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If the furnace starts to show signs of rust, or cracks around the system — or you can hear it becoming much nosier than normal (listen for rattles in the unit), that could indicate major structural issues.
Does your home just not heat efficiently anymore? Perhaps certain rooms are suddenly much colder than the rest? When the system is on its way out, it can have a lot more trouble heating all areas of the home efficiently. If the home feels unusually dry, that could be another indicator of a poor furnace. You might see this manifesting in higher energy bills, because the furnace has to work overtime to provide heat to the home.
What you can do
As a homeowner, there are a few things you should be doing to keep your furnace running efficiently.
Get into the habit of changing your HVAC filters frequently. The filter’s job is to protect the blower fan from all the dust, pet hair, and other junk that the return ducts pick up. Its role is not to clean your air (though it does help prevent those contaminants from being recirculated) — but to ensure your unit can work at maximum efficiency to keep you warm.
If these filters aren’t replaced regularly, airflow is restricted and the furnace will trap that warm air inside the system, causing the temperature of the unit to rise, and force a shut down to prevent overheating. This is a process called short cycling, and adds significantly to the wear and tear of your unit. This can actually cut the life of your system by several years.