A furnace is almost always a background player at home, helping keep you warm in the cold winter months. It often won't be noticed until something goes wrong.
One root cause might be that your furnace has a cracked heat exchanger. It can be a safety risk, so it’s critical to familiarize yourself with the symptoms of a cracked heat exchanger and what to do if you believe that may be the problem.
What Is a Heat Exchanger in a Furnace?
A heat exchanger helps transition heat from the combustion chamber in your furnace to the air that moves through the air ducts. It generally accomplishes this via coils or tubes that warm the air while serving as a barrier to keep byproducts produced in the combustion chamber, called flue gasses, from getting out into your home.
Is a Cracked Heat Exchanger Dangerous?
Given its key role, it isn't surprising that a cracked heat exchanger can be very dangerous. A crack in the heat exchanger can enable dangerous gasses – like carbon monoxide, which can be lethal – to circulate through your home.
For this reason, don't ever run your heater if you suspect you're dealing with a cracked heat exchanger, as letting it run could make the entire family ill. Call an HVAC professional immediately if you are worried your furnace has a cracked heat exchanger that needs to be repaired.
Four Signs of a Cracked Heat Exchanger:
- Furnace turns off: Cracks in the heat exchanger could cause your furnace to shut off.
- Unusual Smells: If the air escaping your furnace has a strong chemical odor, it could be an indicator that gas is slipping through cracks in your heat exchanger. These byproducts, which may smell like formaldehyde, are a common warning sign.
- Carbon monoxide alarm goes off or you recognize symptoms of poisoning: If a cracked heat exchanger is emitting carbon monoxide inside your home, your carbon monoxide alarm could go off or family members might experience signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. Side effects include headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting or feeling tired. If your alarm goes off or you feel unusually tired, exit the home as soon as you can and then call for help.
- Soot: If you see black sooty buildup on the exterior of your furnace, it’s an indication something may be seriously wrong.
What You Should Do if a Furnace Heat Exchanger is Cracked
If you suspect your furnace has a cracked heat exchanger, contact a pro with extensive experience in furnace installation as soon as possible so they can inspect your system and, if required, handle a furnace heat exchanger replacement. Costs will differ depending on the situation, but estimates can roughly suggest $1,000 to $3,000.
However, the good news is that heat exchangers are often covered by the warranty. It's a good idea to check the warranty paperwork on your furnace, since while the warranty won't always cover the entire cost of repairs, it can significantly reduce your bill.
How to Avoid a Cracked Heat Exchanger in Your Home
One of the easiest ways to minimize the risk of problems in your furnace overall is through regular furnace maintenance. Furnaces provide the best possible return on investment when they work efficiently. Calling a skilled professional to check your furnace for old parts, clogged filters and other potential problems can keep you from getting a big bill later on.
It’s also a good idea to inspect your furnace filters every few months – it’s encouraged some filters be swapped out every 90 days or sooner if they are dirty or grimy. While the filters aren't a part of the heat exchanger itself, the strain of pulling air through a clogged filter makes your entire furnace work more vigorously to accomplish its job. And the harder your furnace works, the more deterioration pieces like the heat exchanger will sustain.