It’s the dead of winter and your home doesn’t seem to be heating up as effectively as it used to. Your neighbor asks if you've had your heat exchanger checked recently, but you don't know what she's talking about.
Your heat exchanger is an essential part of your heating system, so understanding what it does, what issues can occur, signs there is an issue, and how to fix it are important. Here's what we know.
Heat Exchanger Basics
Your furnace’s heat exchanger is the component that actually heats the air pushed through your home. It’s a group of metal coils or tubes that loop through the airflow within the furnace. The air and gas are separated within the exchanger in order to avoid them mixing and allowing potentially harmful byproducts of combustion from entering the home, including carbon monoxide. If there’s damage to the exchanger, it’s a potentially dangerous situation that cannot be ignored.
Signs There Could Be a Problem
If your heat exchanger is damaged or not working properly, you may notice that your home isn’t getting the heat it should. But there are other signs to watch for including:
- Noticeable cracks
- Flickering or unusual burner flames
- An odor similar to formaldehyde
- Rust on the exchanger
- Water around the base of the furnace
These are all signs that you should seek professional help to diagnose the problem. Qualified HVAC pros can determine the problem and provide estimates for repair or replacement.
A Warning About Carbon Monoxide
Because a damaged exchanger can allow carbon monoxide that leaks into your home, it’s extremely important that you act immediately if you, family members, or pets show sudden signs of carbon monoxide exposure. These include:
- Disorientation or confusion
- Upset stomach
- Chest pain
If anyone is showing these symptoms, leave your home for fresh air and call your local fire department. If your carbon monoxide detector goes off but no one is exhibiting symptoms, contact your utility company or HVAC pro to check out the problem as soon as possible.
Older furnaces (built before 1990) have fewer safety features and are more likely to continue operation with a “failed” heat exchanger putting you at greater risk. And although newer furnaces (built 1990 or later) have features that should cause a “fail safe” condition with a heat exchanger problem, it can still be dangerous. So when in doubt, call a pro.
Repair and Replacement Costs
Most heat exchangers will last 10 to 25 years. If yours needs repair or replacement, talk with your HVAC pro about options. Depending on the age of your furnace and its condition, it may make sense to replace your entire system. If not, you can expect replacement cost of the exchanger to run between $600 and $1,400.
The best means of preventing problems with your heat exchanger — or other parts of your HVAC system — is to have an annual inspection and servicing performed by a qualified professional. During each tune-up, the technician can inspect the heat exchanger for condition and performance. Ask them also to perform a combustion efficiency analysis including a carbon monoxide test, which is one of the best ways to check your heat exchanger and to insure you have a furnace working to its maximum efficiency.
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