What Does It Mean To Have A Cracked Heat Exchanger?

Living in South Jersey we have to be prepared for every type of weather. From snowstorms to heat waves, this area sees it all, and making sure your home is comfortable is important. One of the issues when it comes to heating your home is a cracked heat exchanger. We want to tell you a little more about what that means, and what the next steps are when this happens.

Having a cracked heat exchanger means you’re probably about to spend some money. Generally, if your HVAC technician says you have a cracked heat exchanger, it means your furnace needs to be replaced.

For most people, this is an inconvenience, to say the least. Replacing a furnace is a big-ticket item that costs lots of money. This makes it important to understand why you need a new one. And, it’s also possible that you may not have to replace your furnace. But, you’ll need to know how to find that out.

If you’re told you have a cracked heat exchanger, or you’re just trying to be prepared, here’s a quick overview about cracked heat exchangers. It covers what this means and what you should do if you have one.

What is a cracked heat exchanger?

Having an expert look at your equipment will let you know if it's good to go! To understand how and why a heater exchanger cracks, you first have to know what a heat exchanger is. Plainly put, it’s the part of the unit that actually heats the air. It’s made up of a series of coils, or tubes.

Inside the exchanger is where the fuel you use — often gas or oil — combusts. It creates heat as it does so. Then, a blower pushes the heat through the exchanger and into the vents.
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A cracked heat exchanger is simply when a part of the exchanger, well, cracks. Any part of it splits or otherwise breaks open.

It can happen for a number of reasons. A common one is having a heater that’s too powerful for the house. When this happens, the heat gets backed up and damages the exchanger.

Or, there could be a refrigerant leak that’s causing part of the exchanger to ice over. The sudden shift from very cold to very hot when heat passes through can stress the metal.

Since the heat exchanger is nestled inside the furnace, you won’t see anything if yours cracks. But, there are some telltale signs.

If you smell something like formaldehyde near the furnace, it could be the result of a cracked exchanger. Also, signs of wear and tear on the outside of the heater can mean cracks and other damage on the inside.

Why is a cracked heat exchanger a big deal?

Understanding why a cracked heat exchanger is a big deal also has to do with another sign of one: carbon monoxide.

If you have a carbon monoxide detector near your furnace — and you should — and it starts beeping, it’s likely you have a cracked heat exchanger.

Carbon Monoxide Detectors Can Give You A Warning of a Cracked Heat ExchangerCarbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless and tasteless gas that’s also lethal to humans. In general, when a carbon monoxide detector goes off you should open all your windows and turn off any appliances that use gas.

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If you feel dizzy, tired or nauseous, go to the hospital and call your fire department. The same goes for if you follow those steps and the detector goes off again.

One place carbon monoxide builds up is within your furnace. However, since it’s contained within the heat exchanger, it doesn’t get into the ductwork or your house. If the heat exchanger cracks, however, the carbon monoxide can begin leaking into your home.

There’s some debate over whether this happens every time a heat exchanger cracks, or if it always results in enough carbon monoxide to hurt you. However, one thing is for certain: a cracked heat exchanger means you must replace your entire furnace.

The American Gas Association recommends replacing the entire unit for safety reasons. Cost-wise, the exchanger itself can’t be fixed. It’s also located in the center of the furnace. Even if you were to replace one, the labor and parts cost would likely be the same or more as a new furnace.

For these reasons, a cracked heat exchanger means you need a new furnace. That means shelling out at least $2,000 pretty quickly.

Fortunately, you can take a few steps to make this process a little smoother.
What do you do when you have a cracked heat exchanger?

First, you can take some steps to make sure the heat exchanger is actually cracked. For this, you’ll need a professional. They’ll start by taking carbon monoxide readings and perform a visual inspection as best they can.

Unfortunately, not all professionals are honest. Some shady companies will scam a homeowner because you can’t actually see the damage. You have to take their word for it.

You can take some steps this. First, make sure the company you called has a good reputation and has been around for awhile. That makes them less likely to risk their reputation or worse.

Then, ask them to show you the crack in the heat exchanger once they’ve taken out the old unit. If they refuse, don’t let them do the work. If they do and can’t actually find a crack, tell them to put the old unit back in at no charge.

It’s also a good idea to get a second opinion. Many times, a good company will send out a supervisor, or at least a second tech, to double-check the work. If that company won’t do it, find another company to check your system for you.

If, however, the heat exchanger is cracked, you’ll need to look into a new furnace and quickly. However, it’s a costly item, so you want to make sure you do your research. You can start by checking out our guide to furnace costs in South Jersey. From there, you can ask your HVAC company for some recommendations, and also if they offer to finance.

Finally, be sure to get a right-sized furnace. One that’s too big for your home could put you back in the same position.

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