There’s nothing worse than your heating system going out in the middle of winter while the snow is flying against a pitch-dark sky. Aside from running water, heating is generally a home owner’s greatest energy expense, which means that if your system breaks down you have a costly emergency on your hands too. We have compiled time-worn advice to help you detect and prevent problems early so you can keep your family warm and safe during these frigid winter days in northeast Indiana.

Replace or clean your air filters

One of the most common causes of an HVAC breakdown is accumulated dirt and dust in the filtering system. A dirty air filter introduces contaminants into the air and blocks heated air from getting through. This puts more pressure on your furnace to produce fuel. If your air filter is dirty, you will need to either clean it (if it’s reusable) or replace it with a new one. We recommend checking your air filter every month and replacing it every 90 days.

We also recommend vacuuming off the air vents as you clean or replace the air filter. Clean vents enable smooth airflow, which makes temperature regulation throughout the home easier. When checking your return and supply vents (registers), make sure that they don’t have any obstructions, such as rugs or furniture, that could block air flow.

Check your thermostat

If your thermostat doesn’t work properly, you’ll be layering up as your energy bill climbs. You can test your thermostat before the cold weather arrives by turning the heat on now. If it takes a long time to warm up the home, then it might be time for a new thermostat. Rather than sticking with an older manual model, you can invest in solutions like programmable and smart thermostats to gain precision control over your home’s temperatures.

Programmable thermostats are designed to automatically adjust the temperature in your home based on a preset schedule. You can customize settings for every day of the week for your family’s schedule, which means you don’t waste energy when the house is empty. You can further save energy if your thermostat is connected to your heat pump and furnace, which means that your system will switch between gas and electric heating options based on efficiency.

Some thermostats also come with energy reports that let you compare your monthly heating and cooling usage. This knowledge can then help you adjust settings as needed to cut down on energy consumption and your utility bills.

In contrast, a smart thermostat is often seen as the ultimate comfort solution because it offers more advanced features than a programmable thermostat. Smart thermostats can provide energy reports, run times, and notify you if your air filter needs replacing.

Even better, all these tasks can be done remotely through your smartphone. Smart thermostats are often location-based or GPS-based, which means the system learns your schedule and you can find yourself coming home to ideal temperatures. This technology also integrates with home assistants like Alexa, so you can change the temperature with a single command.

Maximize your home insulation

Insulation is essential to the proper heating and cooling of your home. Start on the ground level, since the cold will enter there first, and check for insulation gaps by looking around your doors, windows, and under your eaves. Inspect and apply weather strips on doors and windows as needed.

From there, you should evaluate whether you have enough insulation in your attic. Since heat rises, it can leak out this rarely used space unbeknownst to the homeowner.

Energy Star offers a simple visual test to determine whether the home’s attic is sufficiently insulated. According to their recommendation, insulation in the attic should be high enough to obstruct the view of the floor joists. If this is the case, then additional insulation will offer little to no benefit.

Winterize your AC unit

While your heating system is the primary focus before the cold sets in, those chilly days of icy rain and snow can wreak havoc on your outdoor AC unit as well. Thus, taking precautions now supports the longevity of your system, protects against rust damage, and keeps animals from nesting inside your unit.

You can start preventative maintenance by removing all leaves, twigs, and grass clippings from your outdoor unit on a dry fall day. Then take your garden hose and give the unit a thorough rinsing to clear away any leftover debris.

Once the unit has completely dried again, locate the electrical circuit and flip the switch to cut the power supply. This precaution prevents your AC unit from accidentally turning on automatically during warm winter days.

Now you can end preparation by covering the top of the unit with a slab of plywood. Place a brick on top of the plywood to make sure your covering doesn’t slip. This approach prevents leaves, sticks, and icicles from damaging your unit.

After you winterize your outdoor unit, we recommend still giving the unit a visual inspection every month. You can take this time to brush any ice or snow off, and make sure that no animals crawled their way inside.

Schedule routine maintenance

The best time for HVAC maintenance is during “shoulder seasons”—spring and fall—when your AC and furnace are needed the least. By scheduling bi-annual checkups with your local HVAC technician, you can avoid higher utility bills from an inefficient system or a breakdown.

During the inspection, your technician will remove vent covers and check for dirt or blockages. This process is important for removing contaminants like dust, allergens, and pet dander. Allowing contaminants to clog your ducts not only slows down your heating system but makes your family more susceptible to airborne illness.

Your technician will also take this time to inspect other key areas, including burners and the heat exchanger, controls, electrical wiring, and the condensate drain. Checking for tears helps prevent any dangerous carbon monoxide from leaking into your home.