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In case of a central heating system, you cannot simply bring the unit into the house, attach it, and turn it on, the way you would with a DVD player. Although installation can be performed without outside help, it is quite an involved process and using a service provider is highly recommended. Similarly, system costs are not insignificant and it helps to have an idea how different types of systems tend to price.
Virtually all space heaters come ready to use straight out of the box, requiring little more than plugging in, turning on, and adjusting to the desired temperature level. However, the installation process for central heating systems is far more complex and involved. In most cases, the services of a professional are not only recommended, but absolutely essential.

Even in cases where a furnace or heat pump is simply being replaced, most consumers should contract an HVAC professional to perform the installation. In situations where a new type of heating system is being put in, or new ductwork is required, utilizing an HVAC professional is an absolute must.

However, not all HVAC professionals are created equal. There is a broad range of issues that a smart consumer has to consider before awarding the contract. To start, a consumer should identify all the contractors in the area who deal with heating systems. There are several sources which may be used. In the past, consumers would turn to the local yellow pages. This still works, but now there are additional online resources which provide incremental information.

Referral services such as “Quality Smith”, “Service Magic”, and “Mi Needs” pair consumers with pre-screened local service providers free of charge. Sites such as “Angie’s List” allow consumers to not only find local contractors, but also to see how other consumers have rated their services. In addition, certain hardware store chains provide their own installers and service contractors. Sears is a prime example.

Most contractors will offer free estimates on prospective jobs. Consumers would do well to receive quotes from at least four different contractors before making a final decision. Not only will this allow the consumer to find a competitive price and reduce his or her expense, but it will also provide a basis for comparing different contractors as far as consumer relations, expertise, and professionalism.

A quality HVAC contractor will understand all aspects of heat pump or furnace operation, installation, and maintenance, including the auxiliary components associated with ductwork and insulation. In addition, a quality contractor will provide warranties on parts and guarantees on work performed.

It is important to also ask about the provision of emergency services in case of an unexpected breakdown or system failure. A good contractor will make available manuals and reference materials for the consumer’s personal use. Most importantly, it is necessary to ask for a complete breakdown of costs associated with the project. Some contractors will not include certain additional costs, such as the need to hire an electrician or to purchase parts. It is critical to have all of this information upfront, as this will avoid the cost of the project ballooning unexpectedly down the line.

Some consumers are major proponents of the “do-it-yourself” mentality and have confidence in their ability to independently install any home appliance or residential system, no matter how elaborate. While a number of individuals may indeed possess the necessary know-how, it bears emphasizing that installing a central heating system is a complicated process with many moving parts. A poorly or incorrectly installed system can not only result in a lack of operability, but also lead to serious hazards to health, property, and environment. 
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When a part of the existing system breaks down, it may at times be more cost-efficient to replace the entire central heating unit than try to repair or replace the damaged part. For example, a damaged compressor in the case of a heat pump, or a broken heat exchanger in the case of a furnace, may be the sort of major part breakdown that is best served by replacing the entire unit, particularly if it is an old and less efficient model.

However, most central heating system malfunctions are not caused by a major part breaking down, but rather by a more minor and, oftentimes, easily correctable issue. Heat pump operation can be hampered by thermostat malfunctions, low levels of refrigerant, or a range of electrical issues, such as tripped or defective circuit breakers, blown fuses, and burned or broken wires. Similarly, furnace operation can be hindered by closed fuel valves, dirty filters, or a poorly adjusted pilot light. These problems can be easily rectified or simply avoided by following a basic maintenance protocol.

On a periodic basis, the thermostat should be checked to ensure that the settings correspond to the residents’ preferences and that it is functioning properly. Electrical connections should be checked from time to time, to ensure they are properly tightened and in good working order. For furnaces, all gas or oil connections should be examined periodically, along with the gas pressure, burner combustion and heat exchanger.

If there is a problem with the oil or gas, this can not only result in a system that is operating poorly, but also constitute a health and fire hazard. It is important to make sure the burner is not dirty and the heat exchanger has no cracks. To extend the lifetime of your central heating systems, as well as to keep them operating and peak efficiency, you should inspect, clean, and, when necessary, change the air filters in their furnace or heat pump systems. This is fairly straightforward to do and a service contractor can quickly and easily illustrate how this task is done.
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In terms of price, a central heating system is going to be far more expensive than a space heater. A small portable heater can be picked up for as little as $20, particularly for a used unit. A basic electric convection heater fan will run anywhere from $30 to $70, depending on the model. A higher end ceramic heater or oil-filled radiator heater may cost a bit more, ranging from $50 to $150. The most high-powered space heaters, which are usually either panel or radiant units, will rarely cost more than $250.

As mentioned, space heaters do not require any special assembly or installation, so once the purchase price is paid, the only other additional costs are the electricity or fuel expenses associated with providing power to the space heater. Consequently, a space heater is far and away the least expensive heating option. However, its small size and limited range make it ineffective as a solution for the entire home.

Once the discussion moves to furnaces and heat pumps, both the price range and the installation costs step up considerably. Assuming there is usable ductwork already in place, a new mid-efficiency gas furnace costs between $2,000 and $4,000, depending on the brand, model, capacity, and energy of the unit. A new high-efficiency gas furnace raises the sticker price into the $3,000 to $6,000 range. Installation will typically run between $700 and $2,000. However, if new ductwork has to be put in, or other modifications made, the price for installation can rise to $3,000 or $4,000.

In cases where an old system is being replaced, there may be additional costs depending on the specific situation. For example, removing an old fuel oil tank from the basement costs around $500 to $1,500, while removing an underground oil tank can cost $3,000 or more. Old ductwork may contain asbestos and, in that case, there will be additional costs associated with asbestos removal.

Any old ductwork should be inspected carefully to check for leaks and areas of poor insulation. Ductwork problems can result in major inefficiencies and significantly higher heating bills. If the heated air is not able to make it to the rooms without leaking out of the ducts, then the furnace will have to work much harder to provide the required temperature in the home.

A heat pump will typically cost somewhat more than a furnace, but keep in mind that it will also tend to be more efficient and that it can do the double duty of both heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. For a house that already has ductwork, a typical air-source heat pump will cost from as low as $2,000 to around $5,500. For a home without existing ductwork, installing a ductless heat pump will run between $4,000 and $6,000.

A geothermal heat pump costs more than an air-source heat pump; although the increased cost is partially offset by its greater efficiency and corresponding lower utility bills. To buy and install a geothermal heat pump will cost between $10,000 and $25,000 for most homes, in part depending on the length and depth of the necessary underground piping and the specific ground formations around the house. In addition to the excavation and installation costs, some homes may need to have their electrical panel upgraded to accommodate a heat pump, which can add another $1,000 to $3,000 to the total cost.

Although the purchase and installation of a new, high quality central heating system may seem like a significant expense, it should be viewed in context. First, a state-of-the-art temperature control system increases the value of the home. Thus, if selling the residence in the future is a likely possibility, much of the investment can be recouped. Second, a quality heating system can substantially enhance the comfort of a home, particularly during the winter season and over the colder months of the spring and fall. Third, a more efficient furnace or heat pump can reduce utility bills by as much as 50%, meaning hundreds of dollars in savings each winter, which, in turn, reduces the effective cost of the system. This is also more environmentally-friendly. Finally, a new central heating system is simpler to maintain, easier to operate, and causes fewer safety issues and other problems.
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