Question: We are replacing a builder-grade Rheem furnace that is 20 years old. We could have paid for an air conditioner and furnace twice over with the cost of repairs, recalls, retrofitting, and emergency holiday calls. We could be sure we would be calling the repair people on holidays, and the coldest days and hottest days of the year.

How do I go about finding the best furnace with the best repair record? I've spoken to several people who, of course, promote their brand.

Answer: There is no sure-fire way to guarantee that whatever you buy will be problem-free. You can do the Internet research, including chat sites, then comparison-shop, and ask your neighbors, friends, and relatives for recommendations.

In the end, it is luck. Did the folks on the assembly line put all the pieces together correctly? Was quality control having an off day when the product was checked? Did it get damaged in transit, but not so anyone would notice? Was the technician who installed it properly trained, or even in a good mood?

Ultimately, it's not a matter of if things will go wrong but when. The only thing consumers have going for them is the warranty and whether the manufacturer or installer will adhere to it.

Whenever you buy a big-ticket item such as an HVAC system, or a car, or a front-loading washer, you need to ask what exactly the warranty covers, how long it will be honored, and who will cover the diagnostics to determine the cause of the problem, the parts needed, and the installation charges.

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in its eating, so you'll never know how serious the manufacturer or installer is about honoring the agreement until a problem arises.

The bottom line is that consumers have to take risks. Instead of assuming that you are getting what you paid for, always believe the opposite, and set aside some funds in savings to cover repairs that are bound to arise.

Try to learn as much as you can about the way the product works. Go online to those chat sites to see the kinds of problems the product you've purchased is causing so you can at least argue with the tech support people or the repair person so convincingly that they might actually listen to you.

When something starts costing more to fix than it would to replace it, let it go. Even taking a risk usually is cheaper.

Clear the decks. A recent question about composite decking brought this advice from Mark Lynch of Northeast Philadelphia:

I installed a Trex [composite] deck three years ago. Mold has been a problem from the start. The deck is on the back of my house and gets the sun in the morning and there is no shade.

I have tried many types of cleaners, with and without bleach, and used a scrub brush. I have also called Trex customer service. They were very nice, but no help.

At the end of last summer I used a deck stain. So far so good. This deck is more work than the pressure-treated one I had for 15 years.

Cleaning vinyl siding. A suggestion from John Devlin of West Chester, who uses Mr. Clean's Magic Eraser cleaning pads.

"I don't know what is in these things, but you just wet the siding and pad, and then just wipe off the dirt, mold whatever, as easily as wiping off a countertop. Rinse off with a hose as you finish a section. Looks like new siding and gutters, works best on smooth surfaces, ours is textured and cleans so easily."

What's the "magic" of the pads? A website,, said there was a rumor that the pads contained formaldehyde, but it is simply part of the name of the chemical compound in it, and has been judged nontoxic and safe to use. The ingredients have been used safely for cleaning for many years, according to the manufacturer, Procter & Gamble.

The same for snowblower clogs. A summertime safety tip from CSA International: Never clear an obstruction on a running mower. If the mower is electric, turn off the power and unplug the machine. If it is gas, turn it off and make sure the engine is not running and that all safety features have been activated.