Here’s a cold, hard truth about winter: It puts a strain on furnace systems.

That’s why it makes sense to have your furnace checked and serviced now to reduce the chances of something going wrong in the dead of a January night.

But unfortunately, there are some unscrupulous out-of-town operations that prey upon those fears and take a needless bite out of your bank account.

Last week, the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota sent out a warning to homeowners to beware of contractors who use scare tactics to convince people into authorizing unnecessary repairs.

“While most furnace companies are reputable, competent and fair, others may falsely tell you that your furnace needs to be repaired or replaced when in reality it does not,” the bureau noted in its news release. “They may try to frighten you with warnings that your system is leaking dangerous gases that could explode or poison those inside the house.”

So what should homeowners do? The bureau offers this advice:

  • First, remain calm. Before you authorize any work, get a second opinion from another reputable firm to see if the work really needs to be done. Do not hesitate to contact your utility company and ask for a serviceman to come and inspect your system.

  • Once you decide that work needs to be done on your present system or you need a new system, be certain to hire a contractor with a good reputation for dependable, reasonably priced work. Ask friends, neighbors and colleagues for recommendations, and check the Better Business Bureau’s website – www.bbb.org – for reviews, ratings and free quotes.

  • Get at least two estimates on the repairs that need to be done. All bids should be in writing and should provide a full description of the services to be provided and the materials to be used. Compare more than just cost. Check the size and rated efficiency of the equipment each contractor recommends and ask each contractor how they arrived at recommending a particular sized system.

  • Be sure to check the warranty on your system to see whether any repairs or replacements are covered. Remember that many heating systems come with long-term warranties.

Lastly, if you are told that your furnace needs to be replaced because it is too small, think back to the last time it failed to properly heat your house, the bureau advises. When purchasing a furnace, you should choose a unit large enough to handle the demands of your household. Do not waste money on a furnace that is larger than you need.

Following these words of advice can stop your hard-earned money from going up in smoke.