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My Furnace Won't Turn On - Seven Common Furnace Problems

By Jan Kukler on January 02, 2014

It happens to thousands of Canadians every year at the start of the cold season: you go to turn your furnace on after summer and nothing happens. What next?

The good news: it's probably fixable. In fact, some of the most common furnace problems can be taken care of without calling in a professional furnace repair technician. Others may require the help of a pro, but still may not cost you an arm and a leg. Here are the seven most common furnace problems experienced by Canadians:

1) A clogged air filter: All furnaces (gas and electric) have an air filter. This lightweight but crucial part keeps dust and debris from getting inside of your furnace. It also catches thinks like mold spores and allergens in your indoor air and keeps them from getting re- circulated into your home.

Just like the air filter on your vehicle, if this part gets too full of dirt it won't allow any air to pass through. Your furnace will eventually shut off if air can't circulate. If yours dies and you can't remember the last time you changed the filter you should check this first. It's usually located inside of one of the side panels. It is easy to access and remove.

Your filter (depending on brand) should be white, off-white or grayish in color. If it looks darker than this or you can actually see dust in it then this is probably the culprit and it should be changed. Filters can be purchased at your local hardware store.

2) The furnace itself is dirty. The outside of your furnace collects dust and debris that may get inside it and cause mechanical failure. If your furnace is visibly dusty/dirty, use a vacuum cleaner to clean it thoroughly. Remove side panels and carefully clean there too.

3) A worn belt: Furnace blowers may have a belt that constantly rotates. Like the belt on your vehicle, furnace belts wear out regularly due to friction. They may even tear when other parts malfunction.

Fixing a belt is more complicated than changing an air filter. Only those who are very handy should attempt this. If you are comfortable with your do-it-yourself skills you can consult your furnace's owner's manual to find out how to locate the belt. You should be able to see wear or tears on your belt.

It is recommended that the average home owner not attempt to replace a furnace belt himself. However, if you consult your owner's manual you may at least be able to find the belt and take a look at it to determine whether it is the source of the problem

4) A faulty thermostat: Sometimes when a furnace won't turn on it's not the furnace itself that is the problem: the thermostat may be to blame. The thermostat is the device that detects air temperature and turns the furnace or air conditioner on to adjust to the

temperature set by the home owner. Thermostats usually last for years, but not necessarily as long as the furnace itself.

Like belts, thermostats can be a little bit tricky to replace. A skilled do-it-yourselfer may be able to do this successfully by consulting the owner's manual and the local hardware store. Otherwise you'll need to call in a professional.

5) The pilot light is off: If you own a gas furnace, this problem will be easy to detect. Just look inside the little opening and see if the blue flame is still burning. If not, this is almost certainly the problem, or at the very least a symptom of the real problem.

Sometimes a sudden draft can extinguish the pilot light. Troubleshoot by finding the gas valve (look at your owner's manual if you need help finding this). It will say "on, " "off" and "pilot." Turn the valve to the "off" position. Wait three to five minutes (to allow any gas to disperse). Then turn the valve to "pilot." Hold down the reset button and use a match (the long ones are best for this job) to re-light the pilot. Once it catches, turn the valve to "on."

If you can't get the flame to ignite, or it ignites but then goes out again, this may indicate a dirty, clogged opening or a bad thermocouple. This will probably require you to call in a professional, but at least you'll be able to give him an idea of what the problem is.

The pilot light in modern gas furnaces doesn't need to be lit by hand. Instead it is lit by an electronic igniter. If you have this type of furnace, try turning off your furnace and then turning it back on. If the flame won't light you may have an igniter problem.

6) The pilot light flame is yellow: A yellow flame won't cause your furnace to stop running. However, it's worth mentioning for gas furnace owners that it's important to look at the pilot light from time to time. The flame should be blue due to the natural gas. If it's not, and especially if it looks yellow, this is a serious problem. It means that not enough air is getting to the flame and that carbon monoxide gas may be building up inside your home. Carbon monoxide gas is potentially lethal. Turn off your furnace and open your doors and windows to ventilate your house.

Call in a professional right away to service your furnace. Also, you should install a carbon monoxide detector; every home should have one. Replace it every 5 years.

7) A fuse is blown: Fuses are designed to last for years. However, they do blow from time to time, especially if your home experiences an electrical surge or if you are trying to run too much power. Check your electrical box to see if this is the case. A blown fuse is easy and cheap to replace.

AN IMPORTANT NOTE: Always turn off the power to your furnace before troubleshooting and repairing common furnace problems!

Jan Kukler is a professional furnace repair & installation technician and owner of JAVA Heating and Air Conditioning. JAVA provides Maple Ridge furnace repair , installation and service as well as throughout out Greater Vancouver, BC.

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