Few property owners think about furnaces frequently, particularly if that furnace keeps the place warm. We ignore them for lots of reasons: they’re tucked in the basement, their operations are automated, we lack the mechanical skills to tinker with today’s modern units and experts clean them annually without our assistance. 

Sometimes, however, furnaces force us to pay attention by spewing inky black soot into our living spaces. “Puff-backs are the dirty little problem that most property owners don’t know about,” explains Brady Chuckel, President, Paul Davis of Southeast Wisconsin. “Puff-backs happen when the burner doesn’t ignite right away, instead allowing fumes to build up in the burner chamber. When the burner finally ignites, the burst of flame spews soot throughout the heating system. And usually, throughout interior spaces. Then there’s a mess to clean up.”

Puff-backs can occur in one large burst – spewing a large cloud of soot in a single incident – or gradually, with many small bursts in repeated incidents. How can owners prevent puff-backs? First, ensure your furnace maintenance is up to date; forgoing the annual cleaning and adjustment process increases the likelihood of combustion problems. Second, be alert for strange odours, noises, leaks, debris or soot around the unit. Does the furnace light with a bang? Do you smell oil when the unit is running? Do you see rust flakes on the floor around the furnace door? Anything out of the ordinary is a good reason to call your heating contractor.

What do you do if you suspect or know your furnace is experiencing puff-backs?

  • Shut off the unit to prevent more damage. Exit the building if there is any suspicion of fire or carbon monoxide.
  • Minimize your exposure to the soot. Not only can soot’s tiny particles lodge deep in lungs, causing inflammation and irritation, but this sticky black grime may contain carcinogenic or toxic chemicals. 
  • Take photos or video to record evidence of damage for your insurance carrier.
  • Contact a full-service restoration company like Paul Davis to remove the soot and clean all items affected by exposure. 

“Contact us promptly,” urges Chuckel, who reiterates that proper maintenance and timely replacement are the two biggest ways to prevent puff-backs. “Allowing soot to remain on items for even a few hours can start an irreversible degradation process that can ruin possessions, particularly valuable and sensitive electronics. Vacuuming and wiping won’t remove it. You really need professional assistance by a trained team