Contractors Say Furnace System Tuneup Can Cut Fuel Bill, Add Peace of Mind

Ask heating contractors how much it costs to have your home furnace cleaned and tuned up, and you'll get answers ranging from $50 to $200.

Oct. 12—Ask heating contractors how much it costs to have your home furnace cleaned and tuned up, and you'll get answers ranging from $50 to $200.

But they all agree on two things: A tuned-up heating system burns less fuel — sometimes hundreds of dollars less — and detecting a problem early could prevent a furnace from breaking down some winter weekend when it's below zero.

"It really makes a difference," said Ken Britt, service manager for heating, ventilation and air conditioning at State Line Oil in Granby.

He said the savings could be as much as 15 percent, although others in the industry estimate the savings at 2 to 8 percent, depending on the age of the equipment and how well it operates.

This year, with heating oil prices already breaking records and natural gas prices 37 percent higher than last year, the savings could be substantial.

For a household burning 850 gallons of oil during a season at last week's $1.85 statewide average price, the savings range comes to $31 to $235 for the season.

That's enough to help defray, or even cover the cost of a typical furnace cleaning and tuneup. And it's a premium on a heating system's reliability.

"The best way to save your money is making sure your heating system is not wasting your money," said Gene Guilford, executive director of the Independent Connecticut Petroleum Association.

The association includes the state's heating oil dealers and gasoline wholesalers and retailers. It also operates a training facility in Cromwell that trains 220 service technicians a year on different types of burner and furnace models.

Jim Todd, director of technical education for the association, said customers should think beyond economics when it comes to servicing a furnace. For example, it's better to find a worn or broken part now rather than during a frigid February evening.

"The primary purpose is to give you some comfort level that it will perform reliably through the heating season for you," he said.

Service visits should be scheduled annually in the summer or fall, before the cold weather begins in earnest, other industry officials said.

Heating oil companies that offer service plans usually remind their customers to schedule a visit each year, and if a problem develops during the winter they often give their regular customers priority for service calls.

A tuneup usually takes one to two hours. A technician typically inspects the unit, cleans it and lubes or replaces parts, as necessary.

The cost can vary from $50 to $200, a range that industry officials attribute to heating oil companies that use their service businesses as a loss leader.

Some undercharge for service calls as a way to keep oil-buying customers loyal to them, Todd said.

Customers should check the fine print in any service ad or agreement because sometimes parts are not included and extra charges may be tacked on to a bill.

"It's really difficult, and it's almost an embarrassment in the industry what we charge for service," Todd said. "Most of the companies undervalue their service, and they will charge accordingly."

Common problems technicians find?

Birds in the flue pipe, clogged air filters, and units that have been turned off. Some older, steam-producing units need water added. Also, some elderly residents may have trouble operating their units, especially if they bought newer models that are computer-controlled, Britt said.

Residents receiving state heating assistance can use that money to get oil-fired furnaces serviced, said Shirley Bergert, public benefits task force director for Connecticut Legal Services. But the money for a service visit comes out of their fuel aid, leaving less to buy oil.

Matthew Barrett, a spokesman for the state Department of Social Services, said homeowners receiving heating assistance can tap into a fund designated for emergency repair or replacement of furnaces.

With less federal money earmarked for heating assistance this year, state officials are cutting back on winter aid and Gov. M. Jodi Rell has asked Connecticut's congressional delegation to see if more money can be secured.

Todd said residents having their furnaces serviced should check to see if their technician is licensed.

The public can check on credentials through the website operated by the state Department of Consumer Affairs. (

Mary Ingarra, a spokeswoman for Yankee Gas, said the company encourages customers to sign up for a service plan, and to have the furnaces serviced before winter begins.

"It's just peace of mind for people," she said.

© 2004, The Hartford Courant, Conn. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.