Don't Let This Happen To You!

Hello again peeps!  We recently had an "exciting" week here in central Alberta. We had RECORD BREAKING temperatures (and not the good kind) at one point Edmonton was colder than the North Pole!! WTF?! For most of the week our highs were in the -30's (Celsius), near -40 for two to three days. Once you factored in windchill, our temperatures were basically arctic level hitting between -40 and -50!!!

As if that wasn't enough...during the COLDEST days our furnace decided to take a break and not bother keeping us warm inside our own home! IT WAS BRUTAL! Nearly three days with next to no heat as it would work intermittently at times and not at all at other times. I've never been so thankful for a gas fireplace, space heaters & a mattress heater in my life!

Why am I telling you this? Well unfortunately the situation could have been rectified sooner if we knew certain signs to look for and if we had the right company in to inspect things in the first place. I don't ever wish this upon anyone!! I learned a lot from this experience and I want to pass that knowledge on so that I can hopefully educate some of you in case you find yourself in a similar situation.

So as mentioned, we unfortunately called in the wrong people in the first place and the furnace remained "broken" for a day and a half because we had an inexperienced technician, however the inexperience didn't show until it was pretty much too late.

Tuesday morning when I hopped out of bed at 6:00 a.m. it felt unusually cold. I didn't think too much of it because I knew the temperatures outside were plummeting and I simply contributed it to that figuring the furnace was having a bit of a tougher time keeping up. Completely understandable, right? Well I came downstairs to let the dogs out and get some stuff sorted before waking the kids up for school and I checked the thermostat to discover it was reading 13 DEGREES!!! Clearly that wasn't normal so obviously I went to the basement, took the panel off the furnace to inspect, and sure enough the furnace was out. Nothing was running, there was no flame, fan wasn't turning, NADA. Yes I panicked a little bit but kept a somewhat level head and read the instructions on the panel about what to do if the furnace goes out etc. It told me to turn off the power to the appliance, turn off the gas control switch, wait five minutes and then turn on the gas control switch followed by the power switch. I did all of that and still NOTHING. I didn't know what else to do at this point but I didn't actually have time to deal with it as I had to get the kids up, ready, and off to school. I did know though that I would not be able to go into work if the furnace wasn't working as I was obviously going to have to figure out how to restart it or get someone in to fix it. Last thing I wanted while I was at work was to have the house completely freeze, pipes freeze, pets freeze etc. So I put a few extra layers on, turned the gas fireplace on, told my boss I couldn't come in, got the kids up, ready, off to school, and then back home I came to deal with things.

By this time it was a normal hour so I called my dad since he's always my fix it/mechanical go-to as I know nothing about this kind of stuff. My dad gave me some names of some repair places and he also helped me figure out that there was a switch on the burner chamber of the furnace that had been tripped so I reset that and then reset the furnace and low and behold I got the furnace to fire up and run. I thought that was that and I was in the clear but alas, less than an hour later, the furnace went out again. I called the places my dad suggested but they were already booking service calls into the evening or next morning. Apparently furnaces quitting in this weather in the Edmonton area had been a common problem. So I did what I think most other people this day and age would have done, I got out my iPhone, googled "Edmonton furnace repair" and I called the top two rated companies on google reviews. One company was booking the next day also but the other company was able to move things around and get me a service call window of 3:00-5:00 p.m. same day!! I was so thankful it was same day. So basically all I could do was stick around the fireplace, stay bundled, and try to wait patiently. Luckily none of our pets were really affected. Our french bulldog, Lilo, was somewhat affected I think as she also stuck close to the fire but other than that she seemed fine.

Hours (and a nap on the couch near the fireplace under several blankets) later, and after picking the kids up from school (I layered them up and sent them off to play PlayStation upstairs under a blanket in hopes they would stay distracted enough to not be too bothered by the cold house) the service technician arrived. He took lots of stuff apart and did a very thorough cleaning of everything as he said everything had been very dirty and clogged up (we never had our furnace serviced/cleaned before and we've been in this house about ten years). He also replaced some sensors/switches which he said were not responding and should be replaced every four to five years. He was then able to get the furnace fired up, running, and an over $700.00 bill later (parts & labour) he was on his merry way. Frankly, I had heat so I was happy...or so I thought.

Unfortunately, about an hour later the furnace quit again so I had to call him back again. After some time he had determined it was a pressure switch which is what switches the furnace between "low fire" and "high fire". He took the part off and cleaned it all out and said the high fire side wasn't working properly and that was why the furnace was overheating. When it's really cold like this the furnace is supposed to switch into high fire which opens the valves all the way and switches the blower into the highest gear effectively so it can heat up quicker and more efficiently. However, since our high fire part of the switch was no longer working it couldn't switch to high fire and was having to work too hard and too long in low fire causing the furnace to overheat and shut down. Unfortunately it was the evening by this point and the suppliers were closed so he couldn't get the new part until first thing in the morning. He said he would pick it up first thing and I would be first call in the morning between 9:00 and 9:30 a.m. In the meantime he said to let it run until it quits and then give it about 20 minutes to cool down and then I could restart it like before and that would give us intermittent heat at least to make the night somewhat bearable. I still had the fireplace running non stop and with the intermittent running of the furnace the house stayed at an okay 16 degrees. That night I cranked my mattress heater in my room, put the only space heater we had in my youngest son's room (his room is the coldest in the house) and put both kids in two layers with extra quilts on their beds. I was exhausted and headed to bed earlier than usual that night but of course didn't have a solid sleep. Also, after I went to bed the furnace cut out at some point (as expected) but the fan still ran, it would just blow cold air. This however meant that during the entire night the furnace was taking in outside -40 air (fresh air intake) as well as circulating the basement air throughout the house and the house temperature went down to a very chilly 11.5 degrees by the time I got out of bed at 6:00 a.m.

I of course piled on all the layers when I hopped out of bed and got my stuff done that need to be done before I woke the kids. I was so thankful that the kids slept through the night and they seemed like they got a decent enough rest, unlike myself. Once they were up I put extra layers on them as well for the time they were going to be in the house before leaving for school and we made it through the first part of the morning. When I got home from dropping them off at school (obviously I still couldn't go to work) I made myself a much needed coffee and parked myself in front of the fireplace.  Lilo again was camped out in front of the fireplace too.

The technician arrived promptly at 9:30 with the part in hand and began the installation. When I went down to check on him shortly after, he advised me that the part he got was actually a "universal" part as the supplier didn't have the brand part, that had to be ordered in and it would be here Friday. He hoped the universal switch would do the trick for the time being until the brand part came in and he could install it on Friday. After much tinkering he did get the furnace running again but he said it would not run in full high fire. He said it could either have something to do with the circuit board or the fact that the universal switch had ever so slightly different ratings than the brand switch had. He then decided to put back the old switch and try changing out the circuit board to a new one to see if that was in fact the problem. He also started quoting me for new furnaces and the quotes were NOT cheap (started at $6200 installed). By this point I was obviously very discouraged and frustrated and I started getting a strange feeling that the technician was beginning to grasp at straws. I wasn't sure though as I know nothing about these kinds of things so he could have in fact been correct. Nevertheless I called my dad to get his opinion. When I filled my dad in he immediately told me "NO WAY", said he'd make some calls and be over shortly. That's exactly what my dad did and upon arriving and talking to the technician he basically politely told him to put all the original parts back, stop working, and we were getting a second opinion. The technician was not rude by any means but of course he tried telling my dad what he had been telling me all along and my dad told him he had been in contact with some Carrier brand specialists and they were suggesting a possible heat exchanger issue. The technician immediately discounted that saying if there was a crack in the heat exchanger there would be carbon monoxide leaking out and he had a CO detector and it read clear. My dad said there was a difference between cracked and blocked and to please just put things back and be on his way. My dad also pretty much told him that we would not be paying for anything today as nothing he did fixed the issue and I was still left with a freezing cold house and broken furnace.

Apparently the people my dad ended up getting in contact with told him that Carrier furnaces around the age of my furnace (12-15 years old) did have a known problem with their heat exchangers. They told him to go outside and smell the exhaust while the furnace was running and if it had a rotten egg type smell it was definitely the heat exchanger either plugged or just simply no longer working. Dad and I both went outside to smell the exhaust (which I don't recommend you make a habit of LOL) and neither of us smelt anything suspicious, just smelt like vehicle exhaust to us. They also said that if the top of the furnace unit was hot to the touch while running it was a definite heat exchanger issue. When my dad touched the top of the unit he could barely keep a finger on for a split second as it was blazing hot! Once the technician had everything replaced as it was that morning, he left and my dad called his contact back to tell them we didn't notice an odour but the top of the unit was definitely extremely hot. They said they could get a service technician out to inspect and confirm first thing the next morning but if it is in fact the heat exchanger it can take a week for the part to come in. By this point I was completely done and near bawling my eyes out. I couldn't live like this for a week, especially in this extreme cold. And more importantly than me, my kids and my pets couldn't live like this. Plus there was the added issue of the risk of my pipes freezing in the house if I didn't get some sort of heat SOON. The company put the service call in the books for the morning and said they would have their salesman phone with some quotes for a new furnace just in case.

By this point I had no idea when I would get heat back in my house and I was just so unbelievable thankful that my kids could still go to school for majority of the day where it was warm and safe and again our gas fireplace was an absolute life saver!!

When I finally spoke with the salesman he informed me that a heat exchanger would cost approximately $600-800.00 but it would in fact be a week before the part would be in and be able to be installed. He then quoted me approximately $4200.00 for a brand new furnace and assured me that the known issue with the older Carrier furnace heat exchangers was long rectified and he could be at the house that evening to take measurements and set everything up for an install the next morning. Unfortunately we had to spring for the cost of the new furnace because we just couldn't wait a week and live comfortably and safely with no heat during this weather. The gas fireplace had already been running for two whole days pretty much and there were points where I even had the oven on and the door ajar to help get some extra heat in the house. Another point that the salesman made was that the new furnace would have a ten year warranty on all parts and labour and the heat exchanger had a lifetime warranty. He made a good point that if we did by chance wait for the new heat exchanger we were no longer under warranty as our furnace was over ten years old and there was nothing saying that next winter, or even the next cold snap before this winter was done, that some other part of the furnace wouldn't go on the fritz. So he put an emergency call in for one of their service technicians to come by tonight just to ensure everything was safe and see if he could get some sort of heat working for us temporarily for the night. He said he would also be by that evening with all the paperwork, to get measurements, etc.

The technician came by shortly after speaking with he salesman and upon 30 seconds of him starting the furnace up he immediately said "yes it's most definitely the heat exchanger, I can smell the odour" (obviously he had a much more trained sniffer than myself or my dad). He asked questions about the previous work and I explained everything and he honestly looked so disappointed and he wouldn't stop apologizing. I could immediately tell the difference between him and the previous technician: this one carried himself differently, the way he explained things were much more technical and knowledgable but he put it in terms I could understand, AND he liked Nespresso!!! He tried a fair few "tricks of the trade" to try to get the furnace running solid for the evening so we wouldn't freeze but he wasn't sure if the heat exchanger was just that pooched or if the previous technician had made it worse (he rewired the circuit board incorrectly because when this tech first arrived the furnace wouldn't turn on AT ALL so really who knows what else he my have done or caused). When I told this tech about the CO detector and the other one dismissing the heat exchanger when we questioned him he almost seemed frustrated or upset and immediately said there is a difference between cracked and plugged or seized. He said it sounded like the previous tech might have been inexperienced and that heat exchanger issues were a little bit more of a senior technician thing. What this technician ended up doing was actually reducing the gas flow into the unit so that it wasn't working as hard and would take longer before it overheated and quit. He said it would be perfectly safe and okay for the evening but it wouldn't be something he would suggest doing for a week if we had decided to wait for a new part instead of get a whole new furnace. He instructed me to let the furnace run until it cut itself off and then turn off the power to the furnace so that the fan didn't continue running and take in all the cold air from outside and from the basement. The previous technician actually told me to keep the power going so the fan would still run and circulate air. This one said that would have been fine if it were spring or summer but in these temps and when you're preserving every ounce of heat you possibly can, just turn it off. And he said once it's off to give it 10-20 minutes to cool down and then it should easily all just turn back on again once the power switch is switched to on and let it run until it cuts out. He said if I could do that a few times before I head to bed I should be able to get a decent increase in overall house temperature so that we could sleep through the night without turning into popsicles. When I was ready to go to bed he said to just switch it off for the night and with the gas fireplace still running it should be able to mostly maintain the temperature of the house through the night. This guy was so kind and so thoughtful I couldn't get over it. He just kept on apologizing and he felt so bad he couldn't get the furnace to run solid for us just for the night. I told him the fact that it was running at all was better than before he got here so if I had to restart the furnace a few times during the evening it was a small price to pay. I did NOT want 11 degree temperatures (or lower) overnight again!!!

Just before the technician finished his thing the salesman arrived. He was also so kind and thoughtful and just a pleasure to deal with. He gave us a great deal and he took the measurements he needed and asked if we would be warm enough overnight. I told him that I was glad this would be he last night and we would do our best even if it meant we all climbed into my queen sized bed with the mattress heater cranked. He asked if we had any space heaters and I told him we had one but it was just a little one and more like a radiator so it didn't throw off that much heat and didn't heat things very quickly. He immediately went out to his vehicle and brought in two practically brand new space heaters and said to use them overnight. I was soooooooooo thankful and surprised I nearly cried right then and there. And these space heaters were AH-MAZ-ING!!!!! I put one heater in each of the kids rooms and their rooms were roasty toasty in no time. That was an immediate stress off my mind, especially for my youngest son who was always seeming cold and couldn't get enough layers on while he was home throughout this. My oldest son put some extra layers on but he didn't really seem all that phased by the whole thing. He always runs extremely warm though and doesn't get cold often, just like his dad :)

By the end of the evening this is how many layers and what it took to keep munchkin decently warm

Once the salesman had finished up and left I made myself a cup of tea and curled up with a blanket and phoned my parents to fill them in on everything. During my conversation with them I restarted the furnace but I actually only had to restart it once. It went for over an hour after the technician got it going and then the second time it went for nearly two hours!! The two previous days when I had to restart it I would be lucky if it ran for a half hour :( I actually had to turn the furnace off in order to go to bed because I was just so exhausted and I couldn't stay up waiting for it to cut out anymore. However, between the furnace actually running for a decent stretch of time and the gas fireplace, the house temperature came up to a whopping 20 degrees!!!!! I was BEYOND relieved! This was obviously going to make for a much better sleep that night, knowing my house shouldn't drop below 15 degrees overnight, kids were cozy in their rooms with their heaters, and a brand spanking, new, WORKING furnace would be arriving the next day.

When I woke up the next morning, the house managed to stay fairly decent and only went down to 18 degrees overnight. Of course I started the furnace again when I woke up, fireplace was still running and the furnace continued running the whole morning while we got ready for school. I turned the furnace off when I left to take the kids to school and I did a very quick grocery run for some necessary items for breakfast and lunch since I had not been able to get any groceries since the whole furnace debacle started. I came home, restarted the furnace, and awaited the call from the furnace company advising when they would be arriving.

Unfortunately, I was scheduled for a morning install but with this horrid cold snap there had been many many people with no heat and many emergency services booked and things were backed up. Turns out, to get my furnace installed they had to call in two service technicians who weren't supposed to be working that day, but I was an "emergency" service so they had to load up and they arrived around 3:30 p.m. While I was awaiting their arrival I still had the furnace running and it ran on its own for over two hours. However, around 12:30 I HAD to shut it down and leave it shut down because I was starting to smell an odour coming out of a few vents in the front rooms of the house on the main floor and it was giving me a headache. It was probably that odour that the tech had smelt very faintly when he was inspecting things the night before. I couldn't smell it before but I could certainly smell it now. And when I went to shut down the furnace the top of the unit was absolutely blazing hot. I figured it best to turn it off anyhow, not only because of the odour but, to let the unit cool down so no one burnt themselves when uninstalling it.

The rest of this story is pretty straight forward and uneventful for here. The service techs arrived with the new furnace around 3:30 and got straight to work. It took them about three hours and everything went smooth and the new furnace worked like a charm right away! We had full heat and house was up to a piping 23 degrees long before bedtime.

I never thought I'd ever be so excited for a new appliance in my life, least of all a furnace!

Moral of this story, and things to keep in mind so this never happens to you:

  • Keep your furnace in good working order by regularly changing the filter every 3 months during warmer weather and every 1-2 months in the winter

  • If you require service and do not know the company that originally installed your unit, do not rely on google reviews alone and I suggest calling companies to see if they specialize in working on your specific brand of furnace, as not all furnaces are made equally as I discovered

  • If your furnace does cut out for any reason and won't remain running constantly, you can check if it is the heat exchanger by feeling the top of your furnace box and if it is extremely hot that is a tell-tale sign the heat exchanger is malfunctioning

  • You can further check this by sniffing the exhaust outside of your house while the furnace is running. If it has a rotten-egg or very sour type smell that will also point to the issue most likely being your heat exchanger

  • If you have any reason to suspect it is the heat exchanger DO NOT let a company/service technician waste a bunch of your time and money by changing switches, valves, sensors, circuit boards or anything else that is not actually diagnosing or repairing the issue

I honestly hope no one EVER has to go through what I went through over those few days, especially during a record-breaking cold snap. Talk about your complete and utter rotten timing! But it's all good now, and I just have to wait to see what my freaking gas bill is going to be at the end of the month from running my fireplace for what seemed like a week straight...

I hope that this blog post will help someone in some way from either making the same "mistakes" as me or at least if something does happen, you have been able to get some insight as to how best to deal with the situation, stay warm, and make sure you're getting the proper repairs in the first place so you are not left in the cold for days like we were.

Finally, I just want to say how GRATEFUL I am!! Although this was not easy to go through, I by no means forgot how lucky I still was to have shelter and a roof over my head, have a gas fireplace, space heaters & mattress heater to help make the cold more liveable, and have a safe and warm place to send my kids during the day. I know it could have absolutely been worse and I know that there were many people in my area during that cold snap that DID have it worse. I also want to shout out to those of you on social media or those of you I know personally that reached out to me when you heard what was going on when I posted on Instagram/Facebook. The amount of warm thoughts and prayers for us, offers of warm places to stay and hang out or drop off soup etc. It honestly was so kind and gracious and it filled my heart so much. Love you all!!!

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