When your furnace goes out, having it immediately replaced may seem like a foregone conclusion, but some homeowners would do well to consider the current condition of their home and the long-term possibilities—not to mention a weather forecast—before plopping down $10,000 or more on a new furnace. It may sound crazy, and you certainly don't want to make your home improvement decisions based on the groundhog's shadow, but taking unusual steps to get through the last blast of winter may pay off in the end.

The Advantages of Delaying
The advantages of waiting until spring to install a new furnace or heating system are pretty straightforward, but they're also frequently underestimated. The cost of installing a furnace in the middle of winter is higher than needs be simply because HVAC companies have to pay employees overtime to keep pace with the surge of furnace repairs and replacement. Meanwhile, manufacturers have cut prices due to the current recession, creating a perfect storm for homeowners to complete installation of a high-quality heating system at a reasonable cost. In fact, more than an evaluation of the eventual benefits, the logistics of riding out the remaining weeks of winter without central heating will likely determine the relative wisdom of this choice.

Have a Strategy and Observe Safety Precautions
You can't just say, "It's March 3rd, it's supposed to warm for the next few days, I'll be fine." Space heaters will almost surely be part of your plan to survive without central heating, but you'll need to make sure you're using an extension cord with a sufficient load-bearing capacity. Nor can you simply drag a space heater around the house with you: If you don't have properly insulated plumbing, your pipes can freeze and burst. Of course, this is something that might need to be done whether your heating is working or not. If the temperature gets too cold, you may need to shut off the water and find some place to stay for the night. Yet, one or two nights at a cheap hotel may be well worth it on the back end, and you can treat it like a miniature get-away for you and your family.

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Before chilly autumn nights set in, you need to make an appointment for your furnace's annual checkup. Without this yearly cleaning and inspection, a system can wear itself out quickly, pump deadly carbon monoxide into your home, or simply stop working.

We asked This Old House plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey to show us the proper steps that a service professional would follow for an oil-burning forced-air furnace; the basics on a gas system are similar. In both, fuel is mixed with air and ignited, heating a sealed chamber. Fresh, filtered air then blows across the outside of the hot chamber and into the heating ducts. (Homes with radiators have boilers instead of furnaces. These heat water instead of air, but the annual checkup is similar.) In all, the dangerous exhaust from the combustion chamber is vented out a flue or chimney.

Whatever type of system you have, don't wait until it breaks down to call for service. A clean, well-adjusted heating system will save you money on fuel and prolong furnace life. Annual servicing is cheap — typically less than $100 — especially when compared with the price of a new furnace. "You wouldn't wait more than a year to service your car," Richard says. "The heat in your house is just as important."

Max AlexanderThis Old House magazine