Whenever the mercury plunges outside, we rely on gas furnaces to keep us toasty and warm without overheating our energy bills.
And safety is just as important as comfort and efficiency when using your furnace.
Did you know 400 Americans die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning? This colorless, odorless gas is also responsible for 20,000 emergency room visits and 4,000 hospitalizations each year. CO is harmful to both humans and animals.
CO is released any time we burn gas, oil or coal, as when using a furnace to heat our homes. Other sources of carbon monoxide include gasoline-powered cars and trucks, stoves and gas ranges, lanterns, grills and fireplaces.
Your furnace should be well-ventilated to prevent CO buildup inside the home. It’s also important to be able to recognize signs that your furnace isn’t working like it should, as well as evidence of a potential CO leak. You’ll want to be familiar with the common symptoms of CO poisoning.
You can reduce the risk of CO poisoning by following a number of common-sense safety tips when using your furnace. These include installing a CO detector in your home and scheduling regular preventive maintenance visits with a professional HVAC service technician.
Signs of Gas Furnace Problems
Not every problem with your furnace will mean you have a CO leak. However, learning to recognize and fix small problems early goes a long way toward preventing safety hazards from cropping up in the future. It’s also important for helping your system run more smoothly so you can stay comfortable all winter long without paying more than you have to.
For starters, the older your furnace gets the less efficiently it will run. If your system is more than 10 years old, you may need to have it maintenanced more frequently, and eventually a replacement will be the best option. Other things to watch out for are unexplained spikes in your energy bills or a sudden need for more frequent repairs.
For many of these issues, there may be simple fixes that you can do on your own. If you can’t determine the cause of the problem, or you’re unable to correct it yourself, that’s when it’s time to call a professional HVAC technician.
- Little or no heat: If you don’t have enough heat to stay comfortable, check to be sure the heat registers are open, that the thermostat is set at the right temperature and that your furnace is connected to a power source. If you’re still not getting enough heat after accounting for these items, have your system checked by a pro.
- System frequently cutting on and off: Also known as “short cycling,” this often means your system isn’t running as efficiently as it should be. Common culprits include a faulty fan motor or dirt and debris clogging system components. If you’re unsure, have it checked.
- Blower running constantly: First, make sure your thermostat is set to “auto” instead of the “fan” setting. The latter will always cause the blower to run continuously. When you select “auto,” your furnace should shut off on its own when the desired temperature is reached. If it fails to shut off, this could mean the switch isn’t working properly and should be repaired or replaced.
- Strange noises: If it suddenly sounds like your house is haunted, check your furnace. Tell-tale trouble signs include banging when turning on and off, high-pitched squealing noises, and low-pitched humming while operating. Simple fixes to try include changing the filter or oiling the blower motor. If these steps don’t quiet things down, call a technician.
- Pilot light going out or failure to ignite: Things that could cause the pilot light to go out include a strong draft, dirty components or faulty thermocouple. Try relighting the pilot light or replacing the termocouple. Contact a technician if the problem persists.
- Flame burning the wrong color: You want your pilot light to burn with a blue-ish flame, which indicates that your system is operating efficiently. A yellow flame means the gas isn’t burning off completely, either because it’s dirty or because of a system malfunction. It may also be a sign that carbon monoxide isn’t being vented properly.
- Rusting: Fluid leaking from plumbing lines or the roof causes corrosion, which interferes with safe, efficient operation. Contact a technician for recommended repairs or replacement.
- Moisture buildup: Are you noticing unexplained moisture appearing on ceilings, walls or windows? One possible reason could be poor airflow caused by problems with your ductwork.
- Cold spots: A well-functioning furnace should keep your home at a constant temperature throughout the house. If some rooms are noticeably colder than others, have your system checked out to make sure the air is circulating properly.
Other warning signs to look for include water leaking and puddling near your furnace and animal droppings and other evidence of pests.
Signs of a Carbon Monoxide Leak
As noted above, not all problems with your furnace automatically mean there’s a CO leak. However, there are several signs that do warrant further investigation in order to keep you and your family safe.
For example, a yellow flame coming from the furnace or other gas appliance may mean carbon monoxide isn’t being properly vented to the outside. A rusted flue or other components can also hamper ventilation and allow CO to build up inside your home.
Here are a few other signs you’ll want to take note of:
- Unexplained odors such as gas or smoke
- Blackened soot marks or brownish stains on or near gas fires, gas flame covers, boilers or stoves
- Heavy condensation appearing near a furnace or other gas appliance
- Solid fuel fireplaces, such as those that burn wood, burning more slowly than usual
Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
While everyone is at risk of CO poisoning, some individuals are more susceptible than others. These include people with heart disease, anemia or respiratory conditions. Infants and seniors are also at greater risk.
The symptoms of CO poisoning are often similar to other illnesses, so you’ll want to seek medical attention if you’re unsure. If CO is the culprit, you may notice that symptoms disappear or improve when you’re away from home, or get worse when you’re near gas-burning equipment.
- Weakness or fatigue
- Upset stomach, nausea or vomiting
- Chest pains
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of consciousness
It’s also important to remember that pets can be harmed by CO poisoning, so if your furry friends are showing signs of distress, it could indicate a leak.
Preventing Carbon Monoxide Leaks & Other Issues
First and foremost, have your furnace inspected and serviced at regular intervals. This enables you to detect and fix problems before they become a safety hazard. Your technician will check for small cracks, clogs and other issues which could allow CO to leak into your home.
Here are a few other smart moves you can make to reduce the risk of CO exposure:
- Install CO detectors in your home.
- Change your furnace filter regularly.
- Never operate the furnace without the front panel door securely in place.
- Keep all flammable materials away from your furnace. These include things like paint thinner or gasoline containers.
- Never close more than 20% of the vents in your home.
- Vacuum HVAC registers regularly to maintain proper airflow.
- Make sure all gas equipment has been tested by a reputable agency such as Underwriters Laboratories.
- Have your chimney inspected and cleaned once a year.
- Never use portable flameless chemical heaters or portable gas camping stoves indoors.
- Never use a gas stove or oven to heat your home.
- Never burn charcoal indoors.
- Never use a generator indoors or within 20 feet of an exterior window, door or vent.
This risk from CO poisoning is real, but the good news is there are things you can do about it. By operating your furnace safely and recognizing the warning signs, you can stay safe and comfortable all season long.
At Lorenz Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning, our technicians provide quick repairs and ongoing preventive maintenance to keep your furnace running smoothly. Give us a call at 417-863-1122 or contact us online at any time.