Making the switch from an oil to a gas furnace is a smart choice that can pay off in greater savings, improved comfort, and increased heating efficiency. Though the advantages to gas heat are many, homeowners should carefully consider the dangers of gas furnaces before committing to the effort and expense of installing a new heating system.
1. Fire Hazard
Gas furnaces require adequate ventilation to function properly. They must be installed with sufficient clearance between furnace, walls, and ceiling. Shelving, boxes, or other items stored too near a furnace will hinder the air flow and create a fire hazard.
Combustible materials stored near a furnace create the possibility of fire or explosion. Gasoline, solvents, or other volatile substances emit vapors that can be ignited by the heat or flame inside a gas furnace. Paper, cloth, or other flammable items left too close to a furnace could catch fire.
2. Gas Line Leaks
Natural gas, which consists primarily of methane, is normally a non-toxic substance without taste, odor, or color. However, it is a highly flammable fuel. A leak in the gas line leading into the house or furnace could allow dangerous amounts of gas to seep out. Even a small amount of leaked gas could cause a catastrophic explosion and fire.
Natural gas companies add a chemical such as mercaptan to the gas to make it easy to smell, creating a “rotten egg” odor that is an unmistakable indicator of a gas leak. Other signs of a leak include the hissing sound of gas escaping a pipeline or visible damage to pipes or connections.
A gas leak requires immediate emergency action. Evacuate the area where the leak is detected, shut off the gas at its source if possible, and notify emergency personnel and the gas company of the suspected leak.
3. Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Perhaps the greatest danger of a gas furnace is the potential for carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide, or CO, is an odorless, colorless gas given off as a byproduct of burning natural gas fuel. It cannot be seen, smelled, or touched, but causes flu-like symptoms such as nausea, headache, dizziness, and weakness. Overexposure to carbon monoxide can kill. By the time a homeowner suspects a carbon monoxide leak, the danger to life and health is already high.
Carbon monoxide can escape a furnace because of blocked or minimal venting, inadequate air supply, or cracks in the heat exchanger or other internal parts. Dirty filters can contribute to carbon monoxide build up. Operating the furnace with the front panel door open or improperly closed can also allow carbon monoxide to escape the furnace.
To minimize or eliminate these hazards, organizations such as the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute recommend an annual inspection of gas furnaces by qualified HVAC contractors.
The dangers of gas furnaces are real, but they can be all but eliminated through professional installation, regular maintenance, and common-sense handling. It’s not enough to sleep warmly; your family must also sleep securely. Call your local HVAC dealer for expert advice on what it takes to safely make the transition to gas heating.