HVAC inspections: Invest in an ounce of prevention this fall

At last there is a chill in the air. Summer is over and fall is here! Now is the ideal time to schedule...

At last there is a chill in the air. Summer is over and fall is here! Now is the ideal time to schedule your HVAC inspection, before the cold of winter has set in. It's easy to ignore your HVAC system until something breaks, but experts recommend at least an annual inspection, and ideally one in fall and another in spring to keep your heater and air conditioner in tip-top shape.

My heater worked fine last winter. Do I really need to get it inspected?

In a word, yes. Heating and cooling your home is the single largest energy expense, accounting for 40 to 50 percent of your overall home energy usage. Regular inspection and maintenance will significantly prolong the life of your HVAC system as well as decreasing your day-to-day operating expenses by keeping your system running as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

But energy efficiency and reduced expenses aren't the only, or even the most important, reasons to get your HVAC system inspected this fall. Dirty and unsafe units have been linked to a host of health and safety hazards. Safety switches and electrical connections and components can deteriorate over time without any noticeable change in your HVAC system's performance. Gas and carbon monoxide leaks can also be hard to detect but pose serious health and safety hazards.

And if mechanical safety hazards don't motivate you to call a HVAC inspector, there are also health issues that can be brought on as a result of inferior air quality. Health hazards can range in severity from headaches and aggravated allergies to contraction of diseases such as Legionnaire's disease or sick building syndrome.

So what are my options?

Services that are commonly offered by HVAC specialists include inspections, maintenance and cleaning.

Inspections: These are a must. The purpose of the inspection is to assess the cleanliness and structural integrity of your HVAC system. Many companies offer specials this time of year on visual furnace inspections, and if you do nothing else to care for and maintain your HVAC system this fall, you should at least take advantage of one of these special offers.

Inspections may also include testing of electrical connections and monitoring for leaks. And as indoor air pollution is resulting in more and more medical expenses and litigations each year, many companies are offering services like home health inspections that go beyond a simple HVAC inspection to assess your home's overall air quality.

Maintenance: Maintaining your unit is important as well, and many companies offer inexpensive annual plans. Regular maintenance doesn't guarantee you'll never have to repair your HVAC system, but it does help you avoid problems caused by neglect and unnecessary wear and tear.

Cleaning: The health benefits of cleaning your HVAC system have been debated over the years, but as we are finding out more about the hazards of air contaminants, it seems that there is little to be lost by having clean air ducts. If nothing else, a clean HVAC system doesn't have to work as hard as one that has not been cleaned.

Is there anything I can do myself?

Although you should certainly not forego an annual inspection by a certified professional, there are some things you can do on a routine basis to care for your HVAC system. Needless to say, if you see anything unusual or unexpected, you should call a professional right away.

  • Visually inspect the system parts you can see: surfaces, registers, cooling coil, metal ducts, fiberglass, access doors and covers and air vents. All should be secure and unobstructed.
  • To see if your ducts need cleaning, pull off supply and return registers and look for accumulated dust or debris.
  • Change your filters regularly, and invest in the higher-quality filters to minimize allergens and dust.
  • To maximize your system's efficiency, maintain fairly even humidity and temperatures in your home rather than demanding sudden large changes in temperature. You may think you're saving money by not running your heat when you're not at home, but the wear and tear caused by forcing your furnace to catch up when you do arrive home negates any immediate financial gain.

OK, I'll schedule an inspection. How do I know who's the best?

The National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA), administers four certifications: the Air Systems Cleaning Specialist (ASCS), the Ventilation System Mold Remediator (VSMR), the Certified Ventilation Inspector (CVI), and the Certified Ventilation Consultant (CVC). North American Technician Excellence (NATE) certification in a number of HVAC-related areas is also available. Both are respected in the industry, and you should not engage the services of any HVAC company that has not earned at least one of these certifications.

Of course, as with any contractor you hire, customer reviews and referrals will tell you a lot as well, and all the basics that apply to any service professional should apply to your HVAC technician: look for companies with a reputation for honesty, courtesy, punctuality and professionalism.

Getting your HVAC system inspected by a qualified professional is possibly the single most important thing you can do to maximize your home's safety, comfort and efficiency this winter.

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