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Colder Montana weather has heater techs scrambling

Here are some preventative maintenance tips
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Posted at 1:39 PM, Oct 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-13 15:39:38-04

BILLINGS — The mild days of fall were quickly replaced with a soggy winter cold snap in much of Montana this week, which drove up calls for service for heater technicians, said John Dawson, owner of R&T Services on Tuesday.

“It changed immediately. We wake up. We come in yesterday morning and immediately at 8 a.m., phones are ringing off the hook. Folks are already having issues and this is something that we would expect," Dawson said.

Dawson said his company received between 50 to 60 calls from people with a lack of heat when the cold hit on Monday.

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John Dawson, owner of R&T Services in Billings. His company specializes in heating and cooling systems, along with fireplaces, patio heaters and outdoor grills.

"That first immediate temperature change that we have in Montana, that’s just right when everybody is switching on their furnaces for the first time and finding out, oh boy it’s not working the way I want it to," Dawson said.

And the furnace calls kept rolling in on Tuesday, Dawson said.

A majority of furnaces in the Yellowstone County area Dawson's team services are powered by natural gas, he said. Most of the issues the crew dealt with during the cold snap have been relatively simple. The normal culprit for a furnace not turning on after months of dormancy is a build-up of particulates or other grime on a safety sensor.

“We see things like certain safety switches are just not operating properly. So the rest of the furnace may be ready to go and may be ready to actually light up for you, but the safety switch for whatever reason is just saying, ‘no this isn’t ready to go. We need to get this looked at,’” Dawson said.

Components of a heating system in the basement of a home in Billings.

As with most machines, preventative maintenance on your furnace can go a long way towards saving money on costly repairs down the road, Dawson said. The best thing you can do to prevent future trouble, is to make sure there's a clean filter in your furnace, Dawson said.

“The cleaner that you can keep your furnace, the better off that you are going to be. Also, the better that your experience is going to be in your own home. You are going to have much better air quality because of it," Dawson said.

The rule of thumb is to replace your filter once a month, but pet owners should keep a closer eye to make sure their filter is clean, due to an increased amount of pet hair that could clog the filter, Dawson said.

"A lot of this stuff becomes very much taken for granted. Out of sight, out of mind. And that's kind of what we want from our heating equipment. But being sure to go and replace that filter plays a huge role in maintaining the longevity of your equipment," Dawson said.

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A good rule of thumb is to change your furnace air filter once a month or possibly sooner if you have pets.

Running a furnace with a dirty filter makes the furnace work harder, increasing the possibility for other components to fail. Dawson said a symptom of a dirty filter can be the fan running really loud.

Dawson said it's also not a bad idea to get a technician out before the temperatures really hit the floor. The technician can catch small problems ahead of time before they lead to big problems and make sure the system is safe and not leaking gas.

“If you find that you are having a condensate leak, or something that is going to rust up the interior of your furnace, catching that earlier can definitely extend the life of your appliance greatly," Dawson said.

The cost to get a new furnace can be pricey. Dawson couldn't give an exact ballpark, because there's different variables for each project, but a new system could run you between $4,000 to $15,000.

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Steam exits a Billings home after the first cold snap of the season on Oct. 12, 2021.

“There’s so many things that may need to be corrected, or maybe issues that it’s impossible just to give out a simple price. Otherwise a lot of us would just go ahead and advertise on our website," Dawson said.

The real test of everyone's heating system will be the cold days to come when temperatures are consistently around 20 degrees F to 0 degrees F, Dawson said.

"That’s going to be the time when some of these older furnaces, the ones that are kind of past their life expectancy, that’s when we’re going to see a lot of them fail. They’re just not going to be able to keep up with the demand of the home," Dawson said.

At the start of the summer in June, Dawson said he expected the prices on heating and cooling equipment to rise, due to global supply chain shortages. He said his predictions came true.

Over the past few months, Dawson said manufacturers have had two rounds of price increases, between five to eight percent.

"We've definitely seen some continued strain in that global supply of stuff there. Right now, it looks like we're set up, a lot of places are really set up with furnaces. Ready to go for those change outs. I don't know what that's going to look like in two months. That's just kind of the way things are right now, unfortunately," Dawson said.