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Technicians say cleaning furnaces annually will help cut heating costs, improve energy efficiency in cold winter months

Although snow may be melting and temperatures may have climbed out of the single digits, beware – winter is coming. Still.

With February historically providing very cold temperatures and heavy snowfall, residents should expect to fire up their heaters to stay toasty.

But cranking up home heating systems, whether they run on electricity or gas, cranks up other aspects, as well – including utility bills, and fire and carbon monoxide hazards.

Heating and air conditioning companies have been busy so far this year – particularly the week of frigid temperatures seen toward the beginning of January – fixing furnaces and making sure they are prepared for the worst still to come.

“It seems like winter is shifting to start later and run later,” said Chris Carpenter, owner of One Hour Heating and Air Conditioning in DeKalb. “Having the tune-up once a year is a positive thing. You can increase the efficiency and find problems before they happen.”

Furnace cleaning should be done annually and, ideally, before winter blows in, said Kevin Smrz, a technician at Breezy’s Heating and Air Conditioning in Sycamore. He said he’s been busy with repairs at residential and commercial buildings across the county this season.

“People don’t realize that flame sensors need to be cleaned on an annual basis,” Smrz said. “It’ll last a couple of years in some cases, but it’ll eventually get dirty and they have to give us a call.”

Different factors, such as the size and age of the house, come into play when heating a home, Smrz said. A new house generally will be less drafty and heat up more efficiently than an old one, and a small apartment will heat up faster than a two-story house.

When it comes to heating, there are pros and cons to choosing either electric or gas, particularly as they pertain to safety and cost-cutting.

“Typically, you can see 30 to 35 percent in savings by using high-efficiency gas,” Carpenter said.

For the five-month period that will end in March, the average residential gas bill is estimated to be $510, down 21.5 percent the same period a year ago, when frigid winter weather pushed heating costs to an average of $650.

The cost will be about four percent more than the November 2012-March 2013 time frame, according to Jae Miller, spokeswoman for Nicor Gas, which provides service to Northern Illinois. Those figures represent Nicor customers as a whole and could not be broken down by municipality, Miller said.

The price for ComEd electricity through May is 7.52 cents a killowatt hour, which includes the electrical supply and transmission services charge, but not delivery service charges, according to the company’s website.

But with furnaces, proper care always is the best way to keep costs down, said Tom Dahlquist, owner of Dahlquist Heating and Cooling, a full-service HVAC provider in Sycamore.

“Make sure the furnace is tuned up,” Dahlquist said. “Always make sure the air filter is clean. That’s going to increase costs when it’s dirty.”

Improper ventilation, cracked or leaky flues or just a dirty furnace in general are the main issues Breezy’s encounters, Smrz said.

While the initial reaction may be to crank that heat up when the temperatures plummet, Dahlquist said, “If they want to save money during a cold spell, they may want to try reducing [the heater] down two degrees and throw on a sweater,”

“That’s going to cut heating costs down,” he said.

But whether residents rely on electric or gas heat, both bring their own risks.

“Gas is much cheaper to operate and provides a warmer type of heat. Electric is more costly to operate and doesn’t provide the comfort of gas,” Carpenter said. “But there’s no risk of carbon monoxide with electric, but there’s more chance of fire with electric heat.”

Carbon monoxide can be a result of faulty or failing equipment, or improper use, Carpenter said.

The newer the furnace, the lesser the fire risk, Dahlquist said.

“When you’re getting into furnaces that are 30-plus years old, you have to make sure your products are up to date and make sure they have all the safety features on them,” he said. “A lot of fires are caused by electrical issues. That tune-up is critical.”

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