Reuben's Home Inspection Blog

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Are Furnace Inspections Really Needed Every Year?

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

        

Comment balloon 50 commentsReuben Saltzman • October 10 2012 02:49AM

Comments

So, you're saying that common sense, when dealing with gas appliances, is worth $80 - $150 a year?  (I can tell you that it's worth a whole lot more around here...)

To that, let me say "duh."

But you didn't say how often the oil needs changing or the spark plugs replaced.  What gives?

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) almost 6 years ago

Goo dpost Reuben and info that was very useful for me.  I do this regularly as preventative maintenance and have for years.  One of those things you just want to do.

Posted by John F Muscarella, Broker/Owner, Venice, FL, Florida's Suncoast (RIVER FARM PROPERTIES, LLC) almost 6 years ago

I have my boilers cleaned and maintained every spring-right after the heating season ends so any residue doesn't have time to sit over the summer. Also. the technicians are not as busy then.  I like the idea of not having the furnace stop in the middle of the night in January!

Posted by Barbara Tattersall, GRI (Keller Williams Realty Metropolitan (Keene,NH)) almost 6 years ago

I just delivered contact information on 80+ properties to my HVAC service provider so they can do the fall service on my rental properties - service, change filters, set thermostats AND change the smoke alarm batteries!

Posted by Wallace S. Gibson, CPM, LandlordWhisperer (Gibson Management Group, Ltd.) almost 6 years ago

Jay - who wooda thunk it?  If you're replacing the spark plugs on your furnace, you better also replace the turn signal fluid expansion tank on your car.

John - it's a great way to help prevent unexpected / untimely breakdowns.

Barbara - me too!  I had my furnace give out on a Sunday evening once.  No fun.  It needed a new circuit board.

Wallace - that's great planning!

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) almost 6 years ago

HVAC inspector to home owner. . . .

"Pay me now or pay me more later"

Posted by Lenn Harley, Real Estate Broker - Virginia & Maryland (Lenn Harley, Homefinders.com, MD & VA Homes and Real Estate) almost 6 years ago

Good idea.  Maybe that's why that yellow "Engine" light keeps coming on?  Thanks for the tip.  I'm on it.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) almost 6 years ago

Maintenance and staying on top of the systems in our homes is very important.  It can save dollars and headaches down the road.

Posted by Don Barrett (Integrity Real Estate Services) almost 6 years ago

HI Reuben,

We always have our heating system checked before winter.......just like we have our AC system checked in the spring! Good sold advice!!

Posted by Dorie Dillard, Serving Buyers & Sellers in NW Austin Real Estate (Coldwell Banker United Realtors® ~ 512.346.1799) almost 6 years ago

Hi Rueben,

I have asked a few of the Heating guys here if they even test a furnace for energy efficiency.

They look at me like I'm crazy. None of them do. I then asked how they determine if the unit needs to be replaced. They said "primarily by the age and the condition, if it looks bad then we recommend a replacement".

None of them test for energy loss or eff. Crazy, their client's are getting ripped off.

Good post and enjoy the rest of the week my friend.

Best, Clint McKie

Posted by Clint Mckie, Desert Sun Home, Comm. Inspection 1-575-706-5586 (Desert Sun Home, commercial Inspections) almost 6 years ago

Cheap, compared to an emergency repair bill.

Posted by Gary Frimann, REALTOR and Broker (Eagle Ridge Realty / Signature Homes & Estates) almost 6 years ago

Good advice, I have our rental units checked every year, nothing worse than a frantic, freezing tenant on the phone at 2:00AM!

Posted by Susan Ackerman, Associate Broker (RE/MAX Realty Agency) almost 6 years ago

Absolutely right, Rueben.  You can't put a price on home safety.  An aging furnace has potential dangers a newer one might not offer.  It's worth a few bucks. 

Posted by Mike Cooper, Your Winchester, VA Real Estate Sales Pro (Cornerstone Business Group Inc) almost 6 years ago

For me, it's more about operating efficiency. Fluid flow through a nozzle will deteriorate the nozzle over time. Having a furnace checked, not only means it will operate more efficiently and safer, but it will cost less to run, especially if oil fired, which is so common in the Northeast

Posted by Ed Silva, Central CT Real Estate Broker Serving all equally (RE/MAX Professionals, CT 203-206-0754 ) almost 6 years ago

Great post Reuben! I think your HVAC system is like your car, take good care of it and it will last a lot longer!

Posted by Mitch Muller - Charlotte NC Real Estate, Certified Residential Specialist (ProStead Realty Charlotte, NC CRS SRES mitch@prostead.com) almost 6 years ago

Very good advice.  It's better to pay for maintenance then to wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of a CO detector going off.  Not good!

Posted by Kathleen "Kathy" Price, CRS, Broker Associate, Southern NJ (Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, Fox & Roach, Realtors) almost 6 years ago

Reuben, like anything else preventive maintenance is always a good thing.

Posted by Michael Setunsky, Your Commercial Real Estate Link to Northern VA almost 6 years ago

Very good advise in this informative post. Thanks for sharing I often wondered what my furnace guy did for the pay but never asked... Time too... 

Posted by Diane Daley (Caron's Gateway Real Estate) almost 6 years ago

At first I would oppose the every year expense just on the surface of wanting to save a buck. As soon as something went wrong, I would forever be wondering about the time I skipped the service and if it could have been prevented. I lean toward doing it but I don't like it...

Posted by Richie Alan Naggar, agent & author (people first...then business Ran Right Realty ) almost 6 years ago

Reuben, I like the part where you say if it's under 10 years old having it inspected every other year is fine. I have an old one that I have inspected every year, period, 

 

Thanks

Posted by Adrian Willanger, Profit from my two decades of experience (206 909-7536 AdrianWillanger-broker.com) almost 6 years ago

I believe in and recommend annual inspections and routine maintenance on furnaces. It's better to be safe than sorry.

Posted by Sharon Parisi, Dallas Homes (United Real Estate Dallas ) almost 6 years ago

For a couple of years I inspected work done for the Federal government by local HVAC contractors and I saw a wide range of what was considered a tune up. If the blower wheel (fan) had not been removed and cleaned, it was not considered to have been properly "cleaned and tuned". The dust build up on the fan was a major concern and can only be completely cleaned by removal. I would say that this is not a homeowner friendly project for the average consumer.

Posted by Andrew Herren (Craig Massee Real Estate) almost 6 years ago

Just like everything else preventative maintenance is a good thing assuming the inspection is more than a cursory glance.

Posted by Than Maynard, Broker - Licensed to List & Sell - 405-990-8862 (Coldwell Banker Heart of Oklahoma) almost 6 years ago

Excellent article for our newsletters - with proper credit to you! Thank you for posting. I know no one who keeps their furnace up the way that your recommend - although we all should! Thanks for the post.

Posted by Steve Davis, Carlsbad CA (Davis Coastal Properties) almost 6 years ago

Thanks for the tips and info.  But more importantly for the reminder!  In Chicagoland, many people have already run their furnaces this year.  I'm sure I won't be able to avoid it much longer.  Time to call for that yearly inspection .. NOW

Gene

Posted by Gene Mundt, IL/WI Mortgage Originator - FHA/VA/Conv/Jumbo/Portfolio/Refi, 708.921.6331 - 40+ yrs experience (NMLS #216987, IL Lic. 031.0006220, WI Licensed. APMC NMLS #175656) almost 6 years ago

Awesome tips and valuable information here. Thanks for sharing with us.

Posted by Adam Brett, The Adam and Eric Group, Fullerton's Finest (The Adam and Eric Group) almost 6 years ago

I guess it's not much each year to insure that everything gets done right.  Wouldn't want the unneeded liability if I were attempting something I didn't know completely on my own.

Posted by Kevin Mackessy, Dedicated. Qualified. Local. (Blue Olive Properties, LLC) almost 6 years ago

Thanks Reuben! We'll add this to our winter list  : )

Posted by The Isaacs Team llc, BUY SMART. SELL SMART. HIRE SMART AGENTS. (Slate Properties 1121 5th St NW DC 20001) almost 6 years ago

I would not risk my families health and lives over the cost of making sure the furnace is working properly

Posted by William Feela, Realtor, Whispering Pines Realty 651-674-5999 No. (WHISPERING PINES REALTY) almost 6 years ago

I have a furnace but haven't used at all since I moved in. I know it needs to be inspected and probably lots done to it before I dare use it. I will keep your list for when I do have it inspected. Thank heavens for my wood stove that I use. And I am the chimneysweep.

Posted by Hella Mitschke Rothwell, Hawaii & California Real Estate Broker ((831) 626-4000) almost 6 years ago

Reuben, my unit is only five years old but the AC stopped working properly a few months back. I had the HVAC technician come out. A mouse had gotten into the unit causing the command panel (can't remember the actually name) to fry. It was covered under warranty but I since have signed up for semi-annual check ups. We live on five acres and any number of things might find their way into our units.

Posted by Tammie White, Broker, Franklin TN Homes for Sale (Franklin Homes Realty LLC) almost 6 years ago

Reuben, I can't imagine NOT having it inspected each year!

Posted by Connie Harvey, Realtor - Nashville TN Real Estate (Pilkerton Realtors) almost 6 years ago

Those handy guys who think an annual cost like that is questionalble, may be capable of doing most of the maintenance checks and service themselves if they have a minds to learn it.  For some this will be true but, and this is a big butt, being informed and capable to do your own service maintenance is no substitute for real in depth experience.

My furnace guy could 'hear' that something was wrong, so he looked beyond the usual service list and found the cracked fire chamber.

Another great post Reuben!

Posted by Robert Butler, Montreal Home Inspector | Aspect Inspection (Aspect Inspection) almost 6 years ago

Nah. Save the money on the inspection and you can use it for the medical bills or worse. Do you cross the street on red?

Posted by Erv Fleishman, Luxury Prop Specialist Realty Associates (Realty Associates) almost 6 years ago

Hey Reuben,

This is an excellent post. I was talking with two guys who feel that an annual tune up is a waste of time and money. I will show them your post which should enlighten them.

Posted by Eric Middleton, Professional Property Inspector (Closer Look Property Inspections Inc.) almost 6 years ago

Having your furnace checked yearly is a good idea. Great post.

Posted by Mike Warren (Real Estate) almost 6 years ago

Very good post today.... I don't even think about it. My furnace and air conditioning is tuned up and checked every year. It is the right thing to do!

Posted by David Burrows, No Pressure, Just Seriously Devoted to Real Estate (Classic Realty) almost 6 years ago

Good morning Reuben,

I have always wondered what the heck those guys do or are supposed to do. I am going to bookmark this for later reference.  Thanks

Posted by Nan Jester, Realtor, Exit Real Estate Gallery (Exit Real Estate Gallery Jacksonville Beach, FL ) almost 6 years ago

Agree to your write up.

Posted by Dave Brice (Pacific West Home Inspections) almost 6 years ago

My husband does this for a living. It's really important to have the coils cleaned on AC units or they will freeze up. That is pretty easy to do, but cleaning the blower fan and testing the unit should definitely be done by a qualified professional, and they can just clean it while they are there. Many HVAC companies have maintenance agreements where they come out twice a year and inspect your unit, and clean if necessary (it almost always is). This does save money in the long run.

Posted by Lynda White, Admin. Mgr., Keller Williams Realty (Bluegrass Homes & Farms Realty, Agent Know How) almost 6 years ago

Hi Rueben, when you are dealing with a gas furnace we agree annual inspections are a good idea.

Posted by Bob Miller, The Ocala Dream Team (Keller Williams Cornerstone Realty) almost 6 years ago

Great that you spelled out what should be included in a good inspection. My first reaction was the same as the reader, they only vacuum out the furnace & say something stupid.  Others check for carbon monoxide leaks, cracked heat exchangers, etc.  The boiler issue is a great example of really not doing anything if you found those 2 large problems.

You get what you pay for so ask what you are actually paying for.

Posted by Lyn Sims, Schaumburg IL Real Estate (RE/MAX Suburban) almost 6 years ago

Reuben:

I am not a skilled HVAC person, that is why I hire one to inspect my heating system.  I will keep your list to be sure that the HVAC person does all on the list.

Posted by Evelyn Kennedy, Alameda, Real Estate, Alameda, CA (Alain Pinel Realtors) almost 6 years ago

Great tips and interesting issues that we all should keep in mind as we sell properties. Thanks for this great info! ;)

Posted by David Evans, HUD NLB Cumming GA (RE/MAX TOWN AND COUNTRY) almost 6 years ago

If you don't change your filter every year you could become a victim.

Posted by John DL Arendsen, Crest Backyard Homes "ADU" dealer & Contractor (CREST BACKYARD HOMES, ON THE LEVEL GENERAL & FACTORY BUILT HOME CONTRACTOR, TAG REAL ESTATE SALES & INVESTMENTS) almost 6 years ago

We always recomend our seller clients getting their furnace serviced BEFORE they list the house. Most of them do it every year and have the slips.

Posted by Dana Basiliere, Making deals "Happen" (Rossi & Riina Real Estate) almost 6 years ago

What do they say about an ounce of prevention?  Like everything else, maintenance is the key to maximizing life and efficiency.  Money well spent.

Posted by Rafi Footerman, Home Inspector, Mold Inspector, Radon and More! (Mid Jersey Inspections) almost 6 years ago

Great article.  Nothing like a good flame rollout to show a client/buyer that the gas furnace or boiler has been neglected.

Posted by Stephen Gaudet (Gaudet Inspections) almost 6 years ago

Reuben - I'd have to say if it's fuel-oil, then yes, I would want it serviced every year.  If it's natural gas or propane, probably not needed, since they burn a lot cleaner, however, I'd probably still do it anyway.

Posted by Brad Baylor (ERA Coup Agency) almost 6 years ago

Great information Reuben, and timely, I am going to re-blog this for my audience.

Posted by Chris Smith, South Simcoe, Caledon, King, Orangeville Real Esta (Re/Max Chay Realty Inc., Brokerage) almost 6 years ago

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