Despite their internal complexity, from the outside, the average furnace in the typical home doesn’t look like much. For most homeowners, all that ultimately matters is that the furnace works when it’s needed, leaving maintenance to the professionals. When something goes wrong, though, the furnace becomes the center of attention — and it’s helpful to know kind of problem you might have on your hands. Some issues are obvious, such as when the blower fan doesn’t send hot air into your home, or when the furnace blows cold air. Others, though, are tougher to spot. A furnace with a cracked heat exchanger, for example, might not show outward signs of an issue.
That doesn’t mean it’s not serious, though. You may have already heard in the past, perhaps from a maintenance provider, that a crack in the heat exchanger requires a rapid response. It’s one of the things every technician looks for, especially during annual service. What’s the big deal, though, and is it really as dangerous as it sounds? Let’s start with a quick look at what the heat exchanger does so we can dive into the issue of what happens when something isn’t right.
What is the Heat Exchanger’s Actual Purpose?
Simply put, the heat exchanger does precisely what its name implies: it exchanges heat between the furnace itself and the air that will ultimately circulate through your home. Often taking the form of curving pipes or fins, the heat exchanger is an integral part of the furnace. Beneath it, the burners that ignite the fuel coming into your home kick into action and generate an immense amount of heat that radiates up into the heat exchanger. A sealed partition separates the interior and exterior components. The blower fan operating in the furnace pulls in air from inside the home and forces it over the heat exchanger.
As a result, the air heats up rapidly, and the fans push it into your ductwork, circulating the air. Without the heat exchanger, the furnace wouldn’t work as you expect at all. It’s safe to say that any problem is worth fixing as soon as possible for safety and smooth operation. Speaking of safety, why is a furnace with a cracked heat exchanger worthy of your concern?
Why Cracks and Holes Are a Big Deal
The exchanger is sealed for a reason; the combustion environment inside of the furnace should never mix with the exterior air that fills the home. If home air infiltrates the furnace, it can interfere with the combustion process, not only lowering the furnace’s heat output but also producing potentially deadly carbon monoxide. Remember, carbon monoxide is both colorless and odorless; it’s impossible to detect using your senses.
The same concerns work in the opposite direction. Combustion gases escaping into the home pose a health hazard just as CO exposure does. When the heat exchanger develops holes or a crack due to environmental damage such as rust, it compromises the integrity of the unit. Sometimes, the leaks may be slow or almost imperceptible. While they may not pose an immediate threat, the issue should still receive immediate attention. Any amount of risk for a carbon monoxide leak is too much.
Solving the Problem with Professional Help
A technician may diagnose a cracked heat exchanger during annual maintenance, or you may notice certain symptoms that can indicate a problem. These include the buildup of soot on the furnace or the presence of a yellow flame on the furnace burners; both suggest that the combustion cycle isn’t complete, producing additional unwanted exhaust gases. If you spot these signs, call for help — but what should you expect then?
Unfortunately, a cracked heat exchanger often means the entire unit needs replacement. In some cases, you can replace the heat exchanger itself without swapping out for another unit. In others, though, there’s no better option. Speaking with an experienced technician can help you to identify the best way forward. The good news is that it takes time for these cracks to develop, and if your furnace is on the newer side, you probably don’t have to worry. Even if your furnace is old, a broken heat exchanger might not be the worst thing — it could be an opportunity to upgrade to a more efficient and cost-effective model.
Act Now If You Have a Furnace with a Cracked Heat Exchanger
Ultimately, a professional inspection is the only surefire way to diagnose a furnace with a cracked heat exchanger. If you suspect that a problem has started to develop, reach out for help from a team of experienced providers that can deliver prompt assistance for this serious issue. In the meantime, remember to keep carbon monoxide alarms and detectors in and around your home. A good rule of thumb is to keep alarms in each bedroom while keeping a carbon monoxide nearer to the furnace itself. This way you can stay safe while enjoying heated comfort without undue concern when it gets cold outside.
Valley Comfort conducts heating and furnace repair services in the following communities: Santa Rosa, Napa, Rohnert Park, Healdsburg, St Helena, Calistoga and Windsor