Furnaces and Fireplaces Set the Tone in the Cozy Home

Cold temperatures and snowy weather get us thinking about warm, cozy spaces where we can get away from the elements – and inevitably, that means a good look at the furnace and a fireplace. Here’s what you need to know if your home could use a little cozying up.

With temperatures falling and snow drifts climbing higher, getting warm and cozy is on everyone’s mind, whether it’s starting a roaring fire, turning up the thermostat, lighting candles or wrapping yourself up in a comfortable and fluffy blanket.

It’s important to be prepared even before the season begins, because an annual maintenance check of your furnace can go a long way, says Mike Buckner, residential sales manager for Rockford Heating and Air Conditioning, 1618 Magnolia St., in Rockford.

“The best way to keep utility bills low, stay ahead of problems, and make sure all furnace components are in good working order is to have an annual checkup, so your chances of having a major problem on the coldest days of the season are greatly reduced,” he says.

One of the perks of having regular checkups through Rockford Heating and Air Conditioning is customers don’t pay extra for holiday or after-hour service calls because they’re automatically enrolled in the company’s maintenance agreement program, Buckner says.

“With an annual checkup, we’re looking for problems before the heat goes out,” he adds. “We make sure all motors and sensors are clean and working properly. If a part is old or has a problem, we can repair or replace it before it breaks.”

One of the main culprits of furnace trouble is a dirty filter. It blocks the air flow and puts stress on the blower motor and heat exchanger, Buckner says. The thinnest filters should be changed monthly, while larger, more expensive filters can last up to six months, depending on the number of people and pets in the home, he adds. Rockford Heating and Air Conditioning does offer equipment, such as humidifiers and air purifiers, that further controls air quality.

Tom Howe, owner of Allen Heating and Cooling, 122 N. Second St., in Rockford, says people often underestimate the importance of humidity when it comes to maintaining a good comfort level during the winter.
“In the summer, all we think of is getting rid of humidity, but in the winter if the humidity level is up, a house can feel warmer at a lower temperature, saving homeowners heating costs,” Howe says.

The general rule of thumb is 30 to 35 percent humidity, but Howe says the best setting is whatever you’re comfortable with.

If humidity is too low, there will be a lot of static electricity, hardwood floors will creak, and anything wood could crack. If the humidity is too high, moisture will collect on the inside of windows. People’s health can also be affected when the air is too dry, because sinus problems and bloody noses are more likely with dry air, Howe says.

Humidity can easily be added to a home with a whole house humidifier attached to the furnace, and a water intake distributed over a panel or pad when the furnace is on. Whatever moisture is needed is distributed through the ductwork that delivers heat to the home, Howe explains, adding that excess water goes down a drain tube.

Houseplants are another good way to add humidity in the home. Not only do you get moisture from watering them, but they give off moisture and oxygen. Alternately, bowls of water can be placed near heat sources to add moisture in the air, but they will need to be refilled often. Room humidifiers or vaporizers can increase humidity in a particular room.

Howe recommends having a humidistat to keep an eye on the humidity level, especially if your home thermostat is older and doesn’t offer that feature. The newer digital thermostats tell you about the humidity level and they allow you to control the whole house humidifier.

Ways to improve a home’s overall air quality have always been available, but they’ve gained more attention over the past year, Howe says. Ultraviolet lights can be installed inside a furnace while other types of air cleaners can be attached to the furnace to help control bacteria, viruses, dust, mold and pet dander all year long.

Most furnaces last 15 to 20 years, and new high-efficiency models save on both gas and electric bills because they heat more evenly, control humidity and use less gas and electricity to operate. By installing energy-efficient appliances, customers can also get up to hundreds of dollars in rebates, says Howe.

Furnaces are essential in keeping the whole house cozy, but nothing says ambiance and warmth quite like a fireplace.

Heather Kraus, sales manager at Advanced Chimney Systems, 3486 Lonergan Dr., in Rockford, says wood-burning appliances have been very popular this year since people are spending more time at home and can better maintain their fireplaces and stoves.

People love the smell and sound of a wood-burning fireplace. Wood is economical and can heat an entire home in a wide variety of traditional and modern fireplace designs.

“When the temperature drops, people like the option of heating their home with wood, especially if the power goes out. A fireplace is the centerpiece and focal point in any room and the place where family most often gathers to make memories,” she says.

Kevin Obee, general manager of Benson Stone, in Rockford, finds that some people still prefer the smell of burning wood and the look of natural flames.

“There are some people who just won’t be satisfied with anything but the real thing,” he says. “They like the snap, crackle, pop and smell from a real wood-burning fire that you can’t get with gas.”

It’s important, however, to clean out the ashes left behind after each fire. Disposing of old ashes keeps the grates and fireplace looking brand new while maintaining a healthier fire, Obee says. If a fire is built over old ashes, it’ll block valuable air flow, which affects the strength of the fire.

For ease of maintenance, though, people often turn to gas or propane. These models add warmth, ambiance and style to a home with the flick of a switch. Natural gas fireplaces, stoves and inserts now fit into a variety of spaces and decor.

This gives homeowners the option to adjust the size of the flames, the amount of heat and, in some cases, the amount of surrounding, soothing light ambiance.

Other models use small pellets to create a warm and cozy atmosphere, and they’re an energy-efficient alternative to traditional indoor heating. They are low-maintenance, highly energy-efficient and virtually smoke-free.

Pellet inserts don’t require the work of burning wood because they’re self-lighting and self-cleaning, and they have a thermostat control. They can be added to any room in the home and don’t require a chimney to operate. Inserts are fireproof boxes made of steel or cast iron with an insulated glass front. The design helps trap heat, and some have a blower to push heat into a room – although they typically have great heat circulation, says Kraus.

Advanced Chimney offers inspections and tune-ups of chimney and gas fireplaces. It’s recommended they be checked annually, much like your furnace.

“We want to make sure there is no creosote build-up and no animal making nests that can cause a fire,” she says.

Creosote is a buildup of gases from burning wood that can collect in the chimney and flue lining. In addition to getting a chimney cleaned and inspected, other safety measures can include installing a chimney liner, having a carbon monoxide detector in the room, and burning only wood, not trash, in a fireplace, Kraus says.
Whatever your choice, there’s something special about cozying up indoors come winter.

“Fireplaces are perfect for this time of year, since they add an ambiance and warmth that just makes you feel good,” says Obee. “A fireplace adds life and warmth to a room like nothing else quite can.”

Warm Up with Comfort, Style

Kim Benson, co-owner and buyer for Benson Stone Co., 1100 11th St., knows there are more ways to warm up a home other than turning up the thermostat.

Paint colors in the warm spectrum; textiles like drapes, pillows, throws and area rugs; certain furniture styles; large ottomans; burning candles and special lighting can all make a room feel more welcoming, she says.

“Throws, which come in a variety of fabrics and colors, can be draped over a chair or couch to add to your decor, and yet they can be very useful if someone wants to put them around their shoulders or lay one across their lap for warmth,” she says.

Adding stone or wood panels to a wall can add some interest and warmth to a room’s look.

A popular new decorating trend is called “tone-on-tone,” and it’s meant to give a room a warm, peaceful and restful feeling, she says. The technique takes different hues of one or more colors throughout a space, and the result is a room that can have different looks depending on the lighting. Tone-on-tone works especially well with the neutral colors of black, grey, beige, brown, off-white, white and “earth” colors. For example, a dark color on one wall can be lightened two, three and four times for the other walls. You can also pull a color from a piece of art or another decoration in a room and use shades of that color to complete a look.

Another trend in tone-on-tone decorating is to mix and match materials and patterns, all within the same color family. One color is on the walls, a lighter shade of the same color is in throw pillows, accent rugs and adjacent spaces.

“The more variety you use in a space, the warmer it becomes,” she says. “Just add family and friends and a bottle of wine, and you have a warm and cozy evening.”