Something They Don't Teach You in School

Have you ever been corrected on something you've done your whole life, something fairly straightforward and somewhat important, and your reaction has been just "I didn't know!"? And the worst part it seems like everyone else already knew? And perhaps you asked someone in your family and they just nod their head, shocked you didn't already know this?

This is how I feel about my furnace. Actually, this is how I feel about a whole litany of things, but today's topic is the furnace.

The furnace is one of those things just about everyone has, but think about: Has anyone ever showed you how to use and maintain it? Unless you bought the furnace new, or unless you needed some repair work and had a very helpful maintenance person, you probably just know it comes on when it's cold. That's how I am.

So when it doesn't come on when it's cold and something needs to be done about it, it's a bit frustrating.

That's where Wifey and I sat in fall the first year we had this house. At that point we had lived in it about 10-11 months, and this is also the point where I point out we had two cats and an Akita at the time.

Obligatory cute cat picture, Moochie and Sera curled up in the cat tower.

After looking through some ads and stuff we picked a furnace company out at random to come look at it. Our basic criteria was proximity to our home and could they come out the next day; so yeah, we didn't put a ton of thought into it, mostly because we didn't have anything to base it on anyway.

The furnace tech comes out and the first thing he asks us is have we changed the filter.

Me: Um...what filter?

Him: The filter, for you furnace.

Me: No. I was told it didn't have to be changed.

Now this is where I'm thinking the guy is crazy. We walked through this house with the previous owner and he told us clearly - Wifey remembers this too - some filter that was in the furnace didn't have to be replaced. Maybe it had to be taken out and hosed off once a year, but it was a permanent filter. This is what I told the furnace tech.

Him, eyeing my 20-year-old furnace: No, I don't think so.

This was said a little condescendingly, like I should know better. To be fair to him, he lives this stuff - something stupid having to do with a furnace is just going to be that - stupid. To me it's a lack of education or even knowing there is a lack of education so I know to go get educated. You can't possibly know what you don't know you don't know, right?

So I told him the story and the whole while he's just shaking his head. So he walks over to this handy slot in the main furnace vent, slides out a filter, and shows me. Sure enough, it looked replaceable to me. And it sure as hell looked dirty. I'm pretty sure he was disgusted.

It must have seemed pretty obvious to him that I was totally dumbfounded about this whole thing, because to his credit he took the time to explain to me about the furnace, how it worked, and how to replace a filter. Sure, it cost me $120 for the lesson, but to me that's money well spent even if I could have learned this stuff on my own from Google. Expensive? Yes, but I felt better for it.
So Wifey and I dutifully bought some new filters. We found Filtrete ones at Home Depot, bought ones specially to hold down allergens - hey, pet dander, right? - and started following the instructions to replace every 90 days. Or, well, around there for the most part.

Now you would think that would be the end of the story, that I learned what I needed to know to successfully maintain my furnace. Heck, that's what I thought too. You and I would both be wrong.

A couple years back we did have to replace the furnace - due to no fault of my own, thankfully - and the furnace tech at the time encouraged us to buy filters not as "good." Why? Because apparently with a high efficiency furnace like the one we bought a lower quality filter is actually a better idea.

And by lower quality, I'm going down the scale of Filtrete performance levels. I think we initially bought one from the "Best" section, so we scaled down to "Better". This made no intuitive sense to me - still doesn't - but as it was explained to me I actually want the filter to stop LESS things in the air because I have pets. The higher quality filter I have will fill up too fast.

To me that was completely weird, but because of cute bundles of fuzz like this one, we did what we were told.

Misaki, looking ecstatic because she's about to blow her coat through all the vents.

Now, that SHOULD be the end of the story, right? Yeah, it probably should, but it's not. Early this summer the central air conditioner stopped working. We called them up again (same company does both) and the first thing they asked, on the phone this time, was if we changed the filter. Yes, of course.

So they came out again and sure enough, it was the filter. I'm exasperated. Really? What am I still doing wrong? The tech told us we really needed to get the most basic filter possible, so against all of my intuition - apparently this sliding scale of furnace efficiency means the higher efficiency furnace you have the lower quality filter you need - we are now buying the most basic filter Filtrete offers.

But that's not all - oh no, of course not. This is a public service announcement to those who have pets and may not know this (however, I feel like I'm the only idiot in the world who didn't know this): If you read the fine print on the filter it says the 90 days they are supposed to last is a high end number. I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise, considering how we all know advertising is a vast wasteland of lies and unfulfilled promises, but still... The package goes on to detail all the different reasons you may have to change the filter more often.

Guess what the top factor is? Yep, owning pets.

So now we buy the cheapest filter, but we replace them once a month. No cost savings over where we were originally, because those filters were being changed every three months and cost about three times the price.

I think I've got this thing figured out now. Maybe. It's been quite a frustrating path - and costly - and it just drives me insane because it's so avoidable. At least, in retrospect it is. I still don't know at what point in my life I was supposed to learn all this magical information about furnace maintenance. Seems like when you buy your first home it should come with classes that would cover things like this.

But it doesn't, and you end up learning this stuff via trial, error, and credit card bills. Fun.

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