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When Furnaces Attack 10 Ways They Can Go Horribly Wrong

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Why does it always seem to happen in the dead of winter?

One moment you're warm and toasty, with the kids snuggled up in their footie pajamas watching their favorite night-time show. Then the next moment, a faint whiff of burning rubber catches your attention. You trace the odor back to your vents and suddenly realize that your furnace may have problems. You're now dealing with one of the many scenarios that make you the star of your own episode of “When Furnaces Attack.” But not to worry.

Whether your furnace installation is in need of a little TLC, is on its last leg or was just a bad seed to start with, here are a few common problems that occur and some tips to hopefully help you get your most important winter appliance back to behaving like the teacher's pet.

Air Flow Problems
Air flow is essential for proper performance of your heating system. Start with the basics. Change the air filter every 30 to 60 days, check your air vents to make sure they are open and adjusted properly and make sure there are no obstructions in front of the vents that can decrease air flow. Now for the larger problems.

Blocked or Leaky Ducts
Air ducts can collapse, be blocked by obstructions or leak where the joints have come apart. This will dramatically reduce air flow and possibly overload your system. Ducts should be checked on a regular basis.

Bad Thermostat
Thermostats can fail when the wiring comes loose under the housing or the thermostat itself goes bad. Never try to adjust the wires without proper training. The breaker for the furnace needs to be properly shut off before removing the housing to avoid the risk of shock.

Ignition Control
If your blower comes on but all you're getting is cold air through the vents, you most likely have ignition control problems. Have a professional check it to see that the wires are properly connected, or you may need a new module.

Closed Gas Valve
This is another problem that can cause cold air from the vents. Someone may have turned off a gas valve and forgotten to turn it back on.

Thrown Shutoff Switch or Breaker
Sometimes it's simply a matter of turning it back on. If the circuit breaker gets thrown a lot however, you will need to see what is overloading your system.

Blocked Exhaust Flue
This is a dangerous problem as blocked exhaust flues (PDF) can cause carbon monoxide to accumulate in your house. First, you should always have a carbon monoxide detector. It could save your family's life. Second, the flue should be checked often to make sure it's free of obstruction, securely attached and that the exhaust is moving properly.

Overloaded System
There are a lot of things that can overload a system, including debris, air flow obstruction and mechanical problems, but if the system itself isn't big enough for the home, you will never be able to keep up with its repairs. Make sure you have the right sized system when buying a new or used home and that if it has been retro-fitted, it has been done properly by a professional.

Any system will break down under neglect, and your furnace is no exception. Regular maintenance will prevent many problems and prompt attention will fix a problem before it becomes serious.

Now Back to That Smell
Finally, that burning smell in the original scenario of this post may simply be caused by the furnace's first use after a long summer. It may also be a matter of clogged filters allowing dust and dirt to get into the system or debris against heating components, which should be cleared to avoid problems.

But it can also be indicative of faulty wiring or an electrical short in the heat pump or furnace itself. If you suspect that the odor is being caused by electrical problems, don't take it lightly. Shut down the system, check to make sure there is no fire, and leave it off till you have a specialist check it out. It's better to be safe than sorry.

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