About 55% of American home owners have their heating-cooling equipment professionally serviced at least once a year, according to a recent survey of home owners across the country by Honeywell, Inc., which makes a variety of electronic heating-cooling controls.

They're the smart ones. An annual heating system "clean & check" tune-up is one of the best home maintenance investments you can make. (Oil-fired heating systems generally require more frequent service, at least twice per year.)
What about the 45% of home owners who neglect annual maintenance? They pay the following penalties:

* Fuel bills rise as much as 10-15% as a result of inefficient equipment operation. It's like having a fireplace that burns money.

* Accelerated equipment wear. Annual maintenance extends equipment life as much as 20 - 30%. This translated to an additional 5-10 years of usage for your furnace or boiler.

* Most service contractors will tell you that about 75% of all repairs they do could have been avoided with regular maintenance. Heating system repairs typically run into the hundreds of dollars - more fuel for that money burning fireplace.

* Most important, annual heating inspections can save your life and those of your loved ones. Small cracks in a heat exchanger or problems with the flue system could allow deadly carbon monoxide gas to seep into your home. Hundreds of people in the U.S. lose their lives each year in these tragedies. A trained service technician knows how to spot danger signs in the system.

Incomplete fuel combustion and high flue gas temperatures are the main causes of low heating efficiency. A competent service technician will perform a variety of tests to measure the combustion efficiency of your system both before and after tuning it up. The service technician should also clean and check (replacing if necessary) the burner, combustion chamber, heat exchanger surfaces, oil line filter and flue pipe. Pumps and fans should be lubricated if necessary. With boilers, the technician should take time to remove sediment from boiler and steam lines, as well as checking the fan thermostat on warm air systems. Otherwise the fan may operate longer than necessary, wasting energy.

Modern heating equipment is very sophisticated. The well-equipped service technician has an array of electronic measuring devices and tools to properly service these units. Some old-timers still operate with old "eyeballing" methods, such as adjusting the flame on a burner merely by looking at its color. While many of these old timers have remarkable skills, they simply are not up to the task of keeping a modern heating system operating at peak efficiency. Put your trust in a properly equipped service technician.

While heating inspections can be done at any time, early fall is the most popular time for most home owners to schedule these visits. Many contractors advertise inspection specials at this time of year.

To avoid the rush, many home owners have their fall heating inspection done as part of an annual service agreement offered by some contracting companies. Typically service agreement customers receive priority in scheduling and discount pricing for any repairs not covered by the agreement. A service agreement also is a good way to ensure you don't forget about scheduling regular heating system maintenance.

While service is important, beyond a certain point even the best maintenance cannot save an antiquated system. In fact, efficiency improvements over the last couple of decades have been so dramatic that if your boiler or furnace is more than 20 years old, it's quite possible that it would make economic sense to replace your present system even if it is still operating well.

Also ask your contractor about low-cost energy efficiency improvements that can be obtained from devices such as automatic flue dampers and clock programmable thermostats. The latter presets the temperature at different times of day so you can keep the house cooler when unoccupied. Programmable thermostats typically pay for themselves in fuel savings within one or two years.

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