What is a Heat Exchanger?
It’s heating season! And that means a heat exchanger somewhere is working hard to keep you warm and toasty inside. These are a fundamental part in both heating and cooling systems, used in boilers and hot air systems, in your mechanical room and possibly in your living room. If we didn’t have them, we’d all be freezing through the winters and roasting in the summer.
What thing could be so fundamental that it is in everything? Well, your heat exchanger does as the name implies: it moves heat from one thing to another. There’s one in your air conditioner removing the heat from the air. There’s one in your furnace removing the heat from hot exhaust. Technically, your radiator is a heat exchanger, removing heat from itself and putting it out into the air. It is a pretty key concept.
If you burn fuel for heat, something like natural gas, oil, or propane, you need some way to get the heat of the flame into your house, without getting covered in soot or breathing in toxic fumes. This is where the heat exchanger comes in. It sits right over the flame, forcing the hot air and smoke to pass through it. All around the heat exchanger is fresh, clean air or water. The air would get really hot, the water would boil, and no matter what, your toxic exhaust goes out the chimney.
If your heat exchanger fails, no good can come of it. There’s two main consequences of a failure: Loss of performance or leaking potentially deadly CO2 into your house. You’re either going to freeze, or become very ill (then freeze after you turn off the heater). If you notice your heating system appears to be working far harder than usually necessary, your boiler is not keeping your hot-water heating system full of water, or if your CO2 detector is screaming ‘get out now,’ you know what might be wrong.
If you don’t already have a CO2 Detector, we cannot recommend them enough. Carbon Monoxide and Carbon Dioxide are both lethal byproducts of burning things. You can be exposed to lethal quantities of these gases without noticing. They are colorless and odorless. You should get one as soon as possible and place it near enough to your furnace or airvents to detect a hazardous situation before it becomes a lethal one. Many townships, municipalities, and fire stations offer free smoke detectors, you may be able to receive a free CO2 one if you cannot afford one.
Once you’ve experienced the failure (and I have), the repair process varies by your heater manufacturer. In some cases, it’s little more complex than having a new coil rush-delivered, removing some screws, and in a few hours the repair is done. In other cases, it’s a day-long endeavor to get to the heart of your heating system, cutting and later soldering pipes to get at the exchanger. After the repairs however, you can look forward to more efficient, safe, heating for years to come.
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