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Regular maintenance and close attention to problems can prevent some expensive repairs down the line.

Your heater is one of the most important appliances in your home for the next few months.

A blown-out heater can leave your family literally in the cold for hours or days during the most frigid part of the year. Here are some tips to stay warm and toasty this winter:

Get an HVAC inspection

This usually costs about $100. Ideally, you’ll have done this already. But if not, it’s not too late to call an HVAC company to give it a change-of-seasons inspection, even if your heater’s already been running this season. Your technician will perform a complete inspection and tune-up of your system that will help keep it operating smoothly.

Plus, if you catch developing problems early enough, you can often solve them at a much lower cost than if they trigger a major breakdown.

Don’t forget to replace your filters at regular intervals, either. They play a big role in energy efficiency and operations.

Pay attention to your utility bill

Take a look at your bill each month and make sure the costs are within a normal range. If you’ve been in your home a while, you should have a pretty good idea of what heating will cost each month. Many utility companies also make older bills available online – if you suspect something’s up, compare this year’s bill to previous years. An unexpectedly high gas or electric bill can sometimes indicate a hidden problem.

Listen and smell

The first time you start your furnace each season, it’s not uncommon to smell a dusty or musty odor as the system revs up. But if the smell continues, ask a professional to take a look. A burning odor means you should shut it off and call for help immediately. And if you smell gas, leave the home immediately and contact your fire department and gas company.

Furnaces shouldn’t make much noise, either. But, moving parts eventually do wear out. Squealing or screeching sounds usually mean a blower motor is having problems. Grinding noises are signals you need immediate repair.

Pay attention to how it runs

If you have a multi-stage system, your furnace will adjust its power based on need and ensure a consistent temperature. Single-stage systems will turn on and off more often. However, if it turns on and off frequently, you might have a problem.

The thermostat might need to be recalibrated, or unseen air loss somewhere in the house is putting heat to waste.

Ask a professional for advice if your system turns on and off too often.

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