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Jake Thompson

Jake Thompson, a service technician with Pointon Heating & Air Conditioning, works on a furnace Tuesday at First Presbyterian Church in Baraboo.

Furnace trouble seems to strike at the worst possible time, and with extreme subzero temperatures in the forecast, homeowners can take some measures to improve their chances of avoiding a disaster this week.

Experts say the first thing to remember is homeowners should not try to diagnose a problem themselves, and especially should not try to fix a problem on their own. Top Hat general manager Kyle Mjelde said the best way to prepare a furnace to handle the extreme cold is to get it serviced by a professional.

One thing homeowners can do, however, is make sure they have a clean furnace filter.

“A lot of issues that come from furnaces have to do with air flow, and if they haven’t changed their filter out recently, a lot of times what can happen is that can wreak some havoc on the blower system,” Mjelde said.

Andi Mueller, vice president of Terrytown Plumbing, Heating & Cooling in Baraboo, recommended homeowners test their carbon monoxide detectors — or get one, if they don’t have one — make sure registers and radiators are free of obstructions and don’t leave space heaters unattended. She added garage doors on homes with attached garages should not be left open and can add an extra barrier to the cold.

Jake Thompson

Jake Thompson, a service technician with Pointon Heating & Air Conditioning, works on a furnace Tuesday at First Presbyterian Church in Baraboo.

Residents also should check their home’s exterior for two furnace pipes and clear any snow that might block them. Mueller said ice can even form inside the furnace intake pipe, so residents should look inside and break up any ice that has formed.

She said people with programmable thermostats should turn off their program and put the heater on a steady hold while the extreme weather lasts. If it’s usually set to 70 degrees but decreases to 65 while residents are at work, she said the furnace might not be able to heat the house back up to 70, or work very hard to do so.

“Our heating systems, when they get sized, they’re not sized for 50 below outside. They’re sized for about 0 (degrees outside),” Mueller said.

Keeping the furnace higher might mean it sounds like it’s constantly running — but that’s OK. Mueller and Mjelde both noted that’s what they’re made for.

Mjelde wasn’t as concerned about programmed thermostats, but he said no one should set them below 60 degrees right now. If the furnace goes out in this weather, “it’s going to be really hard on your house within a matter of hours,” he said.

Pipes in outer walls are of particular danger, even with a working furnace. Depending on the house’s insulation, outer walls can be more than 10 degrees colder than an interior thermostat would register, Mjelde said. To avoid frozen or burst pipes, residents can use electric heaters to warm outer walls.

Mueller recommended getting heat as soon as possible to any pipes that have frozen before because a problem might not be noticeable until it’s too late.

And even if you don’t expect to have a problem, make sure you know how to turn off your water. Mueller said “so many people” call about frozen, broken pipes and can’t stop the flooding because they don’t know where the control is for the main water supply.

A dripping faucet can lead to an ice dam in the drain, so it’s better to keep the faucet at a steady trickle, Mueller said.

Demand for Top Hat and Terrytown services has been up with the snowstorm and sub-zero temperatures this week.

“It’s been insane,” Mueller said. “I think tomorrow (Wednesday), once it really sets in, the phone just won’t quit ringing.”

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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