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Not every home improvement story can be a glamorous one, but the ones that aren’t sure can save a lot of money! Case in point: learning how to fix the furnace and avoid a $500-900 charge in new parts and labor.
About six weeks ago in December, I went out of town for a lovely cabin weekend with a bunch of friends (translation: we played a lot of drinking games in the middle of nowhere, people did dumb and hilarious things). Since this post is mostly about broken and dirty things dealt with in my cramped attic, I’ll at least give you one nice picture to look at before everything looks like a set from a horror flick:
Come to think of it, that still looks like at least the beginning of a slasher movie setting, right?
Anyway, we had an awesome time, but I returned home to find that the house seemed a little… off, for some reason. Not enough to set off any alarms in my head, but that unmistakable feeling that something is broken (newer homeowners: if you haven’t learned this instinct yet, just wait… it happens!). I soon realized what the issue was: the lack of humming coming from the furnace above my head. Granted, it had been a really warm weekend for December, so the house didn’t feel surprisingly chilly or anything, so I naturally just thought that the heater wasn’t kicking on because of the weather. But as the temps dipped down the next day, I looked at the forecast and saw an impending issue: it was going to get into the freezing temps by the end of the week, and if something really was broken, I needed to get it fixed asap.
Over the years, being a homeowner leads to some interesting conversations with friends that you would never have had prior to buying a house. These are the kinds of conversations that stem from that random time your drinking buddy mentioned that his dad is/was a handyman and he knows a lot about plumbing/electrical/etc. after helping him out over the years. Or the time your friend mentions that her aunt picked up a new hobby in painting antique furniture. Basically, you start taking mental notes of which friends to ask in a pinch for certain questions, such as that random mechanic friend everyone has because he is MacGuyver with a socket wrench. This isn’t the only reason you hang out with them, of course — that would be weird and would make you a shitty person — but after years of blogging about my home, I know that when I get a phone call or text from a friend who owns a house, there’s an increased likelihood that their invite for dinner might also include “taking a look” at something in their house and doling out design advice while I’m there (which I’m FAR more interested in doing than, say, bringing something I cooked, so this works out happily for me as well).*
*Note to self: find an awesome friend who just happens to know how to weld.
Anyway, after checking the breaker (safety first: if you’re going to be messing with things that light on fire, turn off the things that supply a fire), watching a couple of Youtube videos, and doing a quick visual inspection in the attic, I texted my friend who I thought might know about furnaces and asked what the likeliest causes for it to suddenly conk out was. With his instruction, he walked me through a few steps and snapped photos to send him (there are apps for getting diagnoses from doctors, so a DIY home repair one sounds brilliant to me!). Soon, we thought we’d found the culprit.
First, I started by closely looking at the label on the furnace with a flashlight to determine if it had a pilot light or not. Turns out, many newer furnaces don’t actually have a pilot light anymore and instead opt for electronic ignition in some way. The reason for this is pretty obvious, since pilot lights can go out, and no one wants to climb into their attic that often to light it again (reliability is a pretty nifty perk). Not having a pilot light on all the time also means better energy efficiency (only lighting up and burning resources when needed) and better safety measures (no open flame just sitting there if there’s an issue with gas, etc.).
I also looked around for the emergency switch, usually found somewhere near the furnace but not necessarily attached to it. Mine turned out to be installed on one of the webs holding up the roof directly behind where you look at the furnace, so it was basically hiding in plain sight since I had my back to it (a web is an angled piece that helps support the roof line); go figure.
After I saw on the label that it definitely did not need an open flame (because warnings), I took off the front panel of the furnace. Most of the videos I saw online were upright furnaces, but mine was installed on its side. This proved to be a bit tougher to take off than I expected, since a long pipe lying next to the top of the front panel made it tougher to slide up and out of the way.
Once I could see inside, I spent a little time identifying the parts I needed to check next. One: the area where normally there would be burners a-blazing, but instead were shut off completely.
Next to it was the igniter (see pic below).
Some furnaces have intermittent pilots that aren’t meant to stay on all the time; they just spark to ignite when the time comes to ignite the burners (similar, I’m guessing, to how automatic ignition in my gas stove works). Instead, my furnace used a “hot surface igniter”, or basically a coil that heats up and lights the burners by sitting right next to where the gas will come out and fuel the system. Over time, these coils can crack and break (or if they are touched or even looked at the wrong way; some guides advise blowing dust off and closing the furnace doors gently to avoid breaking them). See how below, it looks like there’s a crack in the middle?
I was still on the phone with my friend after sending him the photos, and he determined that the likely problem was that the coil had cracked, was about to break completely, and the system had turned off automatically (a safety measure to prevent gas buildup). Luckily, a new one wasn’t too expensive of a part ($50 or so with labor), and thanks to the photo, he could probably track it down with his dad. I set a plan for the next day and thought how awesomely genius text messaging can really be. Success!
Or maybe not. The next evening, my friend stopped by and we immediately hit a road block: the coil was actually totally fine. Even though it looked like it was cracked from the closest angle I could reach it, it was just a little discoloration. In fact, I found an additional broken coil just sitting on top of some insulation while I was up there:
Since this cracked igniter was the cheapest of the options of what could be wrong, it meant that there was a more expensive solution lurking ahead. Wop-wop.
Moving on, we selected the next best problem candidate: the blower/fan. Usually, problems like these are noisy before they stop working (they can rust out), but I hadn’t heard any warning signs prior. He tried a couple of times to get it to spin again without heat (using the fan option on the thermostat), but no such luck. The best option from there was to track down a used replacement; a used one would still be pricey at around $250-300, but a new one plus labor could be as high as $900 (yikes!).
My buddy’s dad thankfully did have a used part, but he also had one more suggestion before replacing: lube ‘er up. Some machines actual require regular oiling in order to work properly (a fact I was oblivious to), so adding just a few drops of oil might actually fix it (note: do not over lubricate either; that can also cause issues leading to replacement). He had some machine oil and tried it (he also added that you could use motor oil as well, but I forget which weight). And here’s the good news: ACTUAL SUCCESS. The furnace started right back up again, and I was only out the cost of labor for his time. Sweeeeet.*
There are certain times, like this furnace issue, where I feel far more comfortable calling in some reinforcements who understand a system better than I do. Plumbing and HVAC? Perfect opportunity to put my stubbornness aside and ask for help. Plus, these guys were so willing to teach me that it gave me some basic home repair skills to use the next time. Of course, that’s also with the expectation that there is a “next time”. The oil solution wasn’t likely to be a permanent one, so even though I have a little more time, I will need to start putting some money aside for the inevitable (and pricier) replacement repair. But anything over $100 in repairs that I can put off longer is a welcome option!
What was the last repair that turned out to be better than you initially thought?
*And did you SEE how many times I could have made gas or lube jokes and didn’t? Someone owes me a cookie.