Question: We currently live in a home that has both a natural gas heating system as well as an on-demand hot water heater. I would like to know how often these should be serviced, annually or over a longer time period if no issues arise?
Thanks for any advice about this, Bob B.
Answer: Regular maintenance and professional servicing may be more critical for certain mechanical systems in our home than others, but almost all of these will require some maintenance. Annual service on older heating equipment is recommended, but requirements for water heaters may vary depending on various factors.
Any mechanical device will require periodic maintenance to ensure it is working as efficiently as possible, and does not have any damaged or worn components. We all know this about our vehicles, but do not necessarily have this same mindset with the systems in our homes. Some of these, like many of our household appliances, do not require much maintenance unless there is a malfunction. They will still need regular cleaning to keep things running smoothly, but most of those powered by electricity, like washers and dryers, may go years without requiring any servicing.
Small malfunctions or damage to some of the mechanical components in our house may be within the skill level of a typical homeowner to fix. If the light bulb burns out on a refrigerator or freezer, most people can replace it. If the dryer vent comes loose, or the vent hood at the exterior becomes damaged, it may not be necessary to call in an expert to bring it back to functional condition. Even small repairs to plumbing fixtures, drains, or supply pipes may be easily handled by an experienced weekend warrior. In fact, I am writing this article just after cleaning out the drains and traps under a couple of bathroom sinks in my own home. That removal of rather gross hair and gunk deposits was precipitated by gradual slowing of proper water flow through those drains.
Alternatively, there is servicing on some systems in the standard home that should not be attempted, even by an experienced homeowner. Regular servicing of your gas-fired furnace falls into this category. Because this heating appliance is connected to the natural gas piping supply to the home, it should always be approached with caution. Due to the combustible nature of this fuel, only licensed gasfitters, or other properly certified technicians, are allowed to provide this type of service.
This is true of any significant modifications to the gas lines or heating components in the furnace. You may be able to handle simple maintenance items like filter replacement, cleaning out plugged or dirty condensate hoses, or vacuuming dust from the blower and cabinet, but most others should not be attempted. Any maintenance or repairs that has to do with the gas piping, gas valves, burners, or any electronic or electrical components should be left to the experts. Making a mistake, or damaging any of these components, can lead to a major life-safety hazard. A typical service call, often referred to as an annual service, should always be done by a well-trained, licensed professional.
The frequency of the standard heating system service often depends on the age and condition of the components. Most newer high efficiency natural gas furnaces have sealed combustion chambers and electronic components that rarely need much adjustment or repairs for the first few years, unless they are defective. A new furnace should be inspected by a licensed HVAC technician within the first year after installation, just to ensure everything is working properly. After that, every two to three years may be sufficient, as long as you change the filters regularly and everything is working well. Once the furnace is beyond ten years old, or if you have an older unit that is not high efficiency, it should be serviced annually. This will ensure that there are no safety hazards and prevent an unnecessary shut down and emergency service call in the middle of the heating season.
A proper servicing should always include a thorough cleaning of the main furnace fan, or blower, to ensure maximum airflow through the heating ducts and registers. A large amount of dust and debris can collect on the blades, which may only be fully removed by manual cleaning. The blower may have to be physically removed from the cabinet for the most thorough cleaning, which may not be required every year, as long as annual servicing is maintained. Any necessary adjustments to the burners, or controls, should also be completed at this time to ensure maximum efficiency of the heating system.
As far as service for your on-demand water heater, that will largely depend on the water quality in your home. If you have municipally treated water with very low mineral content, like in the Winnipeg area, there may be minimal maintenance required. If you have well water, or municipally treated water that is described as "hard", regular cleaning may be necessary. Draining the unit and running a cleaning solution, or vinegar, through the components may help remove built up debris inside. As I have never owned a tankless water heater, and have little experience with them, I am only speculating on this. Consulting the owner’s manual, or online maintenance recommendations from the manufacturer, should answer this question more accurately.
Annual servicing should be done by a licensed HVAC technician on your natural gas furnace once it exceeds its first decade, to ensure the most efficient operation, and prevent an unnecessary breakdown or damage to components. As far as the water heater, that will depend on the water quality in your home and the recommendations of the company that made it.
Ari Marantz is the owner of Trained Eye Home Inspection Ltd. and the past president of the Canadian Association of Home & Property Inspectors — Manitoba (cahpi.mb.ca). Questions can be emailed to the address below. Ari can be reached at 204-291-5358 or check out his website at trainedeye.ca.