Are Furnace Inspections Really Needed Every Year?

By
Home Inspector with Structure Tech Home Inspections

In a recent blog post about fall maintenance for Minnesota homeowners, I mentioned having your furnace inspected / tuned up by a qualified heating contractor annually.  One reader sent me an email asking if this was really necessary - here's his original question:

I have a question about furnace tune-ups.  You say get one every year - is that really necessary?  What do the HVAC guys actually do to the furnace to "tune" it up?  There's no spark plugs to replace like a car tune-up, and my understanding is they basically vacuum out dust and inspect it.  Couldn't the homeowner do this himself?  Or do I really need to pay $80-150 bucks every year for a professional to do it?

I think these are great questions worthy of a post all on their own.

Are annual furnace inspections really necessary?  Furnace manufacturers all recommend annual inspections and maintenance by a qualified technician.  They also have language in their warranties saying that damage to the units caused by improper maintenance is not covered under warranty.  Does this mean that an annual furnace check-up is really required, or the warranty is voided? Probably not, but it's recommended.  The best analogy I can think of is going to the dentist every six months for a check-up and cleaning; probably not necessary, but recommended.

I've heard some HVAC contractors recommend getting newer furnaces checked every other year, but once they're over ten years old, have them checked annually.

What do HVAC technicians actually do to the furnace to "tune" it up?  It depends.  According to Chris Jirak, a heating guy who has worked for several firms in the Twin Cities over a period of 25 years, the service you get when you purchase a $29 Groupon is going to be quite different from a $200 "tune-up".  Chris said that every contractor he has ever worked for has had carefully worded language with subtle differences in the descriptions, making it nearly impossible to compare services between different heating companies.  A few services you may have heard of are "safety check", "certification", "check-up", "tune-up", "basic tune-up", "complete tune-up", and "annual maintenance check-up."

The services provided by different heating contractors will vary, depending on who you call and what you pay.  For example, I recently inspected a boiler in Minneapolis that had a missing flue cap at the exterior, an undersized vent connector, and a rust hole in the middle of the cabinet that was leaking carbon monoxide in to the home.

Boiler leaking exhaust gas

Just a couple months prior to this, a heating contractor had come out to inspect the boiler and given it a clean bill of health.  The receipt for the service call had been left on the kitchen table, so I took a photo of it.

Boiler clean and check

The point is that there seems to be no industry standard for a furnace (or boiler) tune-up, so what's included in a "tune-up" will vary greatly from company to company.  If you're going to hire a heating contractor to do a tune-up on your furnace, ask them what they'll be doing.  Included below is a partial list of generic stuff that different furnace manufacturers recommend be performed annually a qualified heating technician:

  • The vent system needs to be checked for blockage and/or leakage.  This includes the outside termination and the connections at and internal to the furnace.
  • Combustion gases must be analyzed and compared to the unit specifications.
  • The blower access door needs to be checked to make sure it makes a tight seal at the furnace.
  • The fresh air intake grills and louvers need to be checked for blockage.
  • The heat exchanger needs to be inspected for rust and corrosion.
  • The burners need to be checked for proper ignition, burner flame, and flame sense.
  • The drainage system needs to be checked for blockage and/or leakage.  This includes the hoses internal to the furnace.  The condensate drain and trap need to be cleaned, and the water replaced in the trap.
  • The blower wheel needs to be checked for debris and cleaned if necessary - this requires complete removal of the blower wheel.
  • An amp-draw test should be conducted on the blower motor and compared with what is listed.
  • The wiring needs to be checked for corrosion and damage.
  • The filters need to be checked (but this needs to be done much more frequently than annually).

In addition to this list, heating contractors say that they regularly do static air pressure checks, gas pressure testing, and temperature rise checks.

Couldn't the homeowner do this herself?  Of course... but the only homeowners I know who are knowledgeable enough to do all that stuff listed above also happen to be heating contractors.   If the only thing your furnace tech does is stick a vacuum nozzle in to the furnace and suck a little dust out, sure, do it yourself.  If your furnace tech does half the stuff on the list above, they're earning their keep.

Before you hire a company to do a tune-up on your furnace, ask what's included.  The company doing the work should be able to quickly rattle off a long list of stuff they'll be checking.  Centerpoint Energy is known for offering one of the cheapest furnace tune-ups out there, yet they have a nice list of stuff that says exactly what they do for the money right on their web site.

Do I really need to pay $80 - 150 bucks every year for a professional to do it?  In short, yes.  This is what a professional charges - maybe even more.  For most heating contractors, $80 barely covers the trip charge.  Keep in mind, this isn't just about safety; it's also about preventative maintenance.  It's about sometimes catching a problem before your furnace quits working in the middle of the night.  When you have to hire a heating contractor to show up on a Sunday evening because the furnace stopped working, you're probably going to end up paying emergency rates.

Comments (50)

Tammie White, Broker
Franklin Homes Realty LLC - Franklin, TN
Franklin TN Homes for Sale

Reuben, my unit is only five years old but the AC stopped working properly a few months back. I had the HVAC technician come out. A mouse had gotten into the unit causing the command panel (can't remember the actually name) to fry. It was covered under warranty but I since have signed up for semi-annual check ups. We live on five acres and any number of things might find their way into our units.

Oct 10, 2012 07:59 AM
Connie Harvey
Pilkerton Realtors - Brentwood, TN
Realtor - Nashville TN Real Estate

Reuben, I can't imagine NOT having it inspected each year!

Oct 10, 2012 08:11 AM
Robert Butler
Aspect Inspection - Montreal West Island, QC
Montreal Home Inspector | Aspect Inspection

Those handy guys who think an annual cost like that is questionalble, may be capable of doing most of the maintenance checks and service themselves if they have a minds to learn it.  For some this will be true but, and this is a big butt, being informed and capable to do your own service maintenance is no substitute for real in depth experience.

My furnace guy could 'hear' that something was wrong, so he looked beyond the usual service list and found the cracked fire chamber.

Another great post Reuben!

Oct 10, 2012 09:40 AM
Erv Fleishman
Realty Associates - Boca Raton, FL
Luxury Prop Specialist Realty Associates

Nah. Save the money on the inspection and you can use it for the medical bills or worse. Do you cross the street on red?

Oct 10, 2012 12:12 PM
Eric Middleton
Closer Look Property Inspections Inc. - Uniondale, NY
Professional Property Inspector

Hey Reuben,

This is an excellent post. I was talking with two guys who feel that an annual tune up is a waste of time and money. I will show them your post which should enlighten them.

Oct 10, 2012 12:49 PM
Mike Warren
Real Estate - Colorado Springs, CO

Having your furnace checked yearly is a good idea. Great post.

Oct 10, 2012 05:01 PM
David Burrows
Classic Realty - Fairfax, VA
No Pressure, Just Seriously Devoted to Real Estate

Very good post today.... I don't even think about it. My furnace and air conditioning is tuned up and checked every year. It is the right thing to do!

Oct 10, 2012 09:21 PM
Nan Jester
Exit Real Estate Gallery Jacksonville Beach, FL - Jacksonville Beach, FL
Realtor, Exit Real Estate Gallery

Good morning Reuben,

I have always wondered what the heck those guys do or are supposed to do. I am going to bookmark this for later reference.  Thanks

Oct 10, 2012 10:51 PM
Dave Brice
Pacific West Home Inspections - Salmon Arm, BC

Agree to your write up.

Oct 10, 2012 10:56 PM
Lynda White
Bluegrass Homes & Farms Realty, Agent Know How - Louisville, KY
Admin. Mgr., Keller Williams Realty

My husband does this for a living. It's really important to have the coils cleaned on AC units or they will freeze up. That is pretty easy to do, but cleaning the blower fan and testing the unit should definitely be done by a qualified professional, and they can just clean it while they are there. Many HVAC companies have maintenance agreements where they come out twice a year and inspect your unit, and clean if necessary (it almost always is). This does save money in the long run.

Oct 10, 2012 11:13 PM
Bob Miller
Keller Williams Cornerstone Realty - Ocala, FL
The Ocala Dream Team

Hi Rueben, when you are dealing with a gas furnace we agree annual inspections are a good idea.

Oct 11, 2012 01:15 AM
Lyn Sims
Schaumburg, IL
Real Estate Agent Retired

Great that you spelled out what should be included in a good inspection. My first reaction was the same as the reader, they only vacuum out the furnace & say something stupid.  Others check for carbon monoxide leaks, cracked heat exchangers, etc.  The boiler issue is a great example of really not doing anything if you found those 2 large problems.

You get what you pay for so ask what you are actually paying for.

Oct 11, 2012 01:41 AM
Evelyn Kennedy
Alain Pinel Realtors - Alameda, CA
Alameda, Real Estate, Alameda, CA

Reuben:

I am not a skilled HVAC person, that is why I hire one to inspect my heating system.  I will keep your list to be sure that the HVAC person does all on the list.

Oct 11, 2012 02:51 AM
David Evans
RE/MAX TOWN AND COUNTRY - Cumming, GA
HUD NLB Cumming GA

Great tips and interesting issues that we all should keep in mind as we sell properties. Thanks for this great info! ;)

Oct 11, 2012 03:36 AM
John DL Arendsen
CREST "BACKYARD' HOMES, ON THE LEVEL General & Manufactured Home Contractor, TAG Real Estate Sales & Investments - Leucadia, CA
Crest Backyard Homes "ADU" dealer & RE Developer

If you don't change your filter every year you could become a victim.

Oct 11, 2012 03:57 AM
Dana Basiliere
Rossi & Riina Real Estate - Williston, VT
Making deals "Happen"

We always recomend our seller clients getting their furnace serviced BEFORE they list the house. Most of them do it every year and have the slips.

Oct 11, 2012 09:39 AM
Rafi Footerman
Mid Jersey Inspections - Edison, NJ
Home Inspector, Mold Inspector, Radon and More!

What do they say about an ounce of prevention?  Like everything else, maintenance is the key to maximizing life and efficiency.  Money well spent.

Oct 11, 2012 09:52 AM
Stephen Gaudet
Gaudet Inspections - Manchester, NH

Great article.  Nothing like a good flame rollout to show a client/buyer that the gas furnace or boiler has been neglected.

Oct 14, 2012 01:14 AM
Brad Baylor
ERA Coup Agency - Milton, PA

Reuben - I'd have to say if it's fuel-oil, then yes, I would want it serviced every year.  If it's natural gas or propane, probably not needed, since they burn a lot cleaner, however, I'd probably still do it anyway.

Oct 16, 2012 01:28 AM
Chris Smith
Re/Max Chay Realty Inc., Brokerage - New Tecumseth, ON
South Simcoe, Caledon, King, Orangeville Real Esta

Great information Reuben, and timely, I am going to re-blog this for my audience.

Oct 17, 2012 04:06 AM