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How to Fix Your Furnace In An Emergency

Miserable man sitting on couch with winter jacket on wondering what to do when your furnace goes out.

It’s January 5. The temperature is about to drop to -30 °C. And your furnace just quit. If you found this article searching for potential ways to temporarily fix your furnace, you’re in the right place.

At ProSolutions, we’re here to help out Edmontonians when heating emergencies threaten your home and family. When you call us we will be there as fast as we can.

But, there are some things you can do before you call or while you wait for your furnace repair technician to arrive.

We put this simple guide together to give you some essential tips on how to temporarily fix your furnace in an emergency.

These furnace DIY tips will not apply in all situations. They should only be done if you are comfortable doing them and assuming the risk that they potentially carry.

Jason Billey

Your Primary Concern Right Now: Frozen Water Pipes

The biggest problem with a broken furnace is having your water lines freeze and burst. The damage can be catastrophic and could cost many times more than a furnace repair.

So, how long have you got before the pipes freeze?

It depends on your home and the outside temperature. Typically we see it take about 12-24 hours with zero heat and a temperature of minus 20.

In colder temperatures, that time decreases quickly.

7 Ways to Warm Your House With a Broken Furnace:

We asked our furnace repair technicians what the most creative (and effective) ways to keep a house from freezing with a broken furnace. These are all based on personal experience and things they have seen customers do that worked well for Alberta’s climate.

  1. Use the dryer vent to pump hot air into the house by drying wet towels.
  2. Open the oven and set it to 450°C.
  3. Boil a pot or few pots of water.
  4. Run the hot water and fill a tub.
  5. If you have an electric heater, use it.
  6. If you have a wood-burning fireplace or gas fireplace, get it going.
  7. Put a space heater close to exposed water lines to keep them warm and prevent freezing.

If possible, turn your furnace fan on so that air is circulated through the home still to get the warm air you are generating distributed.

DIY Fixes for Your Broken Furnace

WARNING: Do not attempt any fix or DIY furnace repair that you are uncomfortable with. Never work on gas lines, or internal components yourself unless you are a trained professional.

ProSolutions Team

Our temporary furnace repair solutions and DIY tips are broken into 3 different categories:

  1. What to do if you smell gas or something burning
  2. General issues that cause a furnace shutdown from overheating
  3. You hear weird noises from the furnace, and they sound ominous

1.  You smell gas or something burning

We humans are strange creatures of habit. We sometimes feel we have to double-check what we think is happening. Case in point – smells. We’re unsure whether we do actually smell gas, and we wander around sniffing, wondering if our sense of smell is deceiving us. On top of that, we don’t want to bother somebody for no reason. And besides, we have to get to work.

If you have any doubts at all about what your nose is telling you, call your gas company immediately and leave. If you are in Alberta, call ATCO at 1-800-511-3447

ATCO NATURAL GAS SAFETY

If your carbon monoxide detector goes off, turn on exhaust fans, open doors and windows and clear the house.

If you smell anything burning, shut down the furnace and the gas line. Check for any fire. Where appropriate, open exhaust fans, doors and windows to get rid of the smell.

  1. Look for blockages in the return air intakes, or venting if possible
  2. Check your furnace filters and change if dirty

And if you are in Edmonton Area, call us at ProSolutions for scheduled furnace maintenance, repairs and installations.

2.  General troubleshooting when your furnace shuts down

Heat kills furnaces. And to protect you from a complete furnace meltdown, there are many protections built into the furnace to prevent catastrophic overheating. These safety systems do sometimes fail themselves, and that’s where we are going to focus.

Several things could have happened.  Some you may be able to fix yourself. Others, call your local furnace repair contractor. And if there’s any thread of doubt that you can fix it personally, don’t hesitate to get on the phone.

And by the way, before we go any further, if you smell gas, leave, and call the gas company as we stated above.

Power switch to the furnace

This is the first thing to check. Often times, simply cycling power will fix your furnace (at least temporarily).

If you don’t have power, nothing works. Find your furnaces power switch and make sure it is on. If you have not already tried turning your furnace off and on again, you should try that as well.

Clogged furnace filters

This is an easy check. If the filter’s clogged, you won’t get proper airflow to the heat exchanger. This, in turn, causes overheating and shutdown. 

Solution? Exchange the dirty filter for a new one and see if that makes a difference.

There’s a safety factor here. If your furnace gets too hot, a “high limit” switch automatically shuts the furnace down. Your fire risk is virtually eliminated.

Thermostat malfunction

It’s usually the batteries. Check them. If they’re low, replace them. If the furnace returns to normal function after one hour, that was likely the answer.

If it’s not, and the thermostat’s the number one suspect, call ProSolutions.

Dirty flame sensor

If you suspect this may be your problem, first, turn off the power to the furnace. Remove the sensor and clean it, assuming you’re comfortable in doing so. You could use steel wool or something like a brillo pad. You could also use your sleeve, nor recommended if it’s your favourite sweater. You can even use a $5 bill (or a $100) that you wrap around the sensor and slide up and down. That works for a while, but eventually, you “peel through the orange” and a minor repair, or routine maintenance is needed.

The pilot light is out

This is a problem with older furnaces. Newer ones have electronic ignition. A typical pilot light will burn blue. If, for some reason, it burns inefficiently, it will usually turn yellow. When that happens, the thermocouple recognizes a safety issue and shuts off the gas valve. It may also be that the gas valve itself is stuck.

You can usually relight the pilot light yourself based on the igniting instructions for your furnace model. If the problem is the thermocouple itself, you’ll likely need ProSolutions to replace it. If the gas intake valve itself is faulty, we can replace that too. You may also find that dirt has built up in that gas valve, restricting the oxygen needed for the pilot light to work correctly.

Blocked air intake and exhaust pipes

If the furnace isn’t venting properly through the exhaust flue, for safety reasons, a flue limit switch will shut it down. That flue can get blocked because of some animal or bird that managed to seal it up.

Here in Alberta, hoarfrost can completely cover the screen with icicles, blocking airflow of any kind. Obviously, the block has to be cleared, which you can often do yourself.

Shut down causes where you need professional furnace technician help

Diagnostics – that’s the issue. You may well have the answer, but like going to your doctor, you need a professional to make or confirm your suspicions:

  • Bad inducer motor
  • Bad blower motor
  • Capacitor needs replacing
  • Control board not functioning  – if you see burn marks, you’ll know something isn’t right.
  • Bad gas valve.
  • Bad heat exchanger. A crack has developed in the exchanger, and you need to replace it.

3.  You hear a noise from the furnace, and it sounds ominous

Houses are the producers of strange noises. A bang in the middle of the night and so often you never find out what causes it.

With a furnace – that’s a different story. You may have grinding noises. Do they occur before the flame comes to life, or is it after? Could it be the exhaust fan? That fan clears any gas that could be lingering and cause a backfire. It could be a serious issue, and you need to call to resolve it.

If the furnace does backfire, this is no time to waste. Kill the power to the furnace, shut off the gas and call a company to come fix your furnace.

This Situation Was Preventable

If you were on a regular furnace maintenance plan with ProSolutions Inc. or your preferred heating contractor, you probably could have avoided having to fix your furnace yourself.

Proper maintenance and furnace tune-ups are designed to catch problems before they happen as well as prevent parts from overheating due to dirt, dust, or other debris that could block airflow to furnace components.

Too many of us are notoriously lazy at preventive maintenance and not just with our furnace. 

Furnace Repair DIY Conclusion

We’ve given you several scenarios as to why your furnace can quit on you. But there is one other thing you can try.

Sometimes, like our computers, modems and cell phones, a simple shut down and restart will solve the problem. Try it and see.

If it’s more than that, however, ProSolutions is just a phone call away.