Neat heat: How to avoid the poorhouse

Beck Cohen

 Q.  Baby, it's cold outside! How can I stay toasty this winter with my natural gas heater? –Frigid in Fluvanna

 A: Natural gas is a popular form of heating in Charlottesville and surrounding counties– that is, when and where it's available. However, gas prices have been rising around the nation recently, so such furnaces have become less cost-efficient this fall.

There are certainly ways for homeowners to keep their gas prices down, though. Because gas furnaces can recover temperatures quickly, programmable thermostats are wise investments. Most people aren't at home during the weekdays, so they can program these thermostats to have lower temperatures while they're at work or asleep at night. 62 degrees is a reasonable setback temperature, safe for pets and not so low that you'll waste money when raising the temperature back to normal. A good occupied temperature–for when you're at home and not in bed– is 68 degrees.

Another money-saving technique is to minimize infiltration. In layman's terms: don't leave windows cracked open. Also, don't play with your thermostat more than necessary, turning it up to 90 degrees, then back to 75 an hour later, for instance. Keeping consistent temperatures for several hours at a time will save on gas and therefore money.

Homeowners should service their gas heaters bi-annually, planning for one of the checks prior to the heating season. Several companies offer service agreements or plans, but, depending on the equipment, a lot of the maintenance doesn't have to be performed by professionals. Most homeowners can change filters, oil fan motors, and check flues on their own. Routine maintenance is undoubtedly the best way to care for your heating equipment.

Don't try to fix your heater on your own if it turns off because of the safety limits switch. If your furnace shuts off on its own because of safety issues, and you simply reset the safety switch to restart the heat, you haven't fixed the problem. You could have blocked flues, a bad burner, or any number of other problems that require a service technician.

Finally, call a professional if your system is frequently turning on and off by itself (short-cycling), running continuously, or if your fan is on but not emitting any heat.

Jerry Kidd of Beck Cohen