Friday, October 2, 2009

Combustion Air

The arrival of fall brings the start of gas and oil fired furnace seasonal checks. An easily overlooked problem with gas and oil furnaces is lack of combustion air. Although most technicians understand the necessity of adequate combustion air, it is easily overlooked if technicians view their job as servicing appliances rather than systems. Most school shops have no combustion air issues because they are typically great big leaky rooms. On the other hand, the newer homes your students are likely to see are typically very tight, requiring installers and service technicians to be conscious of the need for combustion air. I believe we should stress the consequences of inadequate combustion air. Most students understand that air is required for combustion and that new air must constantly be brought in to replace the air that was just used in the combustion process. They should also understand that the carbon and hydrogen in the fuel are combining with the oxygen to make carbon dioxide and water, the normal products of complete combustion. You can then explain that if there is not enough oxygen, carbon monoxide and unburned carbon will start to form because there is not enough oxygen to complete the combustion process. In a room with inadequate combustion air, as the combustion process continues the pressure in the room becomes negative, reducing the effectiveness of the vent. In bad cases the combustion products can start to spill out of the vent. Now you have a scary situation: a combustion process producing carbon monoxide and combustion gasses spilling out into the room! I have heard of cases where smoke from fireplaces in newer homes comes rolling out into the room when the furnace comes on because the house simply does not have enough combustion air for both the fireplace and the furnace. Technicians should look for combustion air grills and vents when servicing furnaces. Typically there should be an opening or grille near the ceiling and another near the floor. If the grille opens directly to the outside the free area of the grille should be at least one square inch for every 4,000 Btuh of combined input rating. If the combustion air must travel through vertical ducts the ducts must also have a free area of at least one square inch for every 4,000 Btuh. If the air must travel through horizontal ducts, the grille and the ducts must be larger. They must have a free area of at least one square inch per 2,000 Btuh. Draft measurements and room pressurization measurements can tip off technicians to combustion air problems. Because a draft gauge measures the vent pressure relative to the room pressure, inadequate combustion air will cause the draft reading to decrease the longer the furnace operates. An absolute pressure reading of the room will show that the room pressure is decreasing as the furnace continues to operate without adequate combustion air. A quick test is to introduce more combustion air near the furnace by opening a window or door to the outside. If the draft increases when the window is opened and decreases again when it is closed, the room needs more combustion air. For more a more detailed discussion of combustion air check out Unit 37 Gas Fired Heating Systems, Unit 40 Gas Furnace Installation, Startup, Checkout and Operation, Unit 41 Troubleshooting Gas Furnaces, and Unit 44 Residential Oil Heating Installation in the text Fundamentals of HVAC/R.


  1. Bob Dwyer of COSA showed us some photos of the "Monoxide Manor" at Intellitec College, Colorado Springs. They made an actual small house with a furnace, water heater, boiler, gas stove, clothes dryer, kitchen exhaust, bathroom exhaust and duct work to set up venting back draft conditions. They even use for the local fire department training.

  2. Bob does a great job. I have attended one of his CO seminars and really enjoyed it. Of course my house has all the things he said he did not like - like and attached garage and two fireplaces.