducts, so heat doesn’t leach through the metal walls of the vents and into areas where it can’t be used, such as wall voids.

If you aren’t sure where to start adding insulation, ask an HVAC professional to check your home. By measuring the depth of the insulation where it is visible, technicians can give you a good idea of what you need and how to insulate your home in the most effective manner.

20. Adjust Ceiling Fan Direction

Ceiling fans aren’t just for the summertime, and you can use them to save money during the winter. Turn off your ceiling fan, and when the blades have stopped, look for a switch on your fan’s motor. There should be a switch that says either “summer/winter” or “counter-clockwise/clockwise.” During the wintertime, set your fan to run clockwise, which creates an updraft that pushes risen, warm air back down towards you. To save energy, always turn off fans when you leave a room.

Prepare Your Furnace for Winter with Help from Jarboe’s

Here at Jarboe’s Plumbing, Heating & Cooling, we are committed to helping homeowners throughout Louisville, Kentucky to get their furnaces, heat pumps, and boilers in top shape before the coldest months of the year. If you have found yourself asking “How can I prepare my furnace for the cold,” don’t hesitate to give them a call. With a team of NATE-certified professionals who are committed to excellent customer service, you can improve efficiency and prevent problems. Give us a call today to schedule the service you need!

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