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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 stupid 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:

cabin weekend

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).*

dont ask me to bring a dish

*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.).

attic furnace
diiiiiiirty, hard to reach part of my attic space

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.

furnace unit interior

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.

furnace burners

Next to it was the igniter (see pic below).

fixing the furnace hot surface igniter

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?

furnace hot surface igniter crack

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!

Day 2

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:

furnace broken hot surface igniter

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!).

Day 3

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.*

firewood
Looks like I won’t need all of this after all!

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.

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13 Comments

  1. I would blame it on those damn squirrels, they must have screwed with it when they were squatting in your attic!

  2. I’m from northern New England where our furnaces are in our basements. Kudos for going back up in your attic at the risk of running into the asshole squirrel! My first thought is thank god your small. That has to suck, basically working on your belly to fix a furnace.

    We bought “The Farm” – literally our new farm – in mid Maine on a short sale diving into foreclosure, it had been vacant for a while and at one point the basement had flooded and had almost 3′ of standing water the fire department had to pump out.

    The water heater was total toast and the furnace had also been in this standing water. We bought the farm anyway realizing we’d be dealing with a big ticket item immediately as we closed the end of November and were already 2 snow storms into the typical Maine winter.

    My brother and hubby’s first job, dressed in winter coats at the dining room table :-), was to give a closer look to the dead furnace. Amazingly our luck held out, we have a very top of the line forced hot air furnace and the bottom 3 feet of the beast only houses only the blower motor.

    I walked into my dining room, see my table covered in newspaper and rust, and the two guys fist bumping and rooster chesting it in their winter coats :-)

    They had removed the motor, wire brushed the entire thing, WD40’d it and it freed up the frozen motor.

    So end story, a potential $5,000 to $8,000 new furnace actually came up as a $5.00 fix, for a wire brush and can of WD40, and the professional we had come in to inspect and clean the furnace gave us kudos for repairing and bringing life back to a superior furnace that should last another 15 years without a problem.

    And…. We only have asshole mice to deal with in our basement LOL

    1. That’s AMAZING to have saved so much. And it reminds me, I need to buy another can of WD40!

  3. It was nice the immediate fix was mostly a little labor some oil and gaining knowledge on an important home device is always nice. I’ve saved working furnace fans with motors I’ve rescued out of furnaces I’ve replaced through the years because they move a fair amount of air and can be used in many hacks or DIY projects. The one that interested me was a mobile dust collector / air purifier for my wood shop. They come in handy for many uses after the furnace needs replaced,
    Y’all need to hang a small drip oil can near the furnace n train the squirrel to put a couple drops in each side once a month ;)
    great fix! stay warm
    only 60 some days til spring

  4. Our furnace is in the basement, makes it easier to access. But I still don’t dare fiddle with it! I love youtube videos – I have learned so much! It’s exciting that you will be working on more videos this year. You should start with an introduction video to your furnace. And I agree with Judy – the squirrels totally had something to do with it! I’m glad that for now it’s an inexpensive fix.

  5. Knowing a good HVAC guy is like knowing a good Doctor. You don’t want to have to call us but when you do, you’re glad you know a good one. We also charge about the same. :-)

    The only thing I would add is for people not to worry to much about oiling the motors in their furnace. Most of the HVAC equipment installed in the last 20 years use motors with sealed bearings. That means they can’t be oiled.

    They did that because sealed bearings last longer then non-sealed bearings that never get oiled. *cough* Sarah *cough*

  6. You are a total badass. I don’t like to call for help, but NO WAY would i climb into my attic to tinker with the furnace.

  7. Get thenumbersoff your fan motor and order one on eBay. Shouldn’t be much more than $100. I buy whole brand new 96.1% efficient furnaces for under $900. I had to replace the blower motor on the furnace in my first house that was only 6 years old. They don’t make things like they used to for sure. I built that house but subbed out the HVAC and paid big money. For what? Now I install my own and buy the cheapest (Goodman), out of the 6 I’ve installed I’ve only heard of one failure and that was a $7 flame sensor. It’s in my buddies house and he said all he did was lightly sand it and it worked fine after that. Newer furnaces have flashing LED’s on the PCB which give you a code to let you know what’s wrong too.

    1. I left out the part about the fan going out melting the drip pan in my A-coil, which I didn’t find until a few months later when I first fired up my AC that year. I went downstairs and found a hyuge puddle of water under and around my furnace. I suspect what happened was the fan crapped out while the flame was blazing full bore and the built up heat was too much for the plastic. When your furnace cycles the blower fan stays on for a few minutes after the gas solenoid shuts to prevent damage to other components. You have a horizontal unit so it’s unlikely you’d encounter the same problem. Plus since your motor was just stuck it probably never cycled on anyways.

      BTW. The pan was not fun to fix. I called around and the only way to get a new pan was to buy a whole new A-coil, uncharge the system, replace coil, rebraze lineset, vacuum the system and recharge. At the time I didn’t have the equipment so all that was out. I ended up opening up the coil while it was still on my furnace, I got the pan free from the coil and used a heat gun to melt and mold the plastic back into what it looked like before it melted. I lived in that house for 3 more years and never had a problem.

      1. Yikes. I don’t know that I would have even understood my system well enough to come up with that solution, but I’m really glad you were clever (and diligent) enough to get ‘er done.

  8. Its definitely worth trying to fi something yourself before forking out large amounts but with two caveats. First if you know you can’t fix it get a professional – and quick. The quicker you fix it the cheaper it will be. Secondly if you think you can fix it but aren’t sure do more research. You don’t want to end up trying to fix something only to make it worse – again resulting in higher costs in the long run.