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Oil-Heating Basics and Maintenance

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By Charles Furlough

RISMEDIA, January 18, 2011—In most areas of the country, it’s the time of year where you’re making frequent visits to your heat dial, to turn it up. Many homes, both new and not-so-new, have an oil-heating system working hard on the far side of that thermostat.

In an oil-heated home, heated air typically flows through a “forced warm-air system,” in which a blower fan pulls air into cold-air return ducts located throughout the house. (Learn where your cold-air returns are, and keep them clear of furniture, which is inefficient and may lead to backdrafting). The air then passes through a filter, and eventually reaches the furnace, where it’s heated. The warm air is then forced back into the rooms through heating ducts. (If you see soot near these heating ducts, call a technician, as it may indicate a cracked heat exchanger that needs to be replaced).

The furnace is the heart of an oil-heat system. Older models have what’s referred to as a “conventional” burner (providing inconsistent flames); newer high-efficiency models produce more uniform, hotter flames. A heat exchanger keeps harmful by-products from entering the air stream—all while you happily snooze, or go about your daily activities.

Many homeowners prefer oil heating for its durability—most oil furnaces run for many years with few major issues. But before you cozy up with a cup of cocoa, get in touch with your local oil company. While oil heat is durable and generally problem-free, it generally requires a monthly check from a technician. If you’re a new homeowner shopping around for oil companies, the best way to avoid a future headache is to ensure you get a detailed, written maintenance contract with your oil supplier, detailing what the company will inspect or service annually.

How do you know whether your technician is doing the best job possible? Arm yourself with this checklist, and feel free to ask your technician if he has checked off all the points on the list. (Note: these tips are for typical, popular heating configurations; yours, especially if it’s an older or specialty system, may vary and require more or less maintenance).

Furnace maintenance tips:
-Check and clear the blades of the burner’s blower.
-Check and clean the oil-pump strainer.
-Clean the oil filter.
-Inspect the tank and piping for corrosion or leaks.
-Clean the draft tube or exhaust stack (depending on type of unit).
-Vacuum and clean the blower’s air-intake ports.

Home airflow system maintenance tips:
-Clean or replace the air filter monthly.
-Clean the fan blower blades at the start of each season (especially if there is a dryer nearby).
-Check the belt for wear, alignment and tension (it should have ½” to ¾” deflection).
-Examine the ducts for leaks; seal the leaks with duct tape.
-Check auxiliary components (humidifier and central A/C) for leaks into the unit.

If your heating specialist touches on all the bases above, that’s generally a good sign that you’re getting thorough service. If you’re in an older home, your heating company will check to make sure everything is properly installed. For instance, in most jurisdictions, an underground oil tank for the heating system is not legal, and it’s the homeowner’s responsibility to have it removed. Of course, a thorough home inspection at the time of sale will already have uncovered this type of legality issue.

Lastly, keep tabs on your chimney. All oil-fired furnaces require a masonry chimney lined with a clay flue or a double-insulated prefabricated chimney with a steel lining. A stack heat sensor, in the flue to the chimney, trips when it senses no heat; and a photoelectric flame sensor in the combustion chamber shuts the system down if there is no flame. Both have a reset button you can press to restart the system. Learn the location of these buttons, and call for service if you press either of them twice and get no response, because that generally indicates a blockage in the system’s circulation. And remember, regular servicing will reduce the risk of this happening. It’s smarter to get the service now, than to pay a big repair bill later.

Happy heating!

Charles Furlough is vice president of Pillar To Post Professional Home Inspections.

For more information, visit www.pillartopost.com.

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