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Why You Can’t Repair or Replace a Heat Exchanger

You can’t repair or replace a heat exchanger because there’s too big a risk of carbon monoxide leaking into your home. It’s also cost-prohibitive. That’s why you need to replace the entire furnace.

Nobody likes to hear that they need a new furnace, especially when the news seems to come out of nowhere.

But, that’s what happens if your HVAC tech determines you have a cracked heat exchanger.

At that point, we expect plenty of questions. After all, you’re about to go without heat until you invest in a new system.

The biggest one we hear, of course, is, “Why can’t you just repair or replace it?”

And, that’s where we’ll start with this article. Then, we’ll move onto some other common questions — including a few you should ask before agreeing to anything.

Meanwhile, if you have any concerns or need a second opinion, don’t hesitate to call us here at Broadley’s. We’ve served Marmora, Ocean City, Avalon, and other towns in South Jersey for nearly a century.

You don’t stick around that long without earning a reputation as trustworthy and reliable.

Now, let’s start with the basics.

What is a Heat Exchanger?

The short answer is that the heat exchanger is the component in your furnace that generates the heat you feel in your house. 

The longer, more technical answer gets into how it transfers thermal energy from one source to another so the system can circulate the heat. 

That’s all to say: It’s a critical part of your HVAC system.

And, a critical part of the process is combustion: burning a resource like gas or oil. Combustion produces carbon monoxide, which should escape through the system’s exhaust without ever leaking into your home. 

That’s where a problem can arise.

Cracked Heat Exchangers Are a Safety Issue

If your heat exchanger has a crack, then carbon monoxide can leak out of the system and into your home. Once that’s happening, you run the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning as the colorless, odorless gas builds up.

And remember — if your heater’s on, you’ve closed your windows. There’s no way the gas escapes.

This threat is why we all have carbon monoxide detectors at home now. You can’t detect it on your own. And, too much exposure is lethal.

As a result, we take a cracked component very seriously. And “we” isn’t just Broadley’s.

It’s an industry-wide practice to red-tag a furnace with this problem. That means we shut it off, and it can’t be turned back on until we resolve the issue.

And, unfortunately, in this case, that means getting a new unit.

Why You Can’t Repair a Cracked Heat Exchanger

The problem is that we can never be sure a repair will hold. If it doesn’t, you’ll end up with another carbon monoxide leak.

And, it could be worse than the first one.

Repairing this isn’t like replacing a fan belt or a small component. Usually, the cause is excess stress on the exchanger from fluctuating temperatures.

If you’ve noticed cold air coming out of your vents sometimes, it means something’s wrong with the system. It also means you’re stressing the material on the inner component.

Enough stress, and it cracks.

At that point, sealing it may not work because the entire piece is compromised. And, if the fix doesn’t hold, the crack could end up even more significant than before.

And, when time is of the essence with a carbon monoxide leak, you’ll have even less lead time before there’s an especially dangerous amount of the gas in your house.

Why You Can’t Replace a Cracked Heat Exchanger

The next logical question after hearing about the repairs is, “Why don’t you just replace it?”

Technically, we can. But, it can still be risky. And, most times, it’s more expensive than a full-system replacement.

The part itself can run anywhere from $600 to $1,200 or more. Then, it’s a matter of removing the damaged component and installing the new one.

Here’s the problem: The exchanger is located deep inside the system. There’s no easy way to get to it. We have to take apart the entire system — carefully! — to remove it.

Then, once the new one’s in, it’s even more time to put it all back together again.

Factor in those labor costs, and you’re almost always better off with a new system. That’s especially so if your furnace has a few years on it already.

Meanwhile, again, it’s risky. If something goes wrong again, there’s a health hazard. That’s why we red-tag.

What to Ask When You Have a Cracked Heat Exchanger

Not every contractor is as honest as us. Some unscrupulous techs take advantage of people not knowing much about this problem to separate them from a lot of money.

We mentioned before that the part in question is on the inside of the unit. So, we can’t even show you the damage when we find it.

Instead, we’re relying on carbon monoxide levels and other readings to diagnose the problem at first. Even if we can shine a light inside to spot a crack, it’s hard to see and explain.

And, it’s easy for scammers to exploit this situation.

Fortunately, there’s a good way to stop them in their tracks.

Ask them if they will show you the damaged part once they take apart the unit. And, if it turns out there’s no crack, will they put the old furnace back together and reinstall it at no charge?

At that point, a straight-up scammer will usually back off. It’s not worth it without a clean getaway.

Of course, this isn’t a magic bullet solution. You should still do some research and make sure the company has an excellent reputation.

And, get a second opinion. Don’t get pressured into making a snap decision.

If you got the bad news that you need a new furnace, make sure you call a company like Broadley’s for a separate inspection. And, feel free to ask us any other questions you may have.

We’re more interested in making sure you’re comfortable and safe all winter long — without paying thousands of dollars more than you should.