It's time to do something for yourself, your home and your peace of mind: Have your furnace inspected and cleaned by a trusted professional.
If you've already done so, congratulations.
If you've been putting it off, especially if you can't remember the last time your furnace was properly prepared for the winter, make an appointment to have it done.
Don't know who to call?
Ask family members, neighbors and/or coworkers for recommendations and then check them out with the Better Business Bureau (www.pittsburgh.bbb.org; 412-456-2700) and the state attorney general's office (www.attorneygeneral.gov; 1-888-520-6680).
The goal is to see if the companies have a good record and to confirm they are registered with the attorney general's office. The office encourages consumers to use registered contractors when investing in home improvements, including furnace inspections.
It's also a good idea to visit www.post-gazette.com and enter the name of a company in the search box to see if any stories have been written about it.
If the companies have websites, spend some time on them. If the websites don't list prices for a furnace inspection and/or don't state what an inspection includes, call the company and ask. Also ask if the house call is included in the price of the inspection.
Proceed with caution.
If you don't like what you hear, especially if a company won't say what it charges, call another company. Yes, this is a busy time for them. Yes, you may have to wait several weeks. And yes, the person who answers the phone may be rushed and have other calls waiting. But trust your instincts.
If you decide to forgo an inspection because of the price -- from $100 to $125 -- it may cost you dearly if your furnace stops working on a cold winter's night.
If that happens, you may have to wait days for service or dig deep into your wallet or purse to pay a company that advertises 24-hour service, seven days a week, to show up in the middle of the night on a weekend.
Although your teeth may be chattering from the cold, ask how much the service call will be and what extra fees, if any, the company charges for "after hours" service calls.
Beware of repair technicians who arrive and ask you to initial here, there and everywhere and then place your signature on a contract that may obligate you to pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars before they even ask where the furnace is located.
If that scenario occurs, don't initial or sign anything. Pay only for the service call and show the tech the door. It will be cheaper to stay in a motel until you can get a reputable company to fix the furnace.
I receive emails and phone calls every winter from distraught readers who have been ripped off by a few heating companies who prey on consumers, especially elderly people, when their furnaces stop working.
The homeowners were cold, they were frightened (some techs scare them with talk of fires and/or explosions) and they wanted the heat back on as soon as possible. They're then outraged when presented with a bill that can exceed the cost of a new furnace.
And if the homeowners challenge the bill by taking the company to an arbitration panel of three lawyers or a Common Pleas Court judge, they will be asked under oath if the initials and signature on the contract are theirs.
They will say yes and then try to qualify it by saying they signed it under duress, that they were intimidated by talk of dire consequences if repairs weren't done immediately and/or that the tech misrepresented himself.
It won't matter. Arbitrators will rule in favor of the company. And so will a judge. I've witnessed such proceedings several times.
Bottom line: Get your furnace inspected as soon as possible.
Although homeowners usually are able to change the air filter in their furnaces, it's best to have a professional do the following:
• Test carbon monoxide levels; clean and adjust burners and inspect the heat exchanger; lubricate all motors, bearings, fans and circulator pumps (if applicable); check thermostat operation; clean the pilot assembly; install standard filters (if applicable); and test and adjust the operation of safety and operating controls.
• Check for gas leaks; inspect the flue pipe and gas valves; check blower motor (and belt if applicable); test and tighten all wiring and connections; turn exposed dampers to heating position, if marked; inform customer of the equipment's condition; and recommend any necessary repairs.
May the heat be with you.
Lawrence Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 412-263-1895. Please include your name and day, evening and/or cell phone number(s). Due to volume, he cannot respond to every email and phone call.