A furnace is usually a background player in your home, ensuring you're warm in the cold winter months. It regularly isn't noticed until something breaks down.
One cause might be that your furnace has a cracked heat exchanger. It’s a potentially dangerous issue, so it’s worthwhile to learn the signs of a cracked heat exchanger and what to do if you are worried that might be the problem.
What Is a Heat Exchanger in a Furnace?
A heat exchanger helps move heat from the combustion chamber inside your furnace to the air that flows inside the air ducts. It generally does this using coils or tubes that heat the air while functioning as a barrier to keep the gasses formed in the combustion chamber, called flue gasses, from getting out into your home.
Is a Cracked Heat Exchanger Dangerous?
Given its key role, it’s no surprise that a cracked heat exchanger can be very dangerous. Cracks in the heat exchanger can allow dangerous gasses – including carbon monoxide, which can be lethal – to circulate across your home.
For obvious reasons, don't ever run your heater if you suspect you're dealing with a cracked heat exchanger, as letting it run could make your entire household sick. Call an HVAC professional immediately if you think your heating has a cracked heat exchanger that should be repaired.
Four Signs of a Cracked Heat Exchanger:
- Furnace switches off: Cracks in the heat exchanger may cause your furnace to switch off.
- Odd Smells: If the air coming out of your furnace has an intense chemical odor, it may be a sign gas is seeping through cracks in your heat exchanger. These byproducts, which will often smell like formaldehyde, are a major warning sign.
- Carbon monoxide alarm is triggered or you feel symptoms of poisoning: If a cracked heat exchanger is releasing carbon monoxide in your home, your carbon monoxide alarm may go off or family members could start experiencing signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. Side effects include headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting or feeling tired. If your alarm goes off or you feel unwell, exit the home right away and then call for help.
- Soot: If you see black sooty buildup near the exterior of your furnace, it’s another sign something may be seriously wrong.
What to Do if the Furnace Heat Exchanger is Cracked
If you worry your furnace has a cracked heat exchanger, contact a pro with extensive experience in furnace installation right away so they can inspect your system and, if needed, start a furnace heat exchanger replacement. Costs often differ depending on the situation, but estimates can roughly suggest $1,000 to $3,000.
Estimates aside, the good news is that heat exchangers are generally included in the warranty. It's a good idea to review the warranty paperwork on your furnace, because while the warranty won't always cover the entire cost of repairs, it still may significantly lower your bill.
How to Prevent a Cracked Heat Exchanger in Your Home
One of the easiest ways to minimize the risk of problems in your furnace overall is via regular furnace maintenance. Furnaces provide the best possible return on investment when they work efficiently. Calling a certified professional to check your furnace for broken-down parts, clogged filters and other potential problems can help you avoid getting a big bill later on.
It’s also helpful to inspect your furnace filters every few months – it’s encouraged some filters be replaced every 90 days or sooner if they are dirty or grimy. While the filters aren't connected to the heat exchanger itself, the strain of dragging air through a clogged filter makes your entire furnace work more vigorously to complete its job. And the harder your furnace needs to run, the more wear and tear components like the heat exchanger will endure.