Do I need to have my furnace and AC inspected once a year?
February 13, 2012 6:23 AM   Subscribe

Do I really need to have my furnace and AC inspected once a year?

This is a high- or medium-efficiency gas furnace and an outside air-conditioning unit in Toronto. We pay $120 Canadian a year for Direct Energy to spend roughly 20 minutes (a year) looking at it and doing god-knows-what. I'm a little skeptical, but I know nothing.
I remember once calling them to repair something and the repairman remarked that the repair was necessary because we hadn't kept up regular service. I pointed out to him that his own company had been regularly servicing it -- so that's how invisible whatever they do is.

This $120 (+$15 tax) does not pay for any actual repairs, or servicing, etc. just an "annual safety check to help keep the equipment running safely and efficiently" and a "22-point diagnostic check to help detect carbon monoxide leaks."

Any advice or recommendations? Are there any other companies out there that might be worth looking into? They seem to have me by the balls.
posted by feelinggood to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I pay slightly more than that for twice a year service in the US. The main thing I like about it is that I'm considered a contracted customer, so when I do have an emergency (twice since we bought the house), they come right out and we get a discount on parts and labor. We used to have an older unit that leaked coolant and it was worth it for us simply because they would always top off the coolant on the regular service calls before it quit working completely. That unit finally died this past fall, and the guys installing the new unit said the old one actually wasn't that old, but hadn't been properly maintained before we bought the house so it didn't last as long as it should have. So, I do feel like there are benefits. $120 a year isn't very much money in the grand scheme of things.
posted by something something at 6:45 AM on February 13, 2012

I doubt it is necessary, since everyone I know never has it done. But it can probably extend the life of the machinery if they actually do maintenance work on it. (Like cleaning AC coils, checking for proper charge, flushing drains, looking for cracks in the heat exchangers, general cleaning, greasing the motor bearings, etc.) But if it's just a flashlight check and a CO check, probably not worth $120.

I would never pay for it, but I also am slightly obsessive about checking those things myself. If I didn't want to, I'd probably have someone come out and do it. Again, provided they were actually doing stuff.
posted by gjc at 6:52 AM on February 13, 2012

...I also am slightly obsessive about checking those things myself.

Any chance you can provide a brief "things to look for guide" for those of us that would like to know more about proper preventive maintenance on an AC / furnace unit.
posted by COD at 7:11 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

We pay $200 a year for a service contract on our furnace. It covers a full cleaning and maintenance once a year, and most repairs are free if we ever have a problem. Only a couple major items, like the heat exchanger, are not covered, but all the rest of the electronics, motors, burners, and other gubbins are fixed for free. Totally worth it, as the thing is over 30 years old.
posted by fimbulvetr at 7:12 AM on February 13, 2012

You don't *have* to pay periodic maintenance/cleaning/etc. for anything. It's really more a matter of "what degree of unwise is it not to, from zero to very, very unwise". If you're like @gjc (or me, I suppose), there are a lot of things that get maintained without calling in the "experts", and it's perfectly fine to do so. Note that as mentioned above, many of these service contracts cover some level of repair coverage (heating/air, termite), and you have to determine the value of that versus your ability to fix or pay to fix. Calling the emergency number because the heat has gone out at 6pm on Thanksgiving day and it's around freezing outside and you have a 3 month old knowing *somebody* is going to be there within an hour, with parts you can't get till tomorrow, is worth a lot.

I would, however, point out that there is possible liability in doing this. If, for example, someone dies from carbon monoxide poisoning from the furnace, or the chimney catches fire and burns the house down, the first question is going to be "When was this last serviced" followed by "are you a certified professional" and things will go downhill rather quickly from there. For a concrete example: I know more than one person who did their own electrical work who found themselves out of luck with the insurance company when it caused a fire.
posted by kjs3 at 7:23 AM on February 13, 2012

Necessary? No. Not unless the product warranty requires it.

You should, at the very least, change the filters in the system once a year. Twice a year is the usual recommendation. You can easily do this yourself, though.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:30 AM on February 13, 2012

As part of our contract for having this yearly maintenance done ($85/year, much less expensive area than Toronto), we get free maintenance (labor) during business hours if the furnace or A/C breaks, and we get a much-reduced after-hours rate. We also get bumped to the top of the list. Since they inspect it, they maintain it, and they fix it when it breaks. We only pay parts. What's in your contract?

(Mine paid for itself when my furnace went out late in the evening during a bad cold snap ... I had it fixed within half an hour and paid only like $20.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:07 AM on February 13, 2012

36 years of mild-to-moderate HVAC use here and we've paid a service man to come out ... twice, I think? My experience is that if you show a keen interest, are polite, and express the desire to do as much of the routine maintenance as you can, the people installing/servicing the unit will show you what to check. Heck, both the guy who did the first-moved-in check on the boiler here and our heat pump installer gave us lists of what to do. There is only one thing on it we can't do without specialized equipment: those gauges cost us all of $60. It's 15 minutes of work once or twice a year, and I'm happy to do it because I enjoy doing it.

Then I go spend that $200 on something else I enjoy.
posted by introp at 9:35 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

It depends. Next time you have to renew, look at the contract. If it's JUST to clean the filters and do an inspection, forget it. That's something that a reasonably knowledgeable homeowner can do themselves.

I'm not sure about Canada, but here in the US, these contracts more often than not are service contracts. Yes, the heating contractor will come out once or twice a year to inspect and adjust the system, clean and replace filters, and so on. HOWEVER, if something breaks on the system, it's repaired for you at little or no cost. I don't know about you, but I feel a lot more comfortable in the fact that if my system breaks and needs a $2,000 repair, I won't have to pay that $2,000. That to me is worth $150 a year. Sure I could change the filters myself, but if they're going to come out and do it for me, why not?

If it were JUST a filter replacement... well with my heating and A/C system it's an electric system and the filters can be cleaned with a vaccuum (they're not disposable filters). To me, that would be a waste.

It boils down to what your contract includes and how much you're willing to pay for peace of mind.
posted by tckma at 1:39 PM on February 13, 2012

if my system breaks and needs a $2,000 repair, I won't have to pay that $2,000

that's a high number to just throw out there. $2000 dollars will get you a new furnace, and I would be interested to see what maintenance contract covers that.
posted by Frasermoo at 1:44 PM on February 13, 2012

that's a high number to just throw out there. $2000 dollars will get you a new furnace

Okay, let's back this up with some data.

When I bought this house last year, the previous owners included actual receipts from services and upgrades they had performed during the time they owned it. The two HVAC heat pump systems in our house were installed in 2009 and cost a total of $13,000 to install. Granted some of that cost was labor.

With my last house, I had an oil burner and I added central air conditioning in 2006. I got three estimates for the kind of system I wanted and selected the least expensive. The ductwork was already in place (it was a forced hot air system). If I remember correctly, the installation of just an air conditioning unit cost $4500 (now, I got a $500 rebate from the manufacturer and another $500 from my electric company since it was an energy efficient system, but I'm not counting that).

These houses are located in two different states/metro areas.

The expense depends on the size of the house, what area you live in, and the type/quality of HVAC system, but no, $2000 will probably NOT buy you a new furnace.

All that is pretty irrelevant, however, as I just caught the statement that the OP's contract does NOT include any repairs. In that case I say to heck with it change the filters yourself (maybe $15 per filter) and spend the remaining $120 either on something you enjoy, on paying down debts (if any), or put it in savings. The gas company's responsibility ends with supplying you gas and making repairs if there is a leak.
posted by tckma at 2:05 PM on February 13, 2012

but no, $2000 will probably NOT buy you a new furnace.
It should. I sell them to contractors for half that, in Toronto. But that is off topic.

If I was OP, I would ditch the contract, buy a CO monitor, plug it in and put the money to better use. I'm not even sure what kind of inspection they could be doing on the AC, unless they are really thorough. When things fail to get hot or cold, then call someone. Your contract doesn't cover repair so it's not really doing anything for you.

I would recommend running your AC for a few minutes every so often during the off season, just to swish the oil around the compressor and keep things lubed up.

there are also numerous sources on the web to help you learn to make some basic inspections on your furnace. like here. replace filters.. check the belt...

We have a 30 year old furnace which I am led to believe was built like a tank. It makes heat. Our AC looks like something out of the stone-age too. It removes heat. Until either decides they don't want to do what they should, I see no reason to throw money at them.
posted by Frasermoo at 5:22 PM on February 13, 2012

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