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Summer's been great while it's lasted, but one look at the calendar can tell you that cold weather is not too far away. Now's the time to check your heating system to make sure it's ready for what is ahead.

You should not attempt to repair or service the system yourself, but you should understand how it works and what things you can do to make it run more efficiently and economically.A central heating system consists of five elements: fuel burner; furnace or boiler; ducts and pipes for heat distribution; room heating units such as radiators, registers and convectors; and controls, such as thermostat, dampers, blower and pump.

Periodic maintenance requires such things as cleaning the burner and heating ducts, adjusting the dampers, changing filters and oiling the blower motor and fan. Most of this should be done by your heating contractor.

Regular tuneups by a professional contractor not only lower fuel bills from 3-10 percent, but they also increase the lifetime of the system, reduce breakdowns and repair costs, and decrease the carbon monoxide, smoke and other pollutants pumped into the atmosphere.

But there are also things that the homeowner can do on a routine basis to make sure the heating system is running efficiently, advises the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Information Bureau.

- Check the air filters on warm-air furnaces and heat pumps once a month during the heating season, cleaning and replacing them as necessary. Too much dust can force the blower to work harder, raising electric bills and eventually causing blower failure.

- Make sure that baseboard and radiators are not blocked by furniture, carpets or drapes, etc. Air needs to circulate freely through them from underneath. Also warm-air registers should be kept clean and unobstructed.

- Use a radiator key to bleed air out of hot water radiators once or twice a season. Trapped air inside radiators keeps them from performing properly. Hold a pan under the valve and open it until all the air has escaped and only water comes out. If you're unsure how to perform this procedure, have your heating contractor show you how.

- Vacuum your air registers and grilles. Large accumulations of dirt in ducts should be removed as well.

- Make sure your furnace access door is closed.

- Practice sound fuel conservation measures. Adequate insulation, caulking and weatherstripping are vital. Keep the doors of an attached garage closed. If the garage is heated, maintain temperature at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Close the fireplace damper when the fireplace is not is use. Repair or replace hot water faucets if they drip. Keep your water heater setting at about 130 degrees Fahrenheit. During the day, open drapes to help heat rooms on the sunny side of the house. Close them at night for extra insulation.

For more information on taking care of your heating system, you can get a free set of "Heating Booklets," by writing to the Better Heating-Cooling Council, P.O. Box 218, Berkeley Heights, NJ 07922.


Common problems

Some complaints about heating systems are correctable, either by the homeowner or the heating contractor. According to the Better Heating-Cooling Council, here are some common problems and solutions.

Problem: Heating system blows dust.

Possible solutions:

A. Reduce air velocity in the ducts by setting a slower fan speed.

B. Install a clean fiber filter.

C. Upgrade to a better filter. Throw-aways catch up to 10 percent of particles, semi-permanent media filters up to 35 percent and electronic filters up to 90 percent.

Problem: Some rooms are too cold.

Possible solutions:

A. Install balancing dampers in ducts.

B. Reduce air flow into overheated rooms.

C. Relocate thermostat.

D. Divide system into separate zones.

Problem: Heating system is noisy.

Possible solutions:

Locate the source:

A. Fan bearings in furnace? Lubricate or repair.

B. Furnace vibration carried to ducts? Install flexible connector sleeve.

C. Ducts vibrating? Brace faulty area.

D. Air velocity noise? Reduce fan speed.

Problem: Cold drafts and hot blasts in room.

Possible solutions:

A. Reset furnace control for longer `on' cycle.

B. Adjust vertical and horizontal louvres in register.

C. Place furniture near register to divert drafts.

D. Insulate ducts.

Air quality quiz

Warmth is only part of what you want from your heating system. You also want clean indoor air. The following quiz from the Better Heating-Cooling Council can help you determine if any contaminants are causing problems in your home.

1. Blowing air cannot carry which of the following?

a. Dust

b. Fungus

c. Allergens

d. Bacteria

e. Asbestos

f. Radon

2. Fiber "throwaway" filters should be changed every year.



3. Why can dirt blow out the air registers after a new filter is installed?

a. A clean filter lets through more dirt.

b. The filter track has loose dirt.

c. Air velocity increases, stirring up dirt.

4. A clean filter is more effective than a dirty one.



5. What size particles will a clean fiber filter catch?


1. Blowing air can carry all of these if and when they are present.

2. False. Change them monthly during cooling, every three months during heating season.

3. All of the answers are correct.

4. False. Actually, the more loaded the filter is, the more additional dirt it catches - until it gets clogged. During cooling, an overloaded filter can cause damage to the outside compressor.

5. Fiber filters are 3 to 5 percent effective. They are most effective for particles larger than 100 microns (.00393 inches). They are not effective for particles less than 10 microns. Here are typical sizes of common particles:

Particle typeSizes in microns

Beach sand90 to 1020

Human hair30 to 120

Pollen10 to 100

Plant spores10 to 30

House dust1 to 130

Coal dust1 to 100

Flour1 to 80

Talcum powder0.5 to 10

Insecticide dust0.5 to 10

Bacteria0.3 to 30

Outdoor dust0.01 to 20

Tobacco smoke0.01 to 1

Viruses0.003 to 0.05