When I was a kid, I was a little bit stubborn, especially when it came to my favorite hobby, i.e. fixing things (even things that weren’t exactly broken). I remember working on my bike out in the garage, trying to fix the chain but not being able to get it exactly right. My dad must have seen me out there with a look of frustration because he came out and gave me a piece of advice that I still remember to this day. He said, “Son, it’s okay to not know things—as long as you know when it’s time to ask someone who does.” This, I think, is the single most important advice I’ve ever received.
It’s a vital piece of advice for homeowners when it comes to taking care of their furnaces as well, especially components like the ignitor, one of the more complicated and potentially dangerous HVAC parts. I know that for many homeowners there’s a compulsion to do things yourself. I get it, I really do. If you can handle your own home repairs, you can potentially save quite a bit of money—and get that massive sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing a job using your own two hands. When it comes to furnace ignitors, though, it’s best to take my dad’s advice and call in someone who really knows how to handle an ignitor that’s gone bad.
To that end, it benefits homeowners to know how to tell if your furnace ignitor is bad, as well as why it matters. So, unlike me fighting with my bike chain out in the garage all those years ago, you’ll know when it’s time to call in the local heating and cooling service professionals to diagnose your ignitor dilemma.
Know What Your Furnace Ignitor Is So You Can Tell When It’s Bad
When it comes to figuring out how to tell if your furnace ignitor is bad, the clear first step is to figure out what exactly a furnace ignitor is. In the simplest sense, a furnace ignitor is the part of your heater that turns fuel into heat. Your ignitor lights the burner, sparking the combustion process. That’s the simple way to describe it. For those of you who are curious types (and I count myself among you), there’s certainly a good deal more to learn.
In the past, furnaces used pilot lights that provided a flame that ignited the gas released by burners, starting the heating process. A pilot light is a standing flame that’s always burning because it maintains a constant link to a small flow of gas. And, to be sure, your furnace might still use this system, especially if it hasn’t been replaced in the last 10 to 15 years (which by the way, it’s probably time for you to consider a replacement).
Newer furnaces, however, typically use electric hot surface ignitors because this system is more dependable. It also saves you money on your utility bill since it doesn’t require a steady stream of fuel to keep it burning the way a pilot light does. Electric furnaces will have a thin wire that, once it receives an electric signal, will glow red hot and create a spark that sets off the heating process. These components are generally made of high heat resistant materials like silicon carbide or silicon nitride, both of which are able to create and withstand sparks hot enough to create a combustion reaction.
How to Tell If Your Furnace Ignitor Is Bad: Signs of a Problem
I’ve talked in the past about the most common reasons that your furnace failed to ignite, but the thing is, failure to ignite isn’t the only sign that this particular component is having a problem and might need to be repaired, although it is the most obvious one. Here’s a quick list of ways to tell if your furnace ignitor is on the fritz:
- Your furnace won’t run: The most obvious sign that your ignitor is bad is that it won’t ignite, and this generally manifests itself in your furnace failing to run when you activate it. One word of caution, though: this can also be caused by other issues, some of which are electrical. You should do simple things like checking to see if the circuit breaker for your furnace has been switched before calling an expert to check on your bad ignitor. This leads us to our next checklist item…
- The circuit breaker for your furnace keeps getting switched: If you end up evaluating your circuit breaker multiple times and find that the switch for your furnace has been flipped, you could have a voltage issue related to your ignitor. This bad ignitor issue can be dangerous because you’re dealing with lots of electricity. My advice in this situation is to call a professional.
- Your furnace suddenly stops running: Since the ignitor creates heat that sparks a combustible reaction, your furnace is built with fail safes to keep it from shorting out or creating a reaction in a dangerous situation, like when a dirty filter has led to debris clogging the area. So, if you’ve neglected your annual furnace maintenance guide, it may be causing this problem, which also means it’s time to call in a professional for help.
Savvy readers may have noticed a couple of trends here: that the furnace won’t really work if there’s a problem with the ignitor and that the best bet if you’re concerned about any of these issues is to call in a skilled and trained professional.
Hey, I’m all for DIY jobs. I mean, I was the kid who used to tinker with his bike instead of asking his dad to help him fix it. When it comes to a component as potentially volatile as an ignitor, though, I highly recommend calling in the pros. Again, admitting when you don’t know something is one of my favorite pieces of advice—and it’s one that’s especially useful when you’re dealing with your ignitor.
At Bell Brothers, we believe in a whole home approach to HVAC maintenance. Our heating and cooling professionals would love to give your AC and furnace a good tune-up this fall. While they’re at it, they can also make sure your windows and insulation are working efficiently to keep your home as comfy and safe as possible. Contact us today to schedule your fall HVAC maintenance or a whole-home efficiency assessment.
Wondering how to finance a new furnace for your new home? HERO is a unique financing option that helps California homeowners afford energy efficient upgrades to their home. Contact Bell Brothers, a HERO-approved contractor, to learn more. Our local HVAC, plumbing, and window specialists will walk you through the entire process, from applications to installation.
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