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What's Wrong With Your Heating System (And Can You Fix It Yourself)?

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Few problems are less welcome than a heating system that won't heat, especially during the biting cold of winter. Should you try to fix the problem (whatever it is) yourself, or should you enlist the aid of a professional heating system service? Here is an overview of basic heating system issues to help you make that determination.

Maintenance Issues

If you're suffering from a basic maintenance issue in your furnace, then count yourself lucky, because there's a good chance you can fix it yourself. These DIY situations typically involve dirt or dust that needs to cleaned from one of the components. For example, if your furnace's air filter has accumulated enough dirt or other particulate matter, you'll notice a dramatic drop in heating efficiency. If the filter gets completely blocked up, the furnace might even shut down. Fortunately, you can remove, clean, and replace the filter yourself. Checking the filter from time to time will allow you to prevent future accumulations.

If the filter looks clean, then check the flame sensor. An electronic furnace ignition system relies on a flame sensor to govern its operation, and the presence of dirt on this component can shut the whole thing down. Fortunately, this is another easy fix -- cleaning the sensor should restore normal function.

Bad Electrical and Electronic Components

Modern furnaces are to some extent computerized, in the sense that digital components tell them when to turn and off and how much power to use. The most obvious example is your home's thermostat, which causes the furnace to engage at a given temperature. The easiest problem to fix is an incorrect thermostat setting. Is the thermostat set to "On" instead of "Auto?" If it is, then setting it to "Auto" will ensure that the air you receive is actually warmed.

If your thermostat doesn't seem to obey your commands, it may have simply lost electrical power. The fix for this may be as easy as changing the thermostat's internal battery. Electronic thermostats can develop system board failures that cause them to malfunction, requiring repair of replacement of the unit. Does your furnace have its own electrical feed? If so, you may be experiencing a power failure due to a blown fuse or tripped breaker. This is another easy do-it-yourself repair -- simply reset the breaker or replace the fuse as needed. 

Mechanical Failures

Unlike some of the issues listed above, a failure of one of your heating system's mechanical parts isn't usually fixable by the owner. These circumstances may include:

Failing heat exchanger - The heat exchanger, which sits between the burner and furnace's chimney vent, may give you many years of service before the metal in it finally starts to give out. But when that happens, you're in trouble, because this component is responsible for keeping deadly carbon monoxide out of your air -- a situation you may not recognize until your CO alarm goes off. Your furnace repair service can perform infrared inspections to detect signs of wear and then either repair or replace your heat exchanger as needed.

Broken fan or blower motor - If your furnace can't get its heated air to your living space, you might as well not have one -- no matter how beautifully every other part of it works. If your fan doesn't spin even though the fuse and thermostat are operational, then you may be looking at either damaged wiring or a broken blower motor belt. Both of these faults call for professional furnace service from sites like

As you can see, some preliminary troubleshooting can answer a lot of questions as to whether you should summon professional help for your heating system woes. But even if you're pretty sure you can handle the problem yourself, always take care to disengage the system from power before doing any kind of work on it. Play it safe, give your heating system the care it needs, and you'll be around to enjoy many more warmer winters!