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5. Buying, Installing & Maintaining a System

5. The Mechanics of Buying, Installing and Maintaining a System

Buying Electrical Space Heating Equipment

You cannot shop for a heating system the way you shop for a camera or a pair of shoes. There are no furnace stores where the different makes and models can be examined, compared and priced. To get first-hand information on the different makes and models available, you will have to contact a number of heating firms. Ask them for the manufacturers' illustrated sales literature on the equipment they sell and install. You should also contact your local electrical utility or contractor for assistance and information. Your local utility can provide information on the cost of purchasing or renting, installing your system, and the estimated seasonal heating costs associated with the type of equipment you plan to use.

If you have opted for a particular type of equipment, check the literature carefully, to see if it describes all the features you are looking for.

A heating contractor cannot determine what size of heating system you need just by walking through your house. The "size" of heating system means the heat output from it after it is running in steady-state operation. If you are replacing an existing heating system, the output of that system will only give a rough idea of the maximum size you should consider. The contractor will have to calculate the heating requirement of your house very carefully, using either the fuel consumption of your present heating system over a known winter period, after other usage is factored out, such as for the water heater and kitchen range or by making a thorough measurement and examination of your house to determine size, insulation levels, and degree of tightness of the house envelope. If the contractor does not show any interest in any of the above facts, then his calculation of the correct size for your new heating system is simply a "guesstimate".

To make sure proper sizing is determined, the quotation and contract should include a statement like the following: "The heating equipment size will be determined by a heat loss calculation using the formulas published by the electrical utility, the Canadian Gas Association (CGA), the Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada (HRAI), the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), or other recognized organizations. A copy of these calculations will be given to the homeowner."

It is important to hire a contractor who will install your equipment properly to ensure that it will operate efficiently. Check with your local electrical utility, or provincial regulatory office to find out how to get in touch with a fully qualified, registered or licensed contractor. If your neighbours have had similar work done recently, ask them how satisfied they were with their contractor. If you are buying a relatively new type of furnace design, try to get the name of other homeowners who have had such equipment installed to find out about the appliance's performance and the workmanship of the installer.

Before you decide what to buy, obtain firm, written bids from several companies on: a) the cost of upgrading your existing equipment and b) the cost of buying and installing a complete new unit, along with any other fittings and adjustments required, including changes to any ductwork or piping and a final balancing of the heat supply to the house. With these figures and a reasonable estimate of the probable annual savings in heating costs determined from Table 2 on page 36, you will be able to determine how long it will take to recover the cost. This is not the only factor to be considered, of course, but it is certainly one of the most important.

Remember that a building permit may be required for this type of work, and the contract should state whether the installer or the homeowner is responsible for obtaining it.


You should get several estimates on the work to be done. When you are comparing these estimates, cost will be an important factor, but there are other considerations involved. Some contractors may be better at explaining what has to be done, some may use higher quality components, and some may schedule the work to your convenience.

Estimates should include the following items:

  • The total cost for all necessary work.
  • An itemized list of all material and labour costs included in the bid: alteration or improvement of existing heat distribution ducts; installation of appliance; alteration or replacement of the main service panel and service entrance; alterations to service wires above or below grade to the transformer pole; transformer pole replacement (sometimes the responsibility of the customer in rural areas); installation of water heater (where applicable); and installation of additional equipment such as humidifiers, air cleaners or air conditioners.
  • A statement describing how much existing equipment will be used in the new system.
  • A rough diagram showing the layout of any new wiring and the location of heating equipment.
  • A statement that clearly defines who is responsible for:
    • all necessary permits and payment of related fees;
    • scheduling of all other required work by the electrical utility, such as alterations to the transformer or related outside equipment;
    • removal of any existing equipment that will not be used with the new system;
    • all related costs, such as subcontracts with tradespeople;
  • A clear estimate of when the work will be completed
  • A warranty for materials and labour.
  • A schedule and method of payment.
  • A statement that indicates when electric service will be interrupted and for how long.

Ask contractors for the names of homeowners for whom they have done similar work. The Better Business Bureau will know if the contractor is a member and whether any recent complaints have been filed. Your Chamber of Commerce or Board of Trade may also be able to help.

Consider additional upgrading or improvements to house wiring while this work is being done. The provision of split receptacles to kitchen counter areas, an electric stove receptacle, outside lighting, and draftproofing of receptacles in outside walls may be possible and relatively economical, while the work on the heating system is being completed.

In most provinces, if wiring has been upgraded, a service panel replaced, heating equipment added or load management devices installed, the work must be inspected by the utility, municipality, or province. The contractor should have these inspections done before the circuits are energized or wiring is hidden behind walls.

Do not hesitate to ask the contractor for a clear explanation of any aspect of the work before, during, or after the installation of your heating system.


In general, electric resistance heating systems require relatively little maintenance and they tend to last for a long time without requiring replacement.

Maintenance by contractors is usually limited to the replacement of broken electric heating elements in central electric furnaces or baseboard heaters. Owners can improve the performance of their heating systems by vacuuming the elements on any baseboard heaters and by replacing filters in electric forced-air furnaces.


Cleaning or replacing the air filter

IMPORTANT! Before opening the access panel to the furnace to inspect the filter or circulation fan, turn off the electric power supply to the equipment

Few homeowners give their furnace air filters the attention they deserve. Filters must be cleaned or replaced once a month. Permanent filters, which are made of aluminum or plastic mesh, can be washed in a washtub. As they are coarser than fibreglass filters, they catch fewer impurities.

If you have installed a domestic electrostatic air filter, you do not need to use an ordinary filter. Do not forget that electrostatic filters must also be cleaned regularly following the manufacturer's instructions.

Fan Care

Besides giving it a superficial vacuuming, there is little you can do to maintain a direct-drive furnace fan with an internal motor. On the other hand, if you have a fan driven by a fan belt, you should place a few drops of oil once or twice a month, during the heating season and also in the summer, if the fan is used for ventilation or cooling, into the small oiling cups over the bearings on each side of the motor. Consult your maintenance manual to determine the type and quantity of oil to use.

You should also check the tension of the fan belt by pressing down firmly with your thumb on the middle of the belt. You should be able to depress it about 20 mm (3/4"), but no more than 25 mm (1"). To adjust the tension, unscrew the bolts that attach the motor and move it forward or backward as required. Make sure that the fan and motor pulleys remain perfectly aligned. The serviceperson is the best person to do this job.

Care of the Distribution System

For better heat distribution, remove any obstructions from the ducts, warm air registers and cold air returns so that the air can circulate freely throughout the system. Use a special water-based duct mastic to seal cracks at duct joints, as described on page 20. At the same time, consider insulating as much of the warm air ducts are easily accessible.

Homeowner Maintenance of Hydronic Systems

If you have a hydronic system, there are a few things you can do to maintain your system:

  • Insulate hot water pipes.
  • Once or twice a year, bleed air bubbles out of radiators so that they can be refilled with water.
  • Vacuum the radiators.
  • Check to see that the level of water in the expansion tank is below flood level.
  • Oil the circulating pump (according to the manufacturer's instructions).
  • Allow air to flow freely around radiators: make sure that they are not covered by curtains or by ventilated wood panelling, and try to ensure that they are not directly behind furniture so that the heat generated can get into the rest of the room.


Billing for electricity consumption is handled in different ways, with two of the most common ones being equal billing and standard billing.

Equal billing. Your electricity bill is paid in regular, equal installments, based on an estimate of your annual total consumption. Periodic adjustments are made to balance your monthly charge against your actual yearly household consumption.

Standard billing. The electricity bills are paid on a monthly basis for electricity consumed during that month. Your meter is read periodically and bills are adjusted accordingly.

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Source: Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) - Office of Energy Efficiency