As the days get shorter and the evening air begins to carry the first signs of fall’s chill, the thought of turning on the furnace becomes more appealing. It won’t be long before fall turns into winter and temperatures take a plunge, and you want your furnace to be ready to take on whatever the season brings.

Readying your furnace for the coming cold weather prevents emergencies and saves money. The average cost of residential furnace repair is $335, but some jobs can cost nearly 10 times as much. Instead of letting your furnace become one of the 77 percent of units doomed to fail from not being repaired in time, get a jump on seasonal home heating maintenance now to ensure warmth and comfort throughout fall and winter.

11 Steps for Furnace Readiness
It may not seem necessary to spend a lot of time checking your furnace when you’re only dealing with a few chilly fall nights, but without proper seasonal care, your furnace could give out right in the middle of a cold snap, leaving you shivering as you wait for a furnace repair technician to restore your home heating. Before winter really sets in, follow these 11 steps for better furnace performance.

Check Your Carbon Monoxide Detector
Although this isn’t directly related to furnace maintenance, it’s a critical starting point. Carbon monoxide leaks are responsible for over 400 deaths in the U.S. every year, and more than 20,000 people visit the emergency room with symptoms resulting from exposure to this colorless, odorless toxic gas.

A working alarm can save your life. Test your existing alarm, or install an alarm if you don’t already have one. Continue to test the alarm monthly, replacing the batteries any time the test fails or if the alarm begins to make a consistent chirping noise.

Clean Around the Furnace
It’s easy for clutter to build up around the furnace and the vents throughout the house during the warmer months. Take the opportunity to give your home a good cleaning as part of your DIY furnace checkup. Remove stored items from the vicinity of the furnace, and find a new home for anything you may have set on top of it. Break out the broom and vacuum to remove dirt and debris from around the unit so that no vents or other moving parts are blocked.

Check each vent in the house for obstructions. Move furniture away from registers, and relocate toys your kids or pets have dragged around the house. If you use vent covers, make sure all of them are removed before the furnace gets turned on.

Clean the Air Ducts
After you’ve cleaned the area around your vents, use a screwdriver to remove the registers. Fire up the vacuum cleaner, and get out as much debris as you can. Use an extendable attachment to reach down into the duct. Take time to be thorough, especially if you have pets. Pet hair, dirt, dust and other grime build up inside ducts and will continue to circulate around your home if not removed, potentially causing problems with allergies or asthma. Clean the register grills with the vacuum cleaner or a dust cloth before screwing them back into place.

If you encounter a large amount of dirt or your ducts appear clogged or damaged, you’re going to want to call in professional home heating services to perform repairs and do a deeper cleaning. Buildup in air ducts can be a fire hazard and puts your family and your home at risk.

Clean Inside the Furnace
A dirty furnace interior can cause the same problems as dirty ductwork, and it reduces the efficiency of the unit. Cleaning the blower helps restore optimal function and minimizes the risk of a breakdown.

Turn the power switch to the “off” position, and carefully remove the blower from the interior of the furnace. Using a stiff-bristled brush and a vacuum cleaner, remove as much dirt as possible. Be careful not to damage any of the parts or throw the blower motor off balance. Lubricating the blower motor is also recommended to keep it running smoothly.

Before replacing the blower, inspect the belt. If it’s loose or appears damaged, replace it or have it replaced so that the furnace remains operational throughout fall and winter.

Check the Chimney
During the summer, birds may decide your furnace chimney is a great place to build a nest, and small rodents, bits of masonry and other outside detritus can fall in. This narrows the opening and can block the furnace flue. When the furnace can’t vent gasses to the exterior of the house, carbon monoxide and other harmful substances may start to circulate indoors with potentially hazardous results.

You don’t have to go up to the roof to detect chimney problems. Inspecting the vent, flue and chimney for streaks of water, rust or white residue can tell you if the inside of the chimney is dirty or the flue is blocked. If you see any of these signs, or if there’s soot around the furnace, have the chimney cleaned as soon as possible. Arrange to have the cleaning repeated annually to prevent dangerous buildup.

Change the Filters
Filters catch debris from the air to prevent your furnace from blowing dirt and dust around the house. If you haven’t used the unit in a while, put in a new filter before running your heat for the first time this season. Plan to replace the filter every four to six weeks until you turn the unit off again in the spring. Letting the filter fill up too much decreases not only the air quality in your home but also the efficiency of the furnace. Pushing air through a clogged filter requires the unit to work harder and could cause it to break down or give out prematurely.

If you or someone in your family suffers from respiratory problems, consider switching to a HEPA filter for even better air quality.

Inspect All Connections
Connections in your furnace, such as fuel lines and those running to burners and heat exchangers, should show no signs of damage or leaks. Check every connection prior to running your furnace for the season, looking for cracks, holes, fraying wires and other potential hazards. Clear away dirt, dust and other built-up grime, being careful not to disconnect anything.

Don’t attempt to fix any problems you find yourself. Electrical and fuel connections can be dangerous, and if you’re not familiar with the proper safety precautions or the steps involved furnace repair, you can make the problem worse, cause more damage or wind up hurting yourself. Leaking fuel lines are especially hazardous and should be repaired immediately.

Run a Test
Once everything is clean, turn the thermostat up a few degrees above the current temperature of your home, and listen for the sound of the furnace engaging. Pay attention to what you hear as it starts up and when it’s running, listening for any unusual noises such as:

• Banging
• Rumbling
• Popping
• Scraping
• Squealing

A loud furnace indicates a problem with parts or the impending failure of the unit. Short cycling, or the furnace turning on and off at intervals instead of running consistently until your home reaches the desired temperature, is also a signal something is amiss.

If nothing happens at all when you try to turn the heat on, it could be a broken thermostat, a problem with the ignitor or trouble with the furnace itself. Call in a professional to check both and perform residential furnace repair before cold weather sets in.

Check for Proper Flame Color
As long as your furnace is running as it should, you can move on to checking the color of the flames. Make sure the power switch is off before opening the burner cover. Turn the power back on, and inspect the flames. They should be even and blue. Yellow or orange “pops” may be a sign of a problem with combustion, and any streaks of color other than blue should be addressed immediately by a professional.

Top Up the Fuel
Give your local fuel company a call after you’ve performed all the necessary maintenance on your furnace, and schedule your first delivery of the season. Inquire about potential savings through pre-purchasing or pre-buying programs based on the estimated amount of fuel you’ll need to get through fall and winter.

Pre-buying fuel can cut down on costs by locking in the price at the time of your payment so that you’re not at the whim of price changes during the season. However, if prices drop, you could wind up spending more. Many companies also add a small fee or charge slightly more than the going rate on fuel for pre-buying plans to protect themselves from losing money should fuel costs jump sharply.

Whatever option you choose, now is the time to establish a regular delivery schedule to ensure you never run out of fuel. Use your budget and past fuel consumption as a guide to determine how often to ask for a delivery.

Upgrade Your Thermostat
Switching from a standard thermostat to a programmable or smart model is another option to help you save money as temperatures drop. Programmable thermostats can be set in advance to raise or lower the temperature in the house based on your schedule. Smart thermostats take this concept to the next level with machine learning technology designed to start learning your habits and automatically adjust temperatures based on when you like to have the house warmer or cooler.

Apps for smart thermostats allow you to change the temperature in the house wherever you are, whether you wake up in the middle of the night and decide you need a touch more heat but don’t feel like getting out of bed or you want to raise the temperature a few degrees before arriving home from work.

Both programmable and smart thermostats cut down on the amount of fuel used to heat your home and help keep the temperature comfortable throughout the day. Even if you don’t have a broken thermostat, consider upgrading to enjoy seasonal savings.

Consider Professional Maintenance
Performing the steps outlined above is a good starting point to ensure your furnace is ready for cold weather. However, it’s not always possible to catch all potential problems or solve every issue you find on your own. Professional furnace service can reveal disasters waiting to happen and take care of repairs beyond the scope of seasonal DIY preparations.

The average cost of a professional furnace tune-up runs between $100 and $125, a small price to pay considering replacement units may cost anywhere from $400 to $12,000 depending on the type of system heating your home. Investing in home heating services before brutally cold weather hits saves additional money on repairs by allowing the pros to catch and fix small problems before they become costly emergencies.

Reduced maintenance and repair costs aren’t the only reasons to schedule professional furnace service this season. Getting a fall or winter tune-up also benefits your unit by:

• Improving energy-efficiency, resulting in lower winter heating bills
• Restoring proper air flow to prevent damage from overwork
• Reducing the risk of carbon monoxide gas leaks
• Reducing the number of allergens circulating through air ducts
• Making it easier to maintain even heating throughout the house

If you don’t already have a reliable technician to take care of your furnace, read reviews for local companies to find an HVAC company with a good track record and a positive reputation. Ask for recommendations from friends and family, and choose a business on which you can rely this season and for years to come.

With DIY maintenance done and professional servicing complete, your furnace is ready to tackle the chilly evenings of fall and deep cold of winter. You can rest assured heat will be available when you need it, and you and your family can enjoy a warm, safe home throughout the season. Continue to perform regular maintenance on your own and with the help of professionals to ensure your furnace lasts a long time and continues to deliver optimal heat to every part of your home.