If you watch television or Youtube in Ontario, you’ve probably seen the advertisement of a frozen woman with a pained look on her face, bundled up huddling next to her furnace pleading for it to not break down. Then as her furnace breaks down, she puts her head down in defeat and collapses, and as the screen fades to black, they flash the message: “Don’t let your home own you.” Some pretty good advertising by G&C advertising, sticking with what works: Selling fear of a highly exaggerated problem, and then selling the solution. As a homeowner for over a quarter of a century, I want to laugh when I see this advertisement, except I can’t, because I believe the tactics being used are inherently dishonest, so it’s not funny to me.

Screen grab of Enercare ad

First, a disclosure: I was an unwitting “Customer” of Enercare when I first bought my current house. Buried in a contract that spanned a mind-numbing number of pages was a hot water tank rental agreement. When my real estate lawyer mentioned it, the builder’s representative advised me it was non-negotiable and that my only option was to buy out the contract from Enercare after purchasing my home. I couldn’t buy the house without a hot water tank, because it wouldn’t be considered suitable for occupancy and the deal would not close. It was the house we wanted in the area we wanted, there were not going to be any more houses available in that area, and the price was really good at a time when I knew the housing market in the area was going to heat up. Under pressure, I signed the agreement and bought the house.

One of the things Enercare did was to hide their billing in my regular gas bill, creating the illusion that they were affiliated with the utility (which they most certainly are not), which is named Enbridge. The name Enercare itself suggests affiliation with Enbridge, allowing Enercare to further bank on the reputation of a trusted utility. The cost of the rental was $30 per month. For that money, they covered all repairs on an appliance that, in my experience having owned my previous home bought five years used for eight years, can go for years without any maintenance, and what maintenance is needed is minimal, not worth $30 per month to me, on an appliance that could last 16 years or longer. If I change out the sacrificial anode in a timely manner, there’s no telling how many years it could last for.

screenshot of new hot water tank from my local Home Depot

When I did the math, I calculated that my $30 per month added up to $360 per year. Over 10 years, that added up to $3600. If I put $30 per month into a cookie jar, I would have enough money to have a new top of the line 12 year gas hot water tank installed in my home every 10 years. But if my hot water tank lasted 16 years, I would have paid out $5,760. After some negotiating, I finally bought out the contract for $600 after six years; my total expense being more in line with what it would have cost just to pay an honest company to install a hot water tank in the year I bought my house. My hot water tank is now twelve years old, and has cost me around $30 total in parts for maintenance for that entire time.

screenshot of average installation costs estimated by Home Depot Canada

Today, the average cost of a hot water tank installation is $1692, and a 12 year 40,000 BTU 50 gallon tank costs $1499 with delivery, totaling $3,191 before taxes, or $3,605.93 after taxes. It’s called a 12 year tank because it comes with a 12 year limited tank and parts warranty, which means if any part of the hot water tank fails during 12 years, that part is covered, plus they will provide in-home labour for the first year of ownership. It would not be unrealistic to expect such a tank to last up to and over 20 years if the anode is replaced when needed, which is a part that usually costs around $20, but sixteen years should certainly be expected. I realized there are a lot of home owners who might not know just how easy it is for someone like me to perform routine maintenance on my furnace and hot water tanks, and how easy it is for me to get these appliances repaired or replaced for a fair price if need be, and that temporarily living without a working hot water tank or furnace isn’t going to create that much hardship, which motivated me to write this to explain my position.

Now for the disclaimer: I have written this from my own personal perspective as a competent person when it comes to matters of basic safe tool use, personal safety, and home ownership along the tasks involved in running a safe home on a standard household budget. It’s not a how-to guide for anything; there are plenty of Youtube videos for that. I’m simply going to discuss what I do for regular maintenance for my own furnace and hot water tank for the purposes of demonstrating the fear that is being sold to me is, in my opinion, just the selling of fear for fear’s sakes at the expense of the hard working middle class homeowner for the benefit of greedy, idle corporations and those who wish not to do any actual real work for a living. While my opinion may not necessarily reflect reality, it has been my personal observation that it is often those who profit from the selling of fear who are the parasites in our society; whether it’s the gangster asking me for “Protection” money, the priest who wants to save my eternal soul, or the company that wants to save me from the fate of freezing to death in winter. Given the rise in mortgage interest rates, as well as inflation, it is my hope that the reader will find this information timely and beneficial.

My furnace with the important things pointed out

I’m going to start with the standard routine gas furnace maintenance I do to save myself the expense of a “Maintenance” program. In this picture is my furnace ilustrating the three main things I want to check for service. Starting with the viewport, any time the furnace comes on for heat, this is where I look to check the colour of the flame. What I want to see is a clean, bright blue flame. If there is any orange, that means my furnace needs service and my burner probably needs to be cleaned. Some people like to do this cleaning themselves, while others might wish to call a licensed HVAC technician to do this for them. If I do call in an HVAC technician, I always make sure to check them in the provincial register to make sure they are licensed. This is to protect my homeowner’s insurance policy if something should go wrong, and also gives me peace of mind that the person doing the work is actually trained and licensed. Pictured below is a view of my furnace burner after 12 years of use and I have never cleaned the burner once since I’ve owned it. The gas in my province is very clean, so I expect to have this work done during my furnace mid-life maintenance in two to three years.

The blue flame of my furnace

Besides checking the burner, I also like to check my exhaust vents at the side of the house to make sure they’re not blocked by snow or from some animal nesting in there. On my house, there are three; there’s one exhaust vent for the gas hot water tank, one exhaust vent for the furnace, and an intake vent for the furnace. If one of the furnace vents gets blocked, that can cause the furnace to not work; if the hot water tank one gets blocked, it will probably vent natural gas exhaust into my home, which is why I have two carbon monoxide detectors that I check every spring and fall.

My furnace and hot water tank exhaust vents

Next up is the furnace filter. Where I might wish to check the viewport regularly throughout the heating season, I change out the filter twice a year. It’s a simple operation of snapping off the cover, sliding the old filter out, and sliding the new filter in. The reason why I do this on the shoulder season (spring and fall) is because I pick a day when the furnace doesn’t need to run. I make sure the furnace is turned off at the thermostat, and then I change out the filter. The important question is, what filter do I get? I prefer to use exactly the type of filter my furnace came with, and that is a standard basic fiberglass filter. The reason I do not use “Premium,” “Better,” or even “Good” furnace filters is because the blower motor in my furnace was sized for my house based on the airflow through a basic fiberglass filter. Whenever I use one of the so-called “Better” furnace filters, the air flow is restricted. This means that rooms that are the furthest away from the furnace end up being too cold in the winter, and too warm in the summer. Not only do the fiberglass filters make my furnace work better, they’re also cheaper; I can get twelve of them for thirty dollars, which is good for six years. Naturally, a company that makes money selling furnaces will promote the “Premium” filters under the guise that they will help with allergies, so that when I find my household heating and cooling needs are no longer being met after using these filters, I will be led to believe it’s because my furnace is either cheap or just old and needs to be replaced. If you find you have a bedroom that’s too cold in the winter and too warm in the summer, try changing out your furnace filter with a basic fiberglass one and see for yourself if that helps.

My condensate drain cleanout

Finally is the condensate drain cleanout. This is just a rubber cap on the bottom of a drain tube held in place with a circular clamp. I do this at the same time I change out the filter. I put a cup or bowl under the drain to catch the water that comes out when I open it, and then I use a pair of pliers or channel locks to squeeze the circular clamp and remove it so that I can easily pop off the rubber cap. I rinse out any residue that’s inside that cap, and then replace it. Condensate is water that comes out of the air when it experiences a temperature change from warm air to cool air. Both the furnace and air conditioning parts of my system have condensate that needs to drain, so it’s important to keep this clear; otherwise, the condensation will remain inside and cause significant corrosion, shortening the life of my furnace and air conditioning. The furnace and air conditioning components in mine are both connected to the same condensate drain cleanout.

Suppose my furnace quits on me; now what? It’s as simple as going to the Yellow Pages, and doing a search for an HVAC company in my area. Google would be my second choice, because I’m going to need to dig through a lot of ads for “Furnace maintenance plans” from certain companies with which I do not wish to do business with. There is one 24 hour company in my area. Meanwhile, my house was built after the 1980’s, so it is well insulated and isn’t going to get too cold too quickly in the winter time. My hot water tank generates a certain amount of heat, as do appliances like my refrigerator, and I do have a gas fireplace as well as electric space heaters should I need to generate additional heat during a furnace outage while waiting for an HVAC technician to do their work. It is highly unlikely I would consider pleading with my furnace as part of my strategy.

It’s inevitable that a gas furnace is going to need professional maintenance at some point in its life, but in my estimation a furnace shouldn’t need that until it’s at least 10 years old. I think the 10-15 year period is when it’s a good idea to have an HVAC technician do an inspection and clean out the burner. This is also a good time for me to replace the capacitor in my central air conditioner. Typically, these last between 10-20 years and cost around $20 for the part, so if I already paid a licensed HVAC technician to come out and go over my furnace, I’m also going to have them change the capacitor in my air conditioner. If I have an HVAC technician come out to fix my air conditioner, I’ll also schedule the mid-life furnace maintenance at that time. Since I’ve been saving $30 per month, I have more than enough money to cover the expense.

The important parts of my hot water tank

The first thing of importance with my hot water tank is to test the pressure relief valve on a regular basis, usually once per month. Testing this valve exercises it to ensure it will do the job it’s designed for: To protect my tank from damage from high pressure. Water and air both expand when heated, which builds up pressure inside the tank whenever the cold water is heated. If this pressure gets too high, it can damage the tank itself and could potentially turn my hot water tank into a bomb. This is a very easy test to do; I simply push or pull on the lever, exercising the mechanism of the pressure relief valve causing water to flow out the tube along the side. If it continues to drip after a test, I hold it a bit longer to let more water flow through it to clear it out. That would be a pretty good indication that my tank needs to be drained and flushed. If it doesn’t work, I will turn my tank off and have it replaced. A typical replacement pressure relief valve costs less than $30 for the part and should be a simple job for any plumber or a DIYer. I have yet to have one fail on me personally, so I cannot attest to how easy or difficult they are to change.

A picture of the top of the anode at the top of the tank

If I’m going to drain and flush my hot water tank, I make sure to turn off both the burner and the cold water supply line and and let it cool down. The supply line is easy for me to find; it’s the cold water pipe running into the hot water tank, and has a valve that I can turn to turn the water off. The power switch for the burner is on the front of burner controller of my hot water tank and is labelled “On” and “Off.” There is no hot water shutoff valve in my house, so the pipes in my house will drain back into the tank during this process, making it necessary for me to bleed air out of my lines when I’m done this job. I find that opening the pressure relief valve makes the water drain faster, as does loosening the anode. I use a pail to capture the water and put that water to use; cooled down, I can use it to water my garden or grass. If it’s still warm, it’s great for a bath once the first couple of buckets with sediment have been drained. Waste not, want not. One time, the plastic drain valve started leaking after I drained my tank. No matter; I bought a suitable replacement from my local hardware store for less than $5; it was of a standard type, so that was a fairly simple DIY project for me.

my old and a new anode my new anode and the original one one side by side

After draining the water from my hot water tank, I remove my anode to inspect it. If it looks like it needs to be changed, I’ll buy another one from the local hardware store for less than $30 to replace it. That keeps my hot water tank from corroding and will help it to live a longer than expected life. It’s a thing that looks like a recessed bolt at the top of my tank, and I remove it with a 3/4" socket and socket wrench. The last one I bought was longer than the original, so I used a hack saw to cut it to the same size, and used a file to round off the edges. After that, I flush out the tank by turning the cold water supply line back on and letting it flow through for a few minutes. Once the water flows clean, I close the drain valve, leave the cold water supply line running, and turn the burner back on. I hold open the pressure relief valve until water comes out, and then I release it to let it close. After that, I go around my house to open the hot water taps to let the air out of the lines.

While I’m on the topic of home maintenance, I also use the shoulder seasons to check my smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and GFCI receptacles. I know the person on the news tells us to check our smoke detectors when we change the clocks, but I prefer to combine that with my spring and fall maintenance. While most people understand the value of testing the smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors and changing batteries if need be, most are not aware that a GFCI receptacle also needs to be tested. It’s a mechanical protection device, and pressing the test button exercises the mechanism. If it fails after testing, that means it should be replaced. They should last for 15 to 25 years, but some cheap ones might only last five. Saving $30 per month means I could afford to hire a licensed electrician if I needed to.

Both a properly maintained furnace and hot water tank could theoretically last indefinitely, as long as parts are available. Typically, when a part is replaced, it should be as good as a new part, so a part that lasted 15 years in a furnace or hot water tank ought to last another 15 years if replaced with the same part. Every part of my furnace, hot water tank, and air conditioner can be removed, serviced, and replaced if need be, and the cost of each should not be anywhere near the cost of replacing the entire appliance. This isn’t what the people selling furnaces and hot water tanks want us to know, as we seem to be living in a culture of ignorance, waste and planned obsolescence. I won’t let them own a piece of my home that should rightfully be mine. Hopefully I have motivated you to want to learn more about the equipment that runs in your home, so that your home doesn’t become an ongoing profit centre for someone else while keeping you poor.