Although relatively rare, sometimes furnaces encounter critical issues that require immediate servicing to ensure their continued safe operation. This is nothing to lose sleep over, as modern furnaces are equipped with many safety features so things never actually get dangerous.
However, something like a small carbon monoxide leak, while not necessarily an emergency, should still be addressed sooner rather than later.
If a technician spots an issue like this, they are legally required to ‘red-tag’ your furnace and notify the gas utility company, who will shut off your gas if your furnace is not fixed in the specified time frame.
Let’s take a closer look at why this happens, the different types of red tag, how to prevent your furnace from being red-tagged, and most importantly, what you should do about it if it is.
This is what a ‘red-tag’ actually looks like:
Watch Video: Your Furnace – What To Do If It Gets Red-Tagged
A short overview of why furnaces get red-tagged and what you should do if your furnace gets red-tagged (3 mins 3 seconds)
What Does Red-Tagged Mean?
Red-tagged means that a licensed HVAC contractor or technician has found a significant problem with your furnace, requiring prompt servicing.
This doesn’t necessarily mean your furnace is unsafe (i.e. dangerous) but rather that your furnace is not as safe as it possibly can be, and thus doesn’t meet the safety standards required by law.
To use an analogy. Your car can fail a safety inspection and police can give you a fine if you’re caught driving with a crack in your windshield. Obviously a small crack in your windshield doesn’t mean driving your car will put you in critical danger. But nevertheless, it does mean that it won’t meet the high safety standards required to legally drive it on public roads.
That being said, a red-tagged furnace can be a big problem for homeowners. Not only because you may be without heat for the duration of time it takes to fix the problem, but also because it is likely to come out of the blue, and you might not have the spare funds on hand to purchase a new furnace there and then or pay for extensive repairs.
Is a furnace red-tag a scam?
No. The red-tagging system is designed for your safety, by ensuring that any critical safety issues with a furnace are addressed in a timely manner. In theory it is possible for some dishonest technician to claim your furnace is unsafe when it isn’t, but this is unlikely, especially if you deal with an established, and trustworthy company.
Why Does Your Furnace Get Red-Tagged?
There are many things that could be the source of the problem. In some cases, it may be a loose seal or faulty component, and sometimes it’s just a matter of natural wear and tear.
Issues with a component called the ‘heat exchanger’ is one common cause of red-tagged furnaces. The heat exchanger is what transfers the heat from the burner flame to the air which will be circulated throughout your home. If the heat exchanger is cracked or damaged in any way, it can cause carbon monoxide to be expelled from the furnace and into the air supply of your home.
A carbon monoxide leak can be fatal in high concentrations and is often impossible to detect without a working CO alarm, which also highlights the importance of having working CO detectors in your home!
Different Types of Red Tag
There are different categories of red tags, and they basically tell you how severe the problem is.
If your HVAC contractor or technician puts a Type A red tag on your furnace, it is at a high priority and poses the threat of something like a carbon monoxide or natural gas leak. The gas supply is instantly shut off and you cannot use your furnace until it is adequately repaired.
“Immediate Hazard: The appliance(s), equipment and/or piping inspected is unsafe. The appliance(s) and/or fuel supply has been discontinued for your safety and to comply with ___ [provincial regulations]. Your fuel supplier will be notified of the situation. By law, this appliance or work cannot be used until the condition is corrected.”
A Type B red tag is more of a warning, but you only have a set amount of time to fix the problem (e.g. 30 days), otherwise your gas will be shut off. This means there isn’t an immediate threat to your safety, but the gas company are still notified, and you have x number of days to fix it.
“Non-Immediate Hazard: The appliance(s), equipment and/or piping inspecteddo not pose an immediate hazard although corrections are required for your safety. The appliance(s) and/or fuel supply has been discontinued for your safety and to comply with [provincial regulations]. Your fuel supplier will be notified of the situation. The corrections must be completed within ___ (maximum 90 days) or [provincial regulations] require that your fuel supply be discontinued.”
How Does Your Furnace Actually Get Red-Tagged?
An issue is discovered during a routine inspection or service call
In most cases, a technician comes to your home for a regular inspection, or during a service call due to a problem with your furnace, and they notice there is a major issue.
The furnace is then red-tagged. Remember, technicians have monitors to check levels of carbon monoxide, and they also have the experience and knowledge of the inner workings of a furnace to know when there is a significant defect.
Your carbon monoxide detector goes off
It could also be that you have a carbon monoxide detector within your home (which you should!) and the alarm signals to let you know there may be a CO leak.
In this case, you should:
Open all the windows and doors in your home
Get children or elderly family members somewhere safe, either outside or somewhere well-ventilated
Shut off your furnace (and any other appliances that could be the source of the leak, like your hot water heater).
Call a technician to evaluate your heating equipment.
Your technician will assess the unit and if they deem it unsafe, they will issue either a Type A or Type B red tag. In either case, they will inform the gas company and explain your options and what you need to do to address the issue.
You notice the smell of natural gas
If you notice the telltale rotten egg smell (which is an artificial odour added to make detection easier), you should calmly evacuate your home. Once you’re safely outside, call your gas company immediately.
Your safety and that of your family is paramount, so although there is a risk of your unit being red-tagged, it is crucial that your furnace be inspected in the event of a carbon monoxide or gas leak.
What to do if Your Furnace is Red-Tagged
Having your furnace red-tagged can be alarming. But take a deep breath and remember that forced-air furnaces have many fail-safe mechanisms to ensure it won’t become dangerous.
And the red-tagging system is in place specifically to help ensure everyone’s safety.
What you need to do however is figure out your next steps in terms of fixing the issue and reinstating the heat in your home.
Your best course of action depends on how old your furnace is and what issues you’ve experienced so far. If your furnace is relatively old – more than 10 years or so – then it may be worth replacing your furnace.
One advantage of a new furnace is that it will be covered under warranty, which will help in case of future issues.
If your furnace isn’t that old, or this is one of the first issues you’ve had with it, discuss your options with the technician. Simply repairing the issue might make the most sense.
It’s also worth considering how expensive it will be to repair the issue. Replacing the heat exchanger for instance, can be very expensive. So compare the cost of repairs to that of a new unit and weigh your options.
How to Prevent a Furnace from Being Red-Tagged
Sometimes it can be ‘just one of those things’, but there are some things to bear in mind:
Make sure your furnace is installed by a highly qualified, licensed HVAC contractor/technician
Keep up to date with your regular maintenance services, e.g. a full service every 1-2 years
Take good care of your furnace in general, e.g. cleaning the vents
Take care when doing any renovations, and don’t knock the furnace unnecessarily. And avoid relocating the furnace if possible.
Though red-tagging is an inconvenience, it’s an essential part of ensuring the safety of our homes and families.
If your furnace is red-tagged, whether type A or type B, don’t panic, and enlist the help of an experienced technician.
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