Person coughing into their hand from the effects and dangers of a cracked heat exchanger.

How Bad Is a Cracked Heat Exchanger?

An HVAC with a gas furnace generates heat for the home by burning gas and using a heat exchanger unit. Air blowing through the HVAC ductwork heats up as it passes over the mechanism, warming the dwelling. Any damage to the heat exchanger is hazardous, as this is where toxic exhaust gasses collect before being vented outdoors. So, how bad is a cracked heat exchanger, what are the dangers, and how will you know if it happens to you? Find the answer here.

How Does a Heat Exchanger Get Damaged?

Subject to intense temperature swings and heavy use during wintry weather, the stress on heat exchangers can result in what is known as thermal fatigue. This damage results in cracks forming in the equipment and gas leaks developing.

Additional strain on the heat exchanger increases by the furnace not being the right size for the home area needing heat. Other stressors include obstructed airflow from dirty filters and blocked vents. Neglecting annual maintenance raises the likelihood of damage happening unnoticed. Over time, even the best-looked-after HVAC wears out, needing repair or replacement.

What Happens When a Heat Exchanger Breaks?

Fire Hazards Take Hold

Damage to the exchanger unit can result in dangerous fires. Gas leaking from the exchanger unit results in the wrong mix of gas and air needed to keep a steady, safe combustion process working. As a result, the exhaust gasses can build up to an explosive level, and a furnace fire can take hold.

Deadly Gas Leaks into the Home

In properly operating home heating systems, harmful exhaust gasses vent out of the home via a flue. However, blockages and damage to equipment can interfere with the venting process, forcing a build-up of gas in the system and release into the home’s air.

The critically serious problem resulting from a cracked heat exchanger is the release of carbon monoxide — the deadly odorless gas. As it seeps through cracks in the equipment, the poisonous gas mixes with the air blowing through the ducts into the home.

Every year in the US, more than 50,000 people are rushed to emergency departments suffering from accidental carbon monoxide exposure. And more than 400 people die annually from inhaling the deadly gas.

How Do You Know You’ve Got a Cracked Heat Exchanger?

It may not be immediately evident that there’s HVAC damage, particularly where tiny fissures and breaks are just beginning in the exchanger. However, a quick inspection of the furnace and heat exchange unit may show visible signs that something is amiss:

  • The furnace flame should be a consistent blue color. A yellow hue shows the gas and air mix is out of kilter.
  • See whether there is soot collecting around and in the heat exchanger unit. The soot shows there is a problem with the gas-burning process.

As carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless, you’re unlikely to identify that such a leak is happening by visually inspecting the exchanger unit. However, there are several carbon monoxide symptoms to look out for. If family members are suddenly getting headaches, feeling giddy, nauseous, or throwing up, these are indicators your heating system might be the culprit. Other signs include coughing, chest pains, and mental confusion.

Turn off the HVAC, quickly get medical treatment, and then your next step should be to contact your local HVAC company for emergency assistance.

What to Do — Repair or Replacement?

If inspection and assessment of your HVAC by qualified technicians have shown that a cracked heat exchanger is indeed your problem, it’s time to think about replacing or upgrading your system.

Furnaces, heat exchangers, and other components of your heating equipment are typically manufactured to last between 10 to 20 years. So, if your system has reached that age it’s probably time to upgrade. On the other hand, if there’s plenty of life left in the furnace, you can opt to replace the heat exchanger but expect this to cost several thousand dollars.

Additionally, if you haven’t already got a carbon monoxide monitor in place, the value of such a device should now be apparent. It’s a minor expense for protection for the family.

Avoid Carbon Monoxide Risk in Northern Virginia

Servicing Northern Virginia and nearby counties, Briggs HVAC is your go-to company for keeping your home heating and cooling systems in peak condition. With an HVAC Maintenance Plan, you will avoid the dangers of unexpected wear and tear to your heat exchanger. And if you face such a problem, get in touch with us, and our emergency assistance technicians will be with you as quickly as possible.