Homeowners’ Winter Guide to Heat Pumps and Furnaces

Homeowners’ Winter Guide to Heat Pumps and Furnaces

You count on your furnace or heat pump to keep you warm during winter. But your heating system counts on you to keep it running safely and efficiently. Here are some tips on how to care for your pump or furnace, what warnings signs to watch for, and when to call in professional help.

Clear the Air

First, be sure you know if you have a heat pump or furnace. Heat pumps both warm and cool your home using electricity. Usually the heat source is air, but there are geothermal models, as well.

A heat pump has two major components. The outside section resembles an air conditioner, and it performs that function in hot weather. Inside the house is an air handler with a fan and coil.

If you have a heat pump, you’re in good company. NASA plans to use heat pump technology the next time its astronauts visit the moon.

In comparison, furnaces might seem less high-tech and exciting. They run on natural gas or propane. A small flame warms a heat exchanger made from metal tubes. This increases the temperature of the surrounding air, which circulates through ductwork throughout the home.

A hybrid system has a heat pump backed up by a furnace.

Heat Pumps

Combining forces with a HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) technician keeps your heat pump running smoothly.

Ready, Set, Go

Because you use your heat pump year-round for both heating and cooling, have a professional technician inspect and service it annually. This makes sure the pump is as efficient as possible and helps prevent problems.

Stay Put

Heat pump thermostats have several settings: heat, cool, off and emergency. Obviously in cold weather, the thermostat is set to heat. When the weather gets really, really cold, though, it’s not an emergency. It’s just super cold.

Use the emergency setting only for actual crises, like if your heat pump stops working. Switch the setting, and your supplemental heating system kicks in.

This backup system isn’t as efficient as the heat pump. That means you pay significantly more to heat your home under the EMERGENCY mode.

Clear Away

Outside, it’s normal for the heat pump component sides to become frosted or ice covered. In most cases, the pump shifts to automatic defrost and clears everything up.

Keep your eye on the unit in bad weather, though. If there’s heavy ice on top, or if the whole component is blanketed in ice or snow, the pump probably won’t work. You also risk serious damage to the unit.

What can you do? Carefully remove snow that’s covering the component. Melt ice by hosing the unit down with water. Never, ever chip away at the ice … you could easily make a disastrous hole. If gutters drip water onto the component and ice forms, repair the gutters.

Pay Attention

You might notice other problems with your heat pump. Perhaps you realize the pump never switches to air conditioning in order to defrost outside parts. Maybe the fan works poorly or not at all. The thermostat might never reach its desired setting.

Don’t try to fix these concerns. Call an HVAC professional.


Furnaces deserve some tender loving care, too. Here are a few tips to keep them in top shape.

Check It Out

Schedule a maintenance checkup for your furnace every year. The technician monitors the appliance’s efficiency and safety and makes needed adjustments and repairs.

While the technician is there, ask for suggestions and advice. As a homeowner, what can you do for this particular furnace model? Take advantage of expertise while it’s right in front of you.

Play It Safe

Though the technician handles servicing, you can provide backup support. Keep clutter away from your furnace.

Not only it is a fire hazard, but it can reduce the air supply needed for the flame. This could result in dangerous carbon monoxide gas.

Headache, nausea, fatigue and dizziness are symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. It’s potentially deadly, so seek medical attention if these symptoms are severe at home but lessen when you’re elsewhere.

Flammable products and chemicals are obviously fire hazards. Store them far from your furnace.

Keep It Clean

Change your furnace’s filter regularly. This increases efficiency, improves air quality, reduces allergens, and prevents damage to the fan or heating coil.

Switch out paper or fiberglass filters every month or two. An electrostatic or HEPA filter needs changing or cleaning every two to four months.

The timeline depends upon circumstances in your home. Pets, smokers and fresh air make your filter work harder.

Keep Your Eyes and Ears Open

Don’t be oblivious to a malfunctioning furnace. For instance, your unit might begin making unusual noises during operation. Notice if rust starts forming on the vent pipe or other parts. If a serious problem arises, call a furnace technician

Once in a while, check the flue pipe connections to see if they’re blocked or loose. Also, look for leaks in exposed ductwork. If you spot any openings, seal them up with duct tape.

Trust Your Thermostat

Your furnace heats your house at a certain rate. Turning the thermostat up to 80 degrees doesn’t make your furnace work faster.

If you have a programmable thermostat, use it to lower the temperature at night or when you’re out of the house for long periods. This doesn’t reduce your furnace’s efficiency, but it does save you money.

By using these approaches this winter, you’ll keep your heat pump and furnace functioning, keeping you toasty warm inside.

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