So, you’ve made it through most of the winter without encountering any major problems with your heating system. Congrats! But don’t let your guard down just yet. It’s not uncommon for heating issues to crop up in late winter. After all, your system has been working overtime to warm your home for a few months now, so any minor problems that you didn’t notice at the start of the season may have grown into potentially major problems by this point.
Routine maintenance for your HVAC equipment can prevent most major heating issues from developing, of course, but even well-oiled machines can occasionally give you trouble.
Moreover, as our fellow Eastern Panhandle residents can attest, late winter weather conditions in the Mid-Atlantic region can be just as bad—if not worse—than they are earlier in the season. It’s not unusual for us to get heavy snow in February or even March. During periods of extreme cold, strong winds, heavy snow, or sleet, your home’s heating system must work harder than usual, which causes extra wear and tear and increases the chances that your equipment will malfunction or break down.
To keep your heating system running at peak performance levels all winter long, you must take good care of it and keep a sharp eye out for anything that could go wrong.
Here are some of the late winter heating problems you should watch for:
Problems That Can Occur in Most Heating Systems
- Short-cycling – This is when a heating system turns on and off rapidly without ever finishing its heat cycle. Multiple problems can cause short-cycling, including blocked air vents, dirty air filters, leaky ductwork, or even a malfunctioning or incorrectly programmed thermostat.
- Uneven heating – Have you noticed that some rooms in your home are colder than others? With forced-air (aka central heating) systems, that could be caused by a dirty air filter or heating coil or a problem with the air handler.
- Lack of heat – Is your heating system on and circulating air but doesn’t seem to be warming your home effectively? Before you panic, check your thermostat. Believe it or not, a faulty thermostat could be the culprit. If that’s not it, there are several other possibilities, depending on what type of heat source your system relies on. If you have a gas furnace, there could be a problem with your pilot light, such as a lack of a steady power source or a buildup of gunk in the assembly. No heat when the pilot light is on, though, could indicate problems with burners, the flame sensor, or the control board.
- Blowing no air – If your heater is running, but it’s not blowing any air through your ducts, the first thing you should do is check your thermostat to make sure it’s set correctly and functioning as it should. The issue also could have several other causes depending on your heat source. For a furnace that isn’t blowing air, the problem could be a tripped blower motor circuit breaker or a clogged air filter. If your heat pump is running but not blowing air, the belt that connects the motor to the blower might be broken.
- Thermostat not working – A malfunctioning thermostat can cause many other heating problems, but it’s also a problem in and of itself. If your heater doesn’t respond to your thermostat, there could be several reasons, including a blown fuse, tripped breaker, or dead batteries. Or your thermostat could be dirty. Dust and other debris can coat the inside of your thermostat and interfere with its ability to function properly.
- Strange noises – If you hear odd noises coming from your heating equipment, that’s a sign that it’s time to call in a professional HVAC technician. These noises could indicate different problems for different heating systems. If you notice banging or whistling noises coming from your boiler, for instance, there could be air in the system, or the water pressure may be too low.
- Suddenly sky-high energy bills – Most of us are used to higher energy bills in the winter than the rest of the year. In fact, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration in this article for NPR, heating alone can account for up to two-thirds of your annual energy bills. But if you notice a sudden dramatic increase in your heating costs, your HVAC equipment might be to blame. Almost any HVAC problem can cause energy bills to increase. Some of the most common culprits include dirty air ducts and filters and poorly maintained equipment. For heat pumps, suddenly high energy bills also could indicate bad compressor valves, a low refrigerant charge, or a bad metering device.
Problems With Specific Types of Heat Sources
Other late winter heating problems vary depending on what powers your heating system. In electric systems, issues can include dirty filters or a bad safety switch. In propane-powered systems, a bad inducer motor or an obstructed orifice may crop up. Common problems with systems powered by heating oil include a plugged nozzle, an empty fuel tank, or air in the fuel line.
Heating issues also vary depending on the type of heat source (furnace versus heat pump, for example). Here are some of the late winter heating problems for three of the most common heat sources in our area:
- Delayed burner ignition – It’s normal for dirt and grime to build up on gas furnace burners, but too much buildup can clog them and make it difficult for the gas jets to ignite. When this happens, you’ll hear a loud booming sound when they finally ignite. This is a sign that your burners need to be cleaned by a professional HVAC technician. You may be thinking “It’s just a noise; it’s not that big of a deal,” but clogged burners decrease the efficiency of your furnace and put stress on other heating system components.
- No gas flame – Older gas furnaces have pilot lights, while some newer models have electronic ignition. If your gas furnace’s pilot light won’t stay lit, you may have a loose or faulty thermocouple or a defective safety cutoff valve. The pilot orifice also could be clogged with gunk. If you have an electronic-ignition furnace, you may need to reset the ignition control module by turning the power switch off and then back on again.
- Signs of leaking – While boilers are known for not needing repairs very often, you should still keep an eye out for water leaks. Well-built modern boilers don’t often leak, but any system that circulates water is susceptible to leaking, especially those that aren’t properly installed and maintained. Other reasons for boiler leaks include corrosion and high pressure.
- Pressure drop – If your boiler’s built-in pressure gauge drops below 1, you might have a problem. Boiler pressure loss can be caused by leaks as well as issues with the pressure relief valve or the expansion vessel.
- Blowing cold air – Do you feel cold air coming from your vents while your heat pump’s fan is running? Heat pumps temporarily output cold air when they’re in defrost mode to prevent freezing up, but if your heat pump is continually pumping out much colder air than you’re used to, there could be a problem with your system’s thermostat, blower, or another component.
- Freezing up – Outdoor heat pumps have an automatic defrost cycle that melts most of the ice that accumulates on them, but if you notice that your heat pump is having trouble melting the ice by itself, that could signify problems such as a dirty air filter, a lack of air flow around the outdoor unit, or a faulty condensing fan motor. If there’s no air at all coming from your vents, the cause could be a malfunctioning blower motor.
- Constant running – If it’s extremely cold outside, your heat pump may run almost constantly, as it must work harder than usual to warm your home. This is completely normal. You can make it easier for your heat pump by properly insulating your home and eliminating air leaks to prevent heat from escaping. But if it’s above 35 degrees and your heat pump never seems to stop running, the cause may be problems such as a low refrigerant charge, a bad reversing valve, or bad compressor valves.
Let Sunfire Solve Your Heating Problems
If you see signs of any of these late winter heating problems, contact us to schedule a service appointment as soon as possible. The longer you wait to address HVAC issues, the worse they can become—and the more expensive they can be to fix. Our trained and certified HVAC technicians will diagnose and fix any heating problem and ensure that your system is running smoothly and efficiently all year long.
To reach our 24-hour service department, call 304-267-3029 or fill out our online request form.
Sunfire Energy Solutions is a one-stop shop for HVAC products and installation, hearth appliances, grills, outdoor furniture, and hot tubs. We serve customers in Martinsburg, Shepherdstown, Charles Town, Ranson, Hedgesville, and Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, as well as the surrounding region, including parts of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Learn more at www.sunfireenergysolutions.com.