Reuben Saltzman

Furnace Certifications Might Be Useless

I used to recommend furnace certifications all the time, but I don’t do it any more.   Heresy you say?  No, I have good reason not to.  This all started several years ago when I meant to write a blog about what’s involved in furnace certifications and who does them, so I contacted 40 local HVAC contractors.

I was quite surprised at most of the responses I received.

An Easy Call

Cracked Heat Exchanger

When I inspect a furnace and I find a serious problem, such as a cracked heat exchanger, it’s easy for me to tell my clients what to do: replace the furnace.   The photo above shows a cracked heat exchanger on a furnace, looking at it from the back – this GE furnace had a removable back panel that gave me a good look at the back of the heat exchanger, and made finding cracks very easy.

Cracked Heat Exchanger
Cracked Heat Exchanger

The Grey Area Unfortunately, diagnosing a cracked heat exchanger is almost always a difficult if not impossible task.  Home inspectors are usually only able to see the burner side of the heat exchanger, and this area is often dirty and rusty, making cracks very difficult to find.  The photo at right shows a crack as seen from the inside of a heat exchanger, and it’s one of the most obvious heat exchanger cracks I’ve ever seen – yet it’s still tough to see.  Home inspection standards disclaim the inspection of the heat exchanger just for this reason, but many home inspectors still do their best to look for problems.  

What Excellent HVAC Contractors Do  Many years ago, I attended a seminar put on by a very reputable HVAC firm, where the speaker talked about what was involved with a furnace ‘certification’, which was the type of inspection they would do when a home inspector suspected a problem.  The guy leading the class talked about using mirrors, borescopes, smoke bombs, leak seek tests, and basically dismantling a furnace to get a good look at the heat exchanger to check for cracks.  He assured us that if there was a crack to be found, they were happy to go out of their way to find it, and that’s what a furnace certification was all about.

What Other HVAC Contractors Do  To gather information for this blog, I contacted 40 different HVAC contractors.  The price for a furnace certification varied between $135 and $219, and almost every contractor said that a furnace certification consists of an Orsat test.  That’s it.  An Orsat test measures temperature, CO² and 0² in order to determine the efficiency of an appliance, and that’s about it.  Some of the more savvy heating contractors might use these numbers to know there is a serious problem… but an Orsat test will not determine the presence of a crack in a heat exchanger.   After making all of these phone calls and sending all of these emails, I don’t think I’ll ever recommend another furnace certification.  It’s just not enough.

Saint Louis Park has it right  In my humble opinion, the City of Saint Louis Park has had it right for a long time; when they do their Point-Of-Sale Evaluations, they automatically require a certification on furnaces over 20 years old, and they also require a smoke bomb or leak seek test, which is specifically designed to test for a cracked heat exchanger.  

Don’t Call CenterPoint  The local gas company, Centerpoint Energy, offers safety inspections of furnaces for far less than licensed heating contractors.  Can you guess why the price is so low?  Because it’s not a certification!  They won’t do certifications on furnaces, much less smoke bomb or leak seek tests.  They also won’t fill out a safety check form for Minneapolis or any other city.  Almost half the time I recommend a furnace certification, someone ends up calling the gas company instead, and to no surprise, the gas company says everything is fine.  I called CenterPoint to see how it was so easy for people to confuse a certification with a basic safety check, and I was quite surprised. Here’s how the conversation went:

Me: Hi, can I have my furnace inspected?

Centerpoint: Why, did an inspector suspect a problem with it, or are you selling your house?

Me: Yes, the people buying my house want to make sure it’s safe.

Centerpoint: I’m sorry, we don’t offer that type of service. You’ll need to contact a private HVAC contractor.

The gas company was very clear about not offering certifications or anything close to that.  So how does the local gas company show up at the majority of houses that I’m recommending certifications on?  It’s probably a communication problem.  I tell the buyer to get a certification, they tell their agent, that agent tells the seller’s agent, and the seller’s agent tells the seller.  The seller eventually hears “Get your furnace checked out”.

From now on, I’ll be recommending leak seek tests when I suspect a cracked heat exchanger.  One of the better companies that I contacted does certifications for $135, and they always do smoke bomb tests or leak seek tests when they suspect a problem.

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections – Email – Saint Louis Park Home Inspections

No responses to “Furnace Certifications Might Be Useless”

  1. How Serious Is A Cracked Heat Exchanger? | Reuben's Home Inspection Blog
    March 2, 2010, 4:51 am

    […] Furnace Certifications Might Be Useless […]

  2. Susan Powell
    August 13, 2011, 9:19 am

    We sold our townhome and had a communication issue related to the furnace that I”m still not clear on. Originally, we were told to get the furnace cleaned by a licenced furnace cleaning company. I found a furnace cleaning company on line, told them the reason for the cleaning, and made the appt. I asked if the company was licenced and was told yes. After the cleaning, we were told we had to have the furnace inspected also. So I called back the company and was told they weren’t licenced to inspect. Bottom line is we had to pay another person to inspect and tear the whole thing apart again. So, we ended up paying twice to have the furnace cleaned and inspected. Can you explain to me the difference between being a licenced furnace cleaner and furnace inspector? Thank you.

  3. Reuben Saltzman
    August 16, 2011, 7:37 pm

    Hi Susan,

    I honestly don’t know how a company could be licensed to ‘clean’ a furnace, but not inspect it. I’ve never heard of a licensed furnace cleaner.

  4. Jerry Kerwin
    February 2, 2012, 8:28 am

    The first comany that “cleaned” the furnace so to speak was probably an air duct cleaning company and not a licensed HVAC company. There is a big difference between them in what their offered services are, and what they are licensed and certified to do in your home.

  5. Bill Goldbaum
    March 11, 2013, 7:04 am

    ORSAT waste of time and $. St. Paul requires it on rentals yearly. I have never done it in 10 years on my own home yet it is required for my rental. I would be ok paying to have a furnace cleaned or tuned up but the ORSAT test does NADA! F-ing joke.

  6. Mark Klapmeier
    November 14, 2013, 6:35 am

    I agree with most of your comments, namely that it is extremely difficult (but not impossible) to detect a cracked heat exchanger. It generally requires several hours of labor, which the owners simply don’t want to pay.

    I I disagree strongly, however with your insinuation that an Orsat (combustion) test is worthless. This test will point out multitudes of problems with the heating equipment that are potentially lethal, that all the dismantling, borescoping, smokebombing and leakseeking in the world will not find. A proper combustion analysis will also indicate excess air, generally an indicator of a heat exchanger or associated metal failure.

    A cracked heat exchanger is not necesarily in & of itself reason for panic. The danger exists if the burner is not burning properly, thereby creating dangerous levels of CO. Also, as the fan exerts pressure against the combustion gases, the excess air goes up the flue. (assuming the flue functions properly). Again, another reason for the combustion analysis.

    Dont get me wrong, I am not condoning the use of a piece of equipment that has a cracked heat exchanger. I am simply pointing out that a proper & complete inspection, including combustion testing, is needed. Unfortunately, most folks put cost before safety.

  7. Reuben Saltzman
    November 14, 2013, 6:38 am

    @Mark – fair enough. You’re right, I probably shouldn’t say Orsat testing is worthless. I guess my complaint is that this should only be considered a part of a furnace certification; not the whole thing.

  8. Mark Klapmeier
    November 14, 2013, 6:45 am

    Exactly. I’m glad you’re concerned as well, each year many people die from CO, all could have been prevented.

    Keep up the good fight!


  9. Susan
    December 4, 2013, 9:04 am

    Prevention is important but after buying and now selling 2 houses in the past 6 months, I’ve learned how incredibly different every inspector’s findings can be. We’re being asked to have a 25 year old furnace certified, cleaned etc. It’s 25 years old. Of course you’re going to find something that needs replacing so unless there’s an issue with safety or it flat out doesn’t work, I don’t see the value in testing a very old furnace. It’s going to need to be replaced soon. I have to say – prevention aside- the purpose of CO detectors is to warn people of dangerous levels.

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