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Furnace heat exchanger: Here’s how they work and what can go wrong

During the coldest days and nights of the year, your home relies on a properly working furnace to keep your family warm and comfortable. In turn, your furnace relies on a properly working furnace heat exchanger. It’s arguably the most important part of your heating system, and any problems with it could not only lead to a breakdown, but could actually pose a safety risk to your entire family.

In this article, we’ll review the 5 most-prominent signs that something is wrong with your heat exchanger and your overall furnace. We’ll also explore just how a heat exchanger works and what can go wrong.

Reimer Home Services is Buffalo’s trusted name in heating repair services. If you suspect that your heat exchanger is damaged or that your furnace is on the verge of a breakdown, call our team for 24/7 emergency service here in Western New York. Our friendly, professional technicians are ready to help!


Experiencing furnace problems?

If you’re noticing any of these signs of furnace trouble—or have been experiencing efficiency or performance problems—you need to have one of our technicians out to take a look at your gas furnace. It could be on the verge of a breakdown.


The heat from furnace combustion warms the heat exchanger, which separates the flue gases from the air in your home.

The heat from furnace combustion warms the heat exchanger, which separates the flue gases from the air in your home.

What is the furnace heat exchanger?

Every furnace contains a heat exchanger. It’s an essential part of the heating process. To create heat, your furnace combusts fuel—typically gas, but other varieties exist—in a sealed chamber. This combustion process generates heat energy from the fuel source. This is one of the things that makes gas furnaces different from electric ones, which generate heat through electric coils.

The mixture of gas and combustion fumes (known as “flue gases“) isn’t safe to breathe. That’s where the exchanger comes in.

Essentially, the exchanger is a thin metal shield standing between the combustion chamber and the blower, which distributes heated air from the furnace through air ducts into the living spaces of your home. As the combustion chamber heats the exchanger, air is blown across its surface on the other side, rapidly heating the breathable air. This air is then sent through your home’s ductwork to the living spaces of your home.

To work properly and prevent flue gases from escaping, the heat exchanger needs to be completely sealed. This is often where things start to go wrong.

Issues with your heat exchanger can negatively impact how the entire furnace operates. If you’re experiencing furnace issues here in Buffalo and Western New York, call the team at Reimer for service.

What can go wrong with a heat exchanger?

We tend to think of metal as being stable and unchanging, but heat actually has a big impact on metallic objects. As the heat exchanger rapidly heats up, the metal expands. When the furnace turns off, that heated metal cools and contracts back to the shape it held before at room temperature.

However, after doing this for a decade or more, the metal starts to become fatigued. Eventually, it’s more prone to becoming brittle, which leads to cracking, snapping, and other failures. This may lead to strange sounds you can hear coming from your furnace.

When this happens, the heat exchanger is no longer forming an effective seal between the breathable air in your and the flue air. This is a big problem: flue air is not safe for humans or pets. It can even contain carbon monoxide—a colorless, odorless gas that has a well-earned reputation as a silent killer.

How does a cracked heat exchanger release carbon monoxide?

In most cases, the flue gases in your furnace will not contain carbon monoxide—it’s not a typical byproduct of gas combustion in the furnace. For carbon monoxide to leak from a cracked heat exchanger, two things need to be happening:

  • The heat exchanger is cracked or otherwise has an air leak.
  • There’s something wrong with how the system is combusting gas.

However, given the high-stake dangers associated with carbon monoxide inhalation, the general recommendation from the CDC is to deal with potential sources of this gas as soon as possible.

How can homeowners prevent heat exchanger problems?

Here are some ways homes with gas furnaces can help ensure that their heat exchanger is continuing to operate safely and effectively:

Schedule a professional heating tune-up

Have an expert HVAC technician inspect your furnace every fall to make sure the heat exchanger is still in good shape. Your technician will likely run a test using specialized equipment to see if there are any leaks in the exchanger. They’ll also visually inspect the unit to make sure there’s no obvious signs of damage or metal fatigue.

Know when you’re due for a replacement

A vast majority of heat exchangers last about 10-20 years. During the 15-20 year mark, homeowners should be considering whether or not they need to replace the part, and probably be talking with their HVAC technician during their annual tune-up about where things stand.

Opt for professional installation

It’s possible for a heat exchanger to become damaged during installation if the furnace is not installed right or carefully. This is just one of the reasons we recommend always leaving furnace installation to the professionals.

What are the signs of problems with the furnace heat exchanger?

Here are five signs that you need to call Reimer for furnace repair here in Buffalo:

#1. Your HVAC technician reports that there’s cracks or damage

As mentioned before, metal fatigue can lead to cracks in the heat exchanger, which in turn can cause a whole host of problems. These cracks aren’t always quite the size of the one in the Liberty Bell. These can be micro-fractures that are incredibly difficult to see, but still allow flue gas molecules to pass through the exchanger.

If your technician reports that your heat exchanger has cracked, the time for replacing it is now.

#2. There’s a change in flame color

A fully functional gas furnace should generate a steady blue flame. That’s because it’s being combusted in a closed environment. Technicians will take note of an erratic burn behavior in the furnace, since that could be a sign that external oxygen is getting into the system through the cracked exchanger.

#3. There’s soot buildup inside the heat exchanger

If the furnace has a soot buildup inside of it, then chances are that the heat exchanger is damaged. This is a sign that the burner is not burning properly and needs to be fixed. The cause can be anything from tilted burners to cracks in the heat exchange itself.

#4. There’s discoloration and buildup

If the heat exchanger develops cracks, the metal will get discolored with the soot that builds up on it. The cracks will allow that deposit through, making the heat exchanger appear “sooty,” as discussed in the section above. The site of the crack should have a buildup as well, or there might be spots that are darker than the rest of the metal.

#5. You detect carbon monoxide

As discussed earlier, carbon monoxide can be a byproduct of the combustion process in your furnace. It’s a colorless, odorless gas that can be fatal. This is why it’s important to address furnace heat exchanger problems before they turn into a major danger to your family and house.

Every home should have a functioning carbon monoxide detector. If you suspect there’s a leak, evacuate and then call the fire department.

For even more potential signs you might need furnace repair, keep reading and check out this article.

If you haven't already, call Reimer to schedule a furnace heat exchanger inspection.

When Reimer checks your furnace, we’ll also look at the heat exchanger to make sure it’s in good condition.

Schedule a furnace inspection with Reimer

Here’s the connection between the first four items on the list above: these aren’t things you as the homeowner can spot just looking at the exterior of your furnace. You need to have a technician inspect your system on an annual basis. Or, if you’ve already had a carbon monoxide alarm go off, you need to have a technician out to inspect your system and address the problem.

Here are Reimer, we offer 24/7 emergency furnace repair in Buffalo and Western New York. Our technicians also perform fall safety and tune-up services. Contact us for service by calling (716) 694-8524 or contact us online.

Remember: dealing with your furnace heat exchanger sooner than later can both prevent a furnace breakdown and keep your family safe.

Fill out this form to request service from our team:

Here’s what backflow is, and how you can prevent it from happening in your home

Preventing backflow is important to protecting your home’s drinking and potable water. But, just what is backflow, anyway? In this blog, we’ll break down how backflow works, why it’s an issue for homeowners here in Buffalo and Western New York, and when you should call in the plumbers at Reimer Home Services.

Need Reimer to solve a backflow issue or install a check valve for your home? Contact us online, or give us a call at (716) 694-8524 to get started.

What is backflow?

In plumbing, “backflow” is the word that refers to water moving into the direction it shouldn’t. All water in the home has a set path and direction: for example, your garden hose is meant to distribute water, not take it back into the hose.

However, when backflow happens, that exact situation is possible. When there are problems with pressure, that water from your garden hose can flow back into your potable water supply.

Why is this a problem?

There are many instances in which backflow can be dangerous. For example, you don’t want wastewater backflowing into your potable water supply. This could foul the water and make you and your family very sick.

There are different levels of contamination when it comes to backflow. Because of the way modern homes and bathrooms are designed, most homeowners probably won’t have to deal with foul water. However, there are instances in which check valves—the pressure regulators preventing backflow—fail, or need to be installed in other points of your home.

Where do homeowners often need check valves?

Most homes already have check valves in place to prevent the serious or dangerous contamination of their home’s drinking water. However, even if these are good, your home might still need additional check valves.

Let’s return to our gardening hose example from earlier. Without backflow prevention, excess water from the hose could return to the primary water supply. In most cases, this is going to negatively impact the taste and quality of that water. It’s been sitting in the sun, in a rubber hose.

Take control of your indoor water quality

Just like indoor air quality, indoor water quality matters. You can’t control everything about the water that’s sent to your tap, but—by preventing backflow—you can ensure that your home’s water is at least in the right pathway once it’s in your home’s pipes.

If you suspect that your home is having backflow issues, it’s time to call in the experts at Reimer for backflow testing. We offer a wide variety of plumbing solutions here in Buffalo and Western New York. Contact us online, or give us a call at (716) 694-8524.

When you need a new furnace, choose professional installation

Even for the handiest of homeowners, furnace installation is not a DIY project. It’s not a job for your cousin, Dave, or your neighbor, Bob. An improperly installed furnace can be a danger to you and your home at worst, and—at best—inefficient and ineffective, costing you more money down the road. Choose professional installation for your furnace. Choose Reimer.

Here are some of the reasons why hiring a professional to install your furnace is the best idea.

1. A professional will do the job right—and safe

Your furnace is one of the few appliances in your home that connects to a gas line. Whenever a new furnace replaces an older system, this change-out presents a point of danger. An experienced HVAC technician knows the protocol and steps required to safely install a new furnace, so that you’re not putting your family and home in danger.

2. Not all furnaces are the same, but our techs know them all

Even if you think you know how to handle your furnace installation, what might trip you up is that different models from different brands from different manufacturers can often be, well, very different.

An HVAC professional with experience in the field, such as those employed at Reimer, knows their way around furnaces of all types and stripes. They’ll know the differences between systems and how to properly install each.

There will be a marked difference in the way they will install the furnace as compared to a DIY job. Again, at worst, that difference could very well be your family’s safety.

3. Reimer’s team has the right tools for the job

It’s not like installing a furnace is a job that takes just a flathead screwdriver and some AA batteries. It’s a complex process that requires specialized tools—many of them unique to HVAC work. Our techs have this equipment in their vans; even if you want to DIY install your home’s heating system, you’ll have to buy or rent them from a store.

It’s not just a matter of having the tools. You have to be able to know how to use them. Our technicians are informed by years of experience and training on how to safely and properly use tools, and ensure that the furnace has been installed right. A DIY-er only has some light instructions from YouTube. It’s just not a good idea.

Our recommendation? Call in the experts at Reimer

Honestly, the best thing to do under these circumstances is to leave the job to the professionals. Our techs are trained. They have the right equipment. They’re ready to help.

If you need a new furnace in Buffalo or Western New York, contact our team here at Reimer to schedule your free in-home estimate.

It’s time to start thinking about scheduling your heating checkup

It’s still hot and humid out here in Buffalo. Here in the dog days of a Western New York summer, the last thing that you’re probably thinking about is scheduling a heating checkup.

Yet, the late summer and early fall is the perfect time to have a professional from Reimer look at your furnace. In this blog post, we’ll explain some of the advantages of early heating maintenance.

When you’re ready to schedule your furnace tune-up, give us a call at (716) 694-8524 or contact us online.

Why get heating maintenance?

Most HVAC experts agree: heating maintenance is essential to the long-term health and energy-efficient operation of your furnace. It’s true: a well-maintained furnace uses less energy than one that’s gone without maintenance, and the less wear-and-tear it has to endure, the more likely it is to live for years longer than it would have otherwise.

Pictured: Reimer technician performing a heating checkup in a Buffalo home.

But, the benefits of a furnace tune-up go even farther beyond that. Heating maintenance can help you avoid a system breakdown in the winter. With winters as cold as they are here, anything you can do to prevent your furnace from breaking down is a high priority.

Heating maintenance can also keep your system running safely. A broken furnace can pose a health risk for you and your family. Our technician will ensure that everything is in working order.

Finally, there’s one more benefit to a furnace tune-up. Most furnace manufacturers have clauses in their warranties that require you, as the system owner, to have the furnace looked at by a professional HVAC company at least once per year. Given all the other benefits, having that warranty extended is really icing on the cake.

Reimer is the right company for the job

When it comes time for your furnace tune-up, Reimer is the best company to trust for the job. That’s because we’ve been helping homeowners in Buffalo and Western New York with their home maintenance needs since 1921. That nearly a century of serving generations of families in this community.

At Reimer, our experienced technicians are furnace experts. When you call to schedule your heating checkup, our team will conduct a throughout inspection and perform multiple maintenance tasks.

Finally, we back our work with a 100% satisfaction guarantee. You can sleep soundly knowing that your furnace has been taken care of during our visit.

There are benefits to being early

So, why schedule your maintenance in the late summer and early fall? Even if daytime temperatures remain high, the nighttime ones are soon going to be dropping. You’ll be thinking about turning on that furnace soon.

You want to have your furnace checked before you turn it on for the first time in a season. Doing so ensures that our technician catches and safety or performance problems that could lead to a breakdown or health hazards.

It also gives you the best return on your investment: by having Reimer tune up your heating system at the start of the season, you see the most energy savings throughout the entire winter through improved energy-efficiency.

So, yes. It’s still hot out. It’s still humid out. And it might be just the right time for Reimer to take a look at your furnace. The best part? We’re regularly running specials and coupons for a furnace tune-up, which means you can save a ton this fall.

Call Reimer to schedule your heating checkup

Convinced that the late summer and early fall is the time to schedule a heating checkup? Call the team that Buffalo and Western New York have trusted since 1921: Reimer Home Services. You can reach our office at (716) 694-8524 or contact us online.

Call our plumbers and avoid using toxic drain cleaners

Why You Should Avoid Using Toxic Drain Cleaners Many people use liquid toxic drain cleaners to clean the drain. They seem to be a quick and inexpensive solution to clogged drains. Compared to the upfront costs of the plumbing repair, liquid cleaners appear to be an inexpensive and easy option.

However, you could end up damaging your pipe or yourself by using liquid drain cleaners. We’ll explain more in this blog post.

Three reasons to avoid using toxic drain cleaners

Relying on liquid drain cleaners is not recommended. Here are three reasons you should avoid using them to unclog or clean the drain.

1. Drain cleaners can damage your pipes if used regularly

Using liquid drain cleaners can result in long-term damage to your pipes. The cleaners can remove clogs, but they can also do damage to the drains. Old pipes are particularly susceptible to damage when liquid drain cleaners are used.

Frequent use of liquid drain cleaners can eat away at metal pipes. It can create a hole in the drain pipe that will require costly and invasive repairs. You could end up with a bigger plumbing problem if you use cheap and toxic drain cleaners to remove clogs.

2. Drain cleaners are highly toxic liquids to have in your home

Certain brands of liquid drain cleaners are highly toxic. If you get in touch with the liquid, it can result in injury. The splashes of the liquid can burn the skin.

Also, they can cause irreparable damage in case they get into the eyes or are accidentally ingested. Ingestion of the liquid can prove fatal. So, it’s absolutely necessary to keep them away from pets and children, but keeping them around still means you need to store them in your home.

3. Drain cleaners are bad for the environment

Liquid drain cleaners cause damage to the environment. The liquid that remains in the bottle will end up in landfills. From there, they can seep inside the ground causing damage to the underwater reservoirs.

Even worse is using the toxic drain cleaner, which ends up in ponds, lakes, rivers, and—eventually—oceans, poisoning wildlife and fish.

Considering the environmental effects of the liquid drain cleaners, it’s recommended that you avoid using them to unclog the drain.

Your alternatives to using drain cleaners in your home

While liquid drain cleaners seem to be a quick and an inexpensive way to unclog the drains, you could end up doing major damage. There is a risk of injury in case the liquid inside the drain cleaner comes into contact with the skin or the eyes. Also, the fact that drain cleaners could cause damage to the ecology means that you should skip drain cleaners altogether.

Instead of using liquid drain cleaners, you should consider clearing the clog using a plunger. In case you are not able to clear the clog, you should consider hiring a professional plumber from Reimer. An experienced plumber will know about safe methods to clean the clog. The professional knows about safe chemicals that won’t do damage to the house plumbing.

We have experienced and certified plumbers who can expertly perform the repair work. Whether you need to install a new plumbing fixture, or require plumbing repairs, you can count on our experienced plumbers to do the job for you. Learn more about our drain cleaning services.

Indoor air quality testing from Reimer

The air you breathe matters, no matter where you are. In this blog post, we’ll discuss why indoor air quality testing is so important to your family’s health, and what it might find in your home’s air.

Invisible, but important

When your air conditioner stops working in the summer, you’ll know it because your home will get hot. When your furnace stops working in the winter, you’ll know it because your home will get cold. However, when your home’s air ducts begin transporting air filled with dust, pollutants, bacteria, and who knows what else, how will you know? It’s possible for your home’s heating and cooling systems to be working just fine, yet the indoor air quality in your home is suffering.

Air Duct Cleaning Can Also Help | Indoor Air Quality Testing

Cleaning your air ducts is one of the most common recommendations from indoor air quality testing.

The good news is that the team at Reimer Heating, Air Conditioning, and Plumbing can help you identify potential problems with indoor air quality testing. This professional assessment of your home’s state will find any major red flags and let you know what’s coming in from the outside. Our report doesn’t just show you what’s wrong and then leave: instead, we take the time to review multiple mitigation strategies for correcting issues, so that your home’s air is clean and good to breathe in. Keep reading to learn more about indoor air quality and what we look for when testing.

Why should you get indoor air quality testing?

Indoor air quality matters. On a daily basis, you likely spend more time in your home than anywhere else: after all, think about all the hours you spend sleeping there alone. That’s a lot of breathing. Now, imagine that your place of work also has questionable indoor air quality. You’re lungs are taking in a lot of bad air.

If your home’s air is full of dust and allergens and you’re sensitive to allergies, you’re going to be a coughing, sneezing, water-running mess in the one place where you should expect some relief. If your home’s air ducts are spewing out bacteria and viruses, your chances of getting sick go up significantly.

This isn’t superstition. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a number of other organizations agree that poor indoor air quality is, at best, a nuisance to your comfort, aggravating allergies and causing more sneezing. At worst, as in the case of radon infiltration (more on that later), it can pose a significant risk to you and your family’s health. Indoor air quality testing is the only way to be sure the air you’re breathing is healthy and free of harmful material.

Ok, what’s in my home’s air?

While each home may have different particulate matter, here are some of the things our indoor air quality test specifically looks for:

  • Allergens: These include pollen, pet dander, and far more. If your eyes are watering and your nose is running with no other signs of sickness, allergens may be to blame. You can probably expect your symptoms to spike when you walk outside, but if you’re miserable indoors, too, it might be a sign that your air filter is insufficiently filtering out particulates. Don’t just treat this with allergy-suppressant medication. Instead, consider indoor air quality testing to tackle the problem at its source.
  • Pollutants: Like allergens, you’d expect to find these outside. Produced by automobile exhaust and industrial smog, this form of pollution can get into your home and linger there. The impact of pollutants may be greater if you haven’t taken any mitigation steps.
  • Bacteria and Viruses: Floating on the wind, airborne illnesses can be carried into your home through your HVAC system and your ductwork, where they can infect you and your family. Instead of taking sick days, consider having Reimer test for airborne contaminants and installing a solution, such as a device that exposes incoming air to cleansing UV rays.

It’s also possible that your air conditioner is to blame for some of the poor-quality air coming into your home, especially is entrances to the ducts are dusty or there’s been a build-up of dirt and grime. Learn more about air conditioning maintenance from Reimer.

What is radon?

Deep within the earth, uranium is very, very slowly decaying—some variations of this element have a half-life of 4.5 billion years. As the uranium decays, some of it turns into a radioactive gas. This gas, the element radon, moves up through the earth into the atmosphere. However, it can often become trapped in sources of groundwater and in homes, where it presents a potential danger to humans and other living things.

The surface of the earth is home to radon, and chances are that you’re breathing a very small amount of it in right now. In this way, radon is present in every home or building and is considered a form of background radiation. However, when the amount of radon jumps from that baseline to an elevated level, it becomes a threat. Highly radioactive, radon attaches itself to dust particles and is readily breathed in by living things, where it can cause cancers to form in the human body. In fact, radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, behind smoking.

Increased radon exposure varies by geographical area and can impact any type of home, ranging from a new home to an older one. However, homes with tight crawlspaces or basements may be especially vulnerable, as they present areas where radon can become trapped and concentrate without much capacity to be released.

Reimer offers radon testing as a part of our indoor air quality tests, and our technicians are qualified to advise you on mitigation methods for removing radon buildup. Give us a call to learn more about this, or check out the EPA’s guide to radon exposure. It’s not a bad idea to get your home checked, just for the peace of mind factor alone.

How can I schedule indoor air quality testing?

Give Reimer a call. Our team can help you determine what’s in your home’s air, and provide you with advice and solutions for removing pollutants, allergens, and other, more serious hazards. Contact us today to learn more!