An inefficient heater can unnecessarily boost your heating costs, and present safety concerns. That’s why a checkup and tune-up now can mean more efficient, reliable and safe heating in the face of winter’s cold winds.

A checkup really doesn’t require a lot of work, rather it requires a commitment. Steve Matthis, who teaches swine-equipment maintenance at Sampson County Community College in Clinton, N.C., has compiled some tips for preparing your own inspection and tune-up program.

His course, designed for pork-production workers, is sent to other colleges over the information highway.  With two-way video, students can watch, participate in class discussions, take tests and earn college credit.

“It doesn’t take long to check a heater carefully and fix a minor problem,” says Matthis. “ It will be time well spent if you prevent a breakdown, especially in real cold weather when heat is crucial.”

So let’s begin.

Burner openings: Remove cobwebs, dust and dirt. A small amount can divert flame away from the sensor, causing the heater to shut down.

Sail switch: Make sure the switch is not stuck in one position; see that it turns off and on. As shown, check continuity using a multi-meter. A farm-use one like this costs only $10 to $20.

Hot surface igniter : Look for cracks that can prevent the heater from lighting. You can use a multi-meter to test for such cracks. When functioning properly, the igniter should glow bright red.

Caution: Always unplug the heater before working on the igniter.

Also, when replacing an igniter, do not touch the metal portion of the new one with your bare fingers.  Oil from skin can cause it to deteriorate and malfunction.

Pilot light: Check the flame directed toward the burner and the other flame that is toward the thermal coupler. Each must have a bright-blue flame for efficient ignition.

Gas pressure: It must be maintained at the factory recommended rate. The gas-pressure switch, shown here, detects any variation – high or low. It works in conjunction with high-limit and sail switches, which are wired in a series. Erratic starting may be due to low pressure.  Call your LP-gas supplier to check the tank.

Polarity of incoming current: On a computerized heater, make sure that neutral and hot wires are connected properly. Check for reverse polarity by plugging a polarity tester into the inlet serving the heater. A tester will cost only about $5.

Temperature setting: The high-limit switch should be in a closed position with the red button depressed. Use manufacturer’s recommended setting (for example, 330°F.) Flame sensor (finger points to it) must be in direct contact with the flame. If the sensor does not detect a flame, it will shut down the heater. The red button on the high-limit switch should be depressed. Set temperature as manufacturer recommends.

Gas leaks: This is extremely important because turning on a light switch or lighting a match can ignite the gas. To check for leaks, apply soapy water to connections and look for bubbles.  Also, a gas odor indicates either a leak or that the tank’s gas level is extremely low. The lower the level, the stronger the odor.

“It pays to inspect a heater carefully to catch anything that needs fixing,” says Matthis. For safety’s sake, never bypass the main fuse, he adds.  Also, if the heater has a computer, you will avoid damaging its components.

“If the heater does not perform to your satisfaction after you finish checking, adjusting and making necessary repairs, do not hesitate to call a qualified repair person who is familiar with heaters,” Mathis concludes.

Ignoring heater maintenance is simply not worth the cost – from a financial or safety standpoint.