Turn Up the Heat!

Men laying new hardwood flooring

The hot days of summer are fading fast, and its time to enjoy cool evening breezes and open windows. Before long, however, youll want a little heat. Whether its time to replace your heating system or just crank up the old one, its a good idea to know the basics on the most efficient way to use your system. Remember, the most common problems may occur when you fire it up on the first cold night of the season.

The Fiery Furnace

The most common heating systems here in the South are gas furnaces. Some homes also use electric heat pumps, and boilers can be found in some of the older homes in the Atlanta area, although they are more commonly used in the North.

In a gas furnace, the heat comes from the burning of natural gas. Basically, a mixture of gas and air flows into the burner and is ignited by the pilot light. A combustion process occurs, and warm air rises up into a chamber called the heat exchanger. The exchanger becomes hot, and air heats up as it flows through the chamber. The warm air then continues into the air ducts to heat your home. Byproducts of combustion are expelled through a vent in the roof.

One of the main benefits of using a gas furnace is that it will probably save you some money. The cost to replace a gas furnace when necessary is relatively low compared to other types of systems, says Tommy Estes of Estes Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. The typical cost is between $1,800 and $2,500, depending on the efficiency and installation. Because theyre the most common heating systems here in Georgia, any service technician that you call should be capable of making repairsand getting them right the first time.

Efficiency Expertise
Set your thermostat to the lowest possible comfortable temperature
(66-68 degrees is good in the winter).

Turn the heat off in unused areas and close the doors to those areas.

Buy a programmable thermostat that will automatically turn your system on and off as needed.

Make sure your home is properly insulated, and fill in air leaks around doors and windows.

Replace single-pane windows with dual-panes to retain more heat.

When youre looking at new systems, know these terms:

SEERThe Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating is the measure by which the cooling process of heat pumps is rated for efficiency. Higher-efficiency units have a rating of at least 12 SEER, and the higher the number is, the lower your bills will be.

AFUEThe Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency measures the efficiency of gas and oil-firing furnaces, and it tells you how efficiently your system converts fuel to heat. A high-efficiency system will have an AFUE rating of around 90 percent, which is the amount of fuel that is used to heat your home (the other 10 percent is wasted).

Another advantage of a gas furnace is the quality of the heat itself. Natural gas burns very clean in a correctly functioning appliance and provides quick, efficient heat, says Marty Jones of Shumate Mechanical Air Conditioning & Heating. A gas furnace can provide a significant amount of heat and raise the temperature of a home in short order.

There are a few disadvantages, as well. Due to the rising cost of gas, furnaces are more expensive to operate than in years past. They can also have health risks. A small percentage of our society cannot physically tolerate natural gas or combustion byproducts in their home environment, Jones says. Venting also can be a problem, and because furnaces heat by forced air, they produce a more drying heat than boilers. For the most part, though, as long as your gas furnace is serviced regularly, it should keep you nice and cozy.

Heat Pumps and Boilers
While gas furnaces are the most common heating systems in Atlanta, there are other heating methods available. Electric heat pumps basically warm your home by pulling heat from outside air and transferring in into the home. In the summer, it works the opposite waymoving the warm air out of your home. They are more expensive than gas furnaces, ranging from about $3,000 to $5,000; overall, electricity is generally less efficient and more expensive than natural gas. One advantage of heat pumps is that they dont require gas piping and exhaust vents, which can be a major benefit if youre looking to add one to your existing home.

Most problems are due to a lack of maintenance. It may save you money in the long run to have a professional come to your home and explain the basics of your system.

The most common problem is dirty filters that restrict airflow. Always check your air filter before calling for service, and make sure that no furniture or curtains are blocking vents.

Check the thermostata heating problem may be as simple as needing to change the batteries.

Another heating method, the boiler, is little used in the South because of the costs involved in installing steel piping and radiators that must be completely separate from the air-conditioning unit. Having two separate systems can double the cost of the installation of those systems. The average cost to replace a boiler is more than $4,000.

On the other hand, boilers, which heat water into steam to pipe through baseboard radiation systems, can be very efficient heating appliances. The main advantage of heating with a boiler is if installed properly, it provides the most even heat in the house with no drafts, Estes says. The heat from a boiler is not as dry as other types of forced heat, which means a higher comfort level for those trying to warm up on cold nights.

Radiant floor heating, in which the heat is piped through special hot water tubing in the floor instead of the baseboards, is becoming more and more popular in bathrooms and in entire homes. Its a very comfortable and efficient heating method, but again, the disadvantage comes in the cost involved to install a separate system.


Have your system inspected twice a year, or at least at the beginning of each heating season. A new filter or a permanent cleaning should always be part of the inspection, as well as checking the ductwork to make sure there are no leaks.

On a gas furnace, its also extremely important to have the heat exchanger checked for cracks that could emit carbon monoxide fumes into the house.

Consider a maintenance agreement to ensure that the proper inspection is done regularly. The average cost for annual maintenance is about $70.

If you have an older gas furnace, its common for the pilot light to be out after the furnace has gone unused during the summer; relight it to get your furnace up and running again. (Newer gas furnaces have pilotless electric ignition systems.)

Pair with a Pro
The most important thing you need to do when installing a new heating system is to find a reputable contractor. The best way to find a good contractor is by word of mouth, says Vito LaSelva, owner of Mercury Heating and Air Inc. in Woodstock. Ask your family and friends if they have anyone to recommend. Estes suggests contacting Georgia Power to find out who their Premier Partners are. Before you actually hire a contractor, its a good idea to call the Better Business Bureau to see if the company has any unanswered complaints.

Its also important to consider how the company will treat you once the equipment is installed. Dont be afraid to ask questions. Consider the companys reputation, longevity, warranties and guarantees, says John Petty of R.S. Andrews. Most importantly, do they have a service department to fix any problems you might have with your new system, or do they just install it and leave you to fend for yourself? Find out everything you can about the people who are selling and installing your new equipment. The quality and integrity of the dealer is much more important than the brand of equipment installed, Estes says.

Whomever you choose, just make sure theyre willing to service your equipment when something goes wrong. And by all means, schedule preventative maintenance. Its easy for a homeowner to not think about their furnace until it breaks down, Estes says. We often use the phrase, It only hurts when it stops.

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