Facebook tracking pixel
(707) 539-4533 |  Sonoma Napa and Marin Counties

updated 12/12/22


Most of us take home heating for granted. You probably don’t spare much thought for what your furnace is doing until it starts making odd noises or until your energy bill starts to increase rapidly for no good reason. Understanding your heating system, is essential for keeping it in good working condition. Here are nine facts you should know about home heating systems like yours.


  • Your heating system accounts for the majority of your energy usage

Home Heating Temperature control is by far the biggest energy/utility expenditure for most people. According to the Department of Energy, heating and cooling account for more than half of the energy used by the average home in the United States. Compared to other energy users in your home—such as your lights, refrigerator, water heater, or washer and dryer—your heating system costs more to run and eats up more energy. It is partially for this reason that maintaining your furnace and making sure it can run as efficiently as possible is so important. A poorly maintained heating system will account for an even higher percentage of the home’s total energy usage.


  • Most furnaces will last for 15-20 years

In terms of the appliances in your home, your furnace should have a fairly decent lifespan. Most furnaces last for 15-20 years. Air conditioning units, by comparison, typically top out at 10-15 years, while kitchen appliances like your dishwasher and microwave would be lucky to reach the decade mark. Of course, preventative maintenance can keep your furnace alive for longer, and perhaps even help it exceed that 20-year mark.


  • Setting your thermostat higher won’t heat the house any faster

One of the biggest myths about home heating is that cranking up the heat on your thermostat will heat a cold house faster. For instance, if you come home from a trip and the house is 65 degrees, you might goose the thermostat to 77 with homes that it will get you to the desired temperature of 70-72 degrees faster. In actuality, your home will heat at the same speed no matter what temperature you set. Setting a higher thermostat temperature will just increase the likelihood of you forgetting to adjust it back to your preferred temperature. Many homeowners end up wasting energy (and ending up with a house hotter than they want) by attempting this misguided practice.


  • All furnaces consist of three main components

All furnaces consist of three main components: the burner or heating element, the heat exchanger, and the blower. The burner (in a gas furnace) or the heating element (in an electric furnace) is responsible for generating the heat. The burner or heating element heats up the heat exchanger, a series of coils or tubes that then transfers the heat to air. The exchanger is also responsible for keeping gas and breathable air separate from one another. The blower, finally, propels air through the heat exchanger and out into your home’s ductwork.  


  • Furnaces are the most popular method of home heating, but not the only way

Most homes in the United States are heated with furnaces, whether gas or electric. However, there are other options for heating. Boilers, for instance, heat homes by heating water and then sending it through radiators, heat registers, and other installations throughout the home. This technique heats the house through radiant heat, versus the forced air technique of furnace heating. Also common are heat pumps, wood burning stoves and fireplaces, and gas or electric space heaters.


  • Lots of factors can affect your furnace’s performance and efficiency

So many different factors can impact your furnace’s performance and efficiency. Maintenance history and frequency is a huge factor, as a professional tune-up can identify and fix issues that might degrade performance. Other factors include the condition/cleanliness of your air filter, how well insulated the house (and especially the duct work) is, the condition of the ducts themselves, and how dusty the house is in general. Dust and dirt can clog your filters, dirty up your duct work, and make it difficult for the furnace to do its job, thereby reducing its efficiency.


  • Electric furnaces are an attractive alternative to gas furnaces in some places

The majority of homes that are heated with furnaces in the United States use natural gas. However, there are also electric furnaces, which can be an attractive alternative in some parts of the country. Heating a house with electricity costs more than with natural gas, but the upfront cost of an electric furnace is lower and the lifespan is longer (usually 20-30 years). Gas units do heat the house more quickly and effectively than electric, which makes them better in places with grueling winters. In milder climates, though, electric furnaces are often sufficient. For homes in rural areas, where there isn’t infrastructure for a natural gas connection, electric furnaces are also much easier to implement.


  • Three-quarters of all no-heat calls in the winter are due to deferred maintenance

Experts say that as many as three-quarters of all no-heat calls in the winter can be traced back to deferred furnace maintenance. As this statistic proves, not taking care of your furnace can absolutely result in it failing when you need it most.


  • Furnace inspections will often pay for themselves

Investing in regular furnace inspection and servicing might seem like a hassle, but it will pay for itself in the long run. From boosting the efficiency of your home heating unit (and lowering your energy bill) to saving you from having to call for an emergency repair or replacement service in the dead of winter, routine inspections are worth your time and money.

Dust Mites in your HVAC Ducts


9 More Home Heating Facts You Should Keep in Mind


Most of us tend not to think all that much about our home heating systems. It’s a lot easier to just set the thermostat and go about your day without giving it a second thought. However, understanding your heating system is an important part of being a responsible homeowner. If you know how your system works, you’ll be able to maintain it properly, increase energy efficiency, and recognize when something is going wrong inside the unit itself. It does take a little bit of effort to keep a heating system in good working order, but you’ll be glad you did.


The most important part of keeping your furnace running for years to come is sticking with a consistent maintenance schedule. Preventative maintenance is always better than repairs, both for your furnace and for your pocketbook. HVAC technicians are experts who will inspect every part of your heating system to make sure it’s all working as smoothly as it should. That being said, even experts need help sometimes, and understanding your system well will help you out when you’re making a call or can even make the service appointment go by faster and smoother.


With that in mind, here are a few pieces of information that any homeowner should know if they have a home heating system:


Basics of Furnace Operation


It’s a good idea to have a basic sense of how a furnace works so you can try to identify where any problems are located. You don’t have to be an expert, but doing a little troubleshooting on your own can make the technician’s job a lot easier when they come out to fix the problem. That in turn will save you a little money on labor.


In a broad sense, all furnaces are split up into three parts: the heating element, the heat exchanger, and the blower. The heating element is the most important as well as the most complicated. This is where all the heat is actually generated. Different types of furnaces burn different types of fuel, the most common being natural gas. As the fuel burns, heat is generated by the combustion process and rises to the next stage.


The heat produced in the burner or heating element passes through the heat exchanger as it rises, warming the exchanger. The heat exchanger is generally a series of tubes or coils that hold the heat from the burner. The exchanger is also responsible for keeping the gas in the burner from escaping into the breathable air, making it an important safety piece.  Finally, the blower fan blows air across the exchanger, transferring the heat from the coils into the air itself. The hot air is then distributed throughout the house in the ductwork, warming the rooms.


It’s not part of the furnace itself, but the thermostat is the last piece of a heating system and one of the most important. Thermostats have temperature sensors that they use to constantly measure how warm the air in your house is. When the air gets a little too cold, the thermostat sends a signal to the furnace, switching it on. Then, once the air has been warmed back up, it sends another signal and shuts the furnace off.


Of course, there’s plenty more to it than just that. However, this little primer should help you identify potential problems inside the furnace. For example, if the house is cold and you don’t hear the sound of the fan whirring, you know the blower is probably the issue, especially if the burner is still running.


Running the Heat Can Be Expensive


For most people, heating and cooling make up by far the biggest percentage of their monthly energy bills. In fact, HVAC systems account for over half of the energy used by the average American household. That means that if you want to save money on your power bills, you should start by taking a look at your heating and cooling systems.


When you buy an HVAC system, it’s a good idea to take a look at the SEER rating of the unit. SEER measures the energy efficiency of air conditioners, furnaces, and other HVAC units. The higher the number, the more efficient the unit is. You also might see furnaces labeled with an AFUE rating, which is slightly different. SEER refers to how much electricity the unit uses, while AFUE refers to how efficiently the furnace burns fuel, generally natural gas. As a general rule, you want to find an air conditioner that has a SEER of 16 or above if possible, and a furnace with an AFUE of at least 85 or 90%.


Once you’ve purchased the system, the best way to make sure it runs efficiently is to have it serviced regularly. We recommend maintenance appointments at least once a year for furnaces and other heating equipment, ideally in the early fall just before the weather starts getting cold. If you have a central air system, you’ll also want to make sure your vents are cleaned regularly to stop debris from blocking the airflow. The same goes for air filters, which should generally be replaced or cleaned once a month or so.


You can also have the ducts themselves cleaned. Because duct cleaning is fairly complicated, we don’t recommend trying to handle it yourself. Instead, get in touch with an HVAC professional. You should have your ducts cleaned every few years, depending on the size of the house and the surrounding climate.


HVAC Equipment Has a Long Lifespan


Buying and installing a new furnace or heat pump is pretty expensive, so you’ll be glad to hear that you won’t have to do it again for quite some time. HVAC units are actually some of the longest-lasting appliances in the average home, matched only by high-quality gas stoves. An air conditioner typically lasts between 10 and 15 years, and furnaces can survive for 20 years or more if you take good care of them. That means you should really only need to replace your furnace a handful of times in your life, which is a relief to anyone who would rather spend their money on other things.


Of course, in order to keep your furnace running for that long, you have to take good care of it. Yearly maintenance appointments are a great start, but you also have to pay close attention to the furnace while it’s running. Catching small problems before they become big ones is one of the most important things you can do to increase the lifespan of your furnace, and that starts with learning the signs of potential issues. Take note of any strange smells or sounds coming from the furnace while it’s running. An unfamiliar sound is the most common symptom of a problem inside the unit, and the longer you let it keep running, the worse the issue will be. If you hear something strange inside the furnace, you should contact an HVAC technician as soon as possible.


When furnaces and other HVAC units experience problems, the efficiency of the system is reduced. That forces the unit to work harder to make up for the loss in efficiency, drawing more electricity in the process. If you notice a sudden spike in your electricity consumption, the furnace could be the culprit. Not only will this cost you more money in electricity, but it also causes more wear and tear on the parts inside the unit as they’re forced to run for longer.


How You Set the Thermostat is Important


The thermostat is one of the most important parts of any HVAC system. It essentially acts as the “brain” of the system, constantly checking the temperature and deciding when the furnace should turn on and off. The way you set your thermostat will have a huge effect on how the rest of the heating system runs, so you should make sure to be smart about it.


First things first – make sure you’re finding the temperature that’s perfect for you. The US Department of Energy recommends setting your thermostat to 68 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter, but you should feel free to experiment until you find the right number. If you don’t mind the cold, setting it a few degrees lower will save you money every month.


It’s also a good idea to turn the thermostat down when you’re asleep or away from home. Lowering the temperature by 7-10 degrees for eight hours a day can immediately cut your yearly energy use by 10 percent. If you have a smart thermostat, you can create a schedule that automatically lowers the temperature at night and raises it again in the morning so it’s nice and warm when you wake up.


Speaking of raising the temperature, it’s a common myth that you can warm up the house faster by setting the thermostat extra high for a little bit. However, the thermostat only tells the furnace how long it should stay on, not how much fuel it should burn. The temperature will always rise at the same speed no matter where the thermostat is set, so turning it up temporarily is a waste of time and could lead to high power bills if you forget to turn it back down again.


There Are Alternatives to Furnaces


While natural gas furnaces are still the most popular way to heat your home, there are plenty of alternatives out there that might work even better for you. In recent years, many homeowners have been embracing heat pumps as a replacement for both a furnace and an air conditioner. Heat pumps are very similar to AC units in their design – both have refrigerant flowing back and forth between two coils. In an air conditioner, heat is transferred away from the evaporator coil and vented out as exhaust, turning the evaporator into a cold version of the heat exchanger in your furnace. Heat pumps, however, can reverse the flow of refrigerant, causing the coil to heat up instead of cool down. That means you can use them to cool the air in the summer and warm it in the winter.


Pellet stoves are also fairly popular, especially in rural areas without access to natural gas infrastructure. Pellet stoves are similar to the old wood-burning stoves used prior to the 20th century, but with a few modern upgrades. They burn inexpensive pellets made from recycled wood waste and feature their own built-in thermostats so you don’t have to sit there and feed the burner by hand. A pellet stove is ideal for a smaller house or apartment that doesn’t have ducts and will also save you a ton of money on electric bills every month.


If you’re looking for something a little more high-tech, radiant flooring is one of the most effective and energy-efficient ways to heat your house. This method uses heating elements embedded underneath floor panels that radiate heat into the room. As the heat rises from the floor, it creates a convection cycle, heating the room more efficiently than vents in the ceiling would.


Little Things Can Affect Efficiency and Performance


One of the reasons why yearly tune-ups are so important is that very small things can end up having a serious effect on the performance of your furnace. Anything that causes a reduction in efficiency can spiral into a larger problem if you don’t catch it early. Since some of these causes can be hard to notice, a professional inspection is the only way to make sure nothing is going wrong.


Airflow issues are the most common causes of wear and tear on any HVAC units, furnaces included. Any unit with a blower fan will also include an air filter somewhere to make sure that dust and other contaminants are being filtered out of your air supply. However, if you don’t clean or replace the filter regularly, the built-up debris can start to block the airflow through the system. As airflow is reduced, the unit is forced to stay on for longer to make up for the reduction in heating capacity, causing more wear and tear on the parts inside. That wear and tear just reduces the efficiency further, creating a self-perpetuating cycle that can only be stopped with repairs after a certain point.


You can think of it as being similar to car maintenance. Your car could be running just fine, but once the check engine light turns on, you should get it to a mechanic as soon as possible before the performance of the vehicle is affected. Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to constantly be calling a technician out to your house – furnaces are pretty hardy machines and they last for a long time. It just means you should pay attention and be ready to get help if you notice anything strange. Even if it’s not much of a problem, it’s better to be safe than sorry.


You Don’t Have to Burn Gas


While most furnaces in North America run on natural gas, there are other alternatives out there if gas doesn’t suit your needs. For many people, electric furnaces are an attractive substitute. Electric furnaces are cheaper to purchase and install than gas ones, and they can last for up to 30 years before you have to replace them. However, there are some major downsides as well. Electric furnaces will cost a lot of money to run every winter, and they’re less effective than gas furnaces. It can take a while to heat up your house with an electric furnace, which is a problem for some people in colder areas. However, electric furnaces are fairly popular in rural areas without access to natural gas infrastructure.


Another popular alternative fuel is heating oil. Until the last century, heating oil was the fuel of choice for furnaces all over the world, and it remains as effective as ever. In fact, oil actually burns hotter than natural gas by about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, so it’ll heat your house much more quickly. Oil can also be transported just about anywhere by truck, so you can use an oil-burning furnace even if you live out in the middle of nowhere. The main downsides of oil furnaces are environmental in nature. Heating oil is a petroleum product, so it draws from the planet’s limited supply of crude oil. Burning heating oil also releases carbon dioxide into the air, one of the main contributors to climate change. It also releases some sulfur byproducts that contribute to acid rain.


You can also use baseboard heaters to warm up smaller houses. Though they’re generally used as a supplementary heating system, these heaters are a solid choice for an apartment, cabin, or other small living space. As the name suggests, baseboard heaters are attached to the baseboard of the wall and are typically wired directly into the electrical system. There are two types of baseboard heaters: electric and hydronic. Electric heaters run electricity directly into thin metal fins or coils, causing them to heat up. It’s essentially the same technology as a toaster, but the heat from the coils is radiated out into the room instead of directly onto a slice of bread. They’re easy to install and inexpensive to purchase, but electric baseboard heaters are extremely inefficient and will leave you with sky high power bills if you use them as your primary heating source. Hydronic baseboard heaters, on the other hand, have small pipes that connect each unit to a central boiler. Boiling hot water runs through the pipes into the units, and the heat from the water radiates out into the room. Hydronic heaters are significantly more efficient, but they do cost a bit more to install than their purely electric cousins.


Service Contracts Can Pay for Themselves


When you install a new furnace or another HVAC unit, you might be offered a maintenance contract. These contracts typically last for a year and require you to pay upfront; in return, you get free service appointments, free labor for repairs, and discounted replacement parts. Every contract is different, so you’ll have to do the math yourself to figure out if it’s worth the money or not. They tend to be worthwhile for the most part, but it’s still worth double-checking.


One major advantage of a service contract is the maintenance calendar. Not only do you get free service appointments (usually one or two a year), but you also get the peace of mind that comes from knowing everything will be handled for you. The contractor will take care of scheduling the appointments, which is ideal for those of us who can be a little forgetful here and there.


Most No-Heat Calls are Caused by a Lack of Maintenance


Lack of maintenance won’t just shorten the overall lifespan of your furnace. It’ll also cause the unit to break down when you need it most. Experts say that up to three-quarters of all no-heat calls can be traced back to deferred maintenance. Even if you don’t think it’s important or you’re not sure you want to spend the money at that moment, you should still stick with your regular yearly tune-up appointments. If you don’t want to end up with no heat in the middle of the winter, you need to check your filters regularly, pay attention to the sounds of the furnace, and keep up with those service appointments – you’ll be glad you did.


The path to a well-maintained furnace starts with a trusted HVAC repair company. A contractor can help you find the right heating solution for you, install it for you, and perform regular maintenance and repairs after the installation is complete. Having an expert on your team goes a long way toward making sure your furnace continues to run smoothly for years to come. If you live in Marin, Sonoma, or Napa Counties and you have more questions, or you’re interested in having your heating system serviced, feel free to get in touch with Valley Comfort Heating & Air today.