You depend on your home's heating system to keep your family snug and warm through the cold months. Unfortunately, poor maintenance practice and malfunctions can be a dangerous combination. Knowing how to maintain your furnace's safety is key.

1. Install Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Carbon monoxide is an invisible, odorless gas that can cause severe illness or even death. It is especially concerning for homes with children, as they can be affected by a carbon monoxide leak much more quickly due to their smaller size. You need to have a carbon monoxide detector installed near your furnace to ensure that you are alerted if any harmful gasses escape. It's also a good idea to know the warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning — headaches, lethargy, confusion, and nausea.

2. Schedule Annual Fuel System Inspections

Most of the dangerous furnace malfunctions will begin in the fuel system. For a gas or oil furnace, there can be a leak anywhere in the fuel delivery system — from the storage tank or deliver lines to the pilot light, burner pan, or fuel valve. An annual inspection will turn up any developing fuel system problems before they reach a dangerous point, which means you can have them fixed before they become a hazard. For an electric furnace, the main danger lies in short-circuiting wires and electrical fires. Your annual inspections will include a full survey of the circuit breaker as well as the electrical workings and control board in the furnace. Any faulty wiring is then repaired before it can fail.

3. Know the Odors of Danger

There are four dangerous odors that you need to know. One of the first smells you'll detect is the smell of rotten eggs. If you have a gas furnace, this odor means that there may be a gas leak from your furnace. The second easily recognizable odor is that of smoke — your furnace should never smell like smoke when it is running. The metallic odor of an electrical fire is less commonly known, but easy to recognize once you do smell it. If you have ever done a high school science class dissection, the fourth odor — formaldehyde — can also be easy to recognize. This odor indicates a chemical leak due to a cracked heat exchanger. Any of these odors can be dangerous, so you need to shut down the furnace and call for an immediate repair.

The safest course of action is to schedule annual heating service maintenance. Catching possible problems early not only ensures that your family stays warm this winter, but also that they stay safe.