Is your furnace ready for the winter?

With the summer that wasn’t behind us, perhaps the only thing we have to look forward to are the glorious fall colours – soon to be followed by the grey drab of winter, which means heating season is fast approaching.

It’s another one of those undocumented but ubiquitous Canadian rituals: check the furnace, change the filter and fire ‘er up to make sure everything works because when that first chill hits you don’t want to be shivering under a blanket and hoping the service van will show up soon.

It’s also that time of year when we should be assessing all the components that go into our heating systems – and that goes way beyond the furnace. Even if you could install a 100 per cent efficient furnace, if your home is a sieve with gale force drafts, it’s not going to heat up enough to make you and your family feel comfortable.

As John Mel, president of JCJ Mechanical Inc. Heating & Cooling, which serves, Toronto, Brampton, Mississauga, Scarborough and the GTA points out, making sure you’ve done everything to seal your home – called the building envelope – and installing energy-efficient windows and doors, along with high “R” value insulation, is the only way to minimize your energy consumption and minimize your heat loss. It’ll also help keep your house cool in summer, if we ever get another hot summer, that is.

“The energy audit program is an excellent way to see how airtight your home is,” he says of the $300 test which triggers a $150 Ontario rebate and can also generate up to $10,000 in provincial and federal rebates if you subsequently upgrade your home’s energy efficiency by installing high efficiency windows, doors, insulation or furnace.

With that in mind, however, the first thing top of mind for most homeowners is assessing their heating system this fall and deciding if it’s time to replace the furnace or heating system.

For the most part, homes in Toronto are heated with forced air gas, though there are a few oil furnaces around and quite a few hot water radiator systems, which are also generally run on gas. Other heating options include radiant floor heating in which hot water is run through tubes below ceramic floors but those options are usually an adjunct to a primary forced air or hot water heating system. There’s even a hybrid system, which heats water in a tankless gas-fired system and then runs the water in a loop through a heat exchanger while a fan forces air over it and into the ductwork.

For any furnaces there are a few simple things to keep in mind, says John.

“The life cycle of a furnace is between 15 and 25 years,” says John, noting at some point it’s more cost-efficient to replace your furnace with a new, high efficiency unit than to maintain the old one.

If you’re at all concerned about the age of your furnace, have it checked sooner-than-later by an HVAC company. They usually offer packages or include the pre-season check as part of an annual service contract. Be warned though, that if the inspection uncovers a cracked heat exchanger or other problem, your furnace will be “red tagged” as unsafe and you won’t be able to use it until it’s replaced.

If your furnace is at the end of its life cycle, making a decision on what kind of furnace to buy will actually get easier after Jan. 1, 2010. That’s because mid-efficiency gas furnaces will no longer be certified for use in Canada. There will obviously be some old stock available but once that is sold, all furnaces retailed must be high-efficiency rated at 90 per cent AFUE (Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency) rating or higher.

It’s both good news and bad news, points out John.The new standards are much more efficient and installation is simple with a two-inch vent through the side wall instead of a vertical flue, although that could be a problem for some.

“In many older homes there’s no way to vent through the side because of clearances,” he says. “It’s the same with some townhouses and condos.”

While single family, detached homes have a simple venting option, other homes will have to use some creative thinking to get around the venting issues, since running up the existing flue can be done, but will require more work.

The good news is that the new furnaces are much smaller and take up less space in the basement. There’s also the option to rent your furnace (and tankless water heater and air conditioning system) if money is tight, through companies like JCJ Mechanical Inc.

The high-efficiency furnaces also come with a much more complex technology, notes Nepom, such as two speed DC motors (which use less power), variable heat exchangers and computerized circuit boards which interact with “smart” thermostats to determine what kind of heating boost is needed depending on the temperature and time of day. An early morning start-up, for example, would quickly bring the household up to temperature as everyone gets out of bed and ready for work, while a late evening top up needs only a gentle burn.

The trick in choosing a new furnace is to size it correctly, says Fugler. Too big, as measured by the heat output in British Thermal Units (BTUs), and your furnace will never reach optimum temperature, so slightly small is better.

“Most installers tend to oversize the furnace because that way they’ll never get a call back on those coldest days of the year,” he says. “But on those coldest days in Toronto when it’s minus 22, your furnace should be running 45 minutes out of each hour.”

Again, he says, the Ontario Energy Audit, will also help calculate a heat-loss model of your home to establish the right size furnace.

If you’re good to go, fire it up before that first cold day since many homeowners will wait until the last minute to turn their furnaces on, only to discover it won’t light and HVAC companies will be snowed under with “no heat” calls.

Visit www.jcjmechanicalinc.com for more information

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