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Guard Your Home Against Winter Chills

By Sep 16, 2014

Winter is right around the corner (and seems to have already arrived in Calgary!), so now is a great time to discuss heating and ensure you have a good system in place before the cold sets in.

As a home inspector, I inspect many different heating systems, and I know one thing for sure: the perfect heating system does not exist. They all have their advantages and disadvantages – but some can be more appropriate, depending on the type, age, size and layout of your home.

Ideally the heat in your home should be able to supply enough heat on the coldest calendar day. Other requirements include that they:

  • are safe to operate;

  • are efficient and reliable;

  • are quick to respond;

  • are inexpensive to install;

  • are easy to maintain; and

  • have even distribution across the entire home.

Here are the three most common heating systems – and the most common problems associated with them.

Forced Air Furnaces

Forced air heat is most common these days. It is designed to heat the entire house via ducts connected to air registers. The furnace can heat the home more quickly than radiant heat, but not as quickly as electric.

Although natural gas is less expensive than electric, older homes with forced air can be less efficient than electric baseboard heat or boilers. So be sure to properly insulate your home. If you are concerned about efficiency, have your HVAC contractor run a heat loss calculation, especially before installing a new system.

Common issues with furnaces:

  • Malfunctioning thermostats
  • Expired furnaces
  • Dirty filters
  • Lack of maintenance
  • Soot/debris build up and scaling
  • Dirty/dusty components under the covers
  • Asbestos tape on the ductwork
  • Covered heat registers/missing covers
  • Damaged/disconnected or holes in the duct work
  • Damaged fan belts, poor performance
  • Rust in and around the furnace and duct work
  • Incorrect slope of the exhaust flue
  • Long runs and too many elbows in the exhaust flues
  • Missing safety switch
  • Poor service access
  • Exhaust flues too close to combustibles
  • Poor/unsafe flue connections
  • Missing flue liners within chimneys


In my opinion, boilers are more complicated than to furnaces or electric heat. If you have a problematic boiler or system, I would recommend calling a plumber – unless you have the training to repair it.

Boilers distribute heat through a series of pipes, connected to radiators, baseboards or in the floor. Zones determine which areas will receive the heat, via thermostats. Radiant heat is widely considered the most comfortable system, however, it can take several hours to warm up the home and initial installation is typically the most expensive option.

Common issues with boilers:

  • Insufficient heat
  • Leaking pipes
  • Radiator issues
  • Rusty components/corrosion
  • Improper or outdated piping materials (polybutylene with plastic fittings)
  • Expansion tank problems
  • Poor/unsafe flue connections
  • Defective zones valves
  • Radiator problems
  • Water pressure too high
  • Older, outdated boilers
  • Poor access
  • Missing safety switch

Safety Tip: To minimize the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, I always recommend installing a carbon monoxide detector by the boiler or furnace. (Or any gas burning appliance) I prefer the plug mounted type rather than the combination smoke/carbon monoxide detectors.

Electric Heaters

Electric baseboard heat does not have a distribution system like a furnace or a boiler, so inspecting these systems is less complicated. The baseboards are attached to a lower wall. The heat is either working or it is not, which means that many issues stem from the service panel, where the supply breakers have been shut off.

The smell of burning is common, especially if the heat has not been used recently. To prevent this, take a vacuum and clean the fins prior to turning the heat on.

An electric baseboard heater is great for warming a room quickly. Although very easy to use and convenient, it can be expensive, so limit the use during summer, or where it is not needed.

Common issues with electric baseboards:

  • Inoperative heat
  • Improper wiring
  • Dirty, damaged or bent fins
  • Obstructed/covered heaters
  • Missing, damaged/loose covers
  • Electrical cords on the heaters
  • Poor placement of the heater
  • Faulty thermostat
  • Outlets installed directly above the heater

Often I’ll see a combination of forced air/radiant heat and electric in houses that have been updated. Electric baseboard heat is the easiest and least expensive option when adding an extension to a home.

As a point of reference, poorly maintained heating appliances (boilers and furnaces) account for many negotiations after a home inspection. A new furnace or boiler is not cheap and homebuyers would rather not inherit a failing system. So be sure to keep yours in good shape through regular, annual maintenance by an HVAC specialist.

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