Fall traditionally marks the beginning of furnace tune-ups and startups, which by no coincidence marks the beginning of stories of carbon monoxide (CO) injuries and deaths from poorly maintained furnaces, boilers, water heaters, etc. The public has become accustomed to associating CO incidents with heating equipment, although CO incidents happen year around, thanks to poorly ventilated rooms, leading to incomplete combustion of fossil fuel products such as gas and oil.

Many HVAC contractors choose to combustion test homeowner’s fuel burning appliances as part of an annual maintenance checklist - to ensure that fuel is burning efficiently and that the combustion cycle is complete. Anything less could lead to buildups of harmful CO gases that kill and injure thousands of people each year.

But do all HVAC contractors feel that combustion testing should be part of a maintenance checklist - and do they include it on their checklist?

Ralph Adams of Parker Fuel Company Inc., Ellicott City, Md., said his company performs combustion testing on every piece of equipment it services. “We are an oil company and we service homeowners’ equipment throughout the summer months and during that servicing we will do a combustion test,” he said. “In the winter, our techs will do a combustion test on a system that we either replace the nozzle or fuel pump.

“We use electronic combustion meters that allow our tech to do a printout that is time and date stamped. Our techs will print three copies of the combustion test. One is stapled to our copy of the work order, one to the home-owner’s copy of the work order, and a copy is left with the piece of equipment somewhere.”

Joel Wensley of Mechanical Heating & Cooling, Dearborn Heights, Mich., likens combustion testing to what doctors would do during any visit. “If you go to the doctor for a sore foot, doesn’t he still check your vitals?” he asked. “Testing is automatic on every precision tuneup and heating maintenance call and quite often on suspect units. There is a lot you can find out about how a particular unit is running, such as whether or not there is a heat exchanger failure that you wouldn’t have found otherwise. We also feel that it is just plain part of normal diagnostics.”

Aaron Clark of Lipton Energy, Pittsfield, Mass., echoed what several contractors in the oil heat business said: his company performs combustion testing especially because of the nature of the equipment they service. “We do combustion testing as part of our regular annual tune-ups, and we actually require this in our procedures,” he said. “We also do the combustion testing on any service calls that are done where an adjustment to the burner has been made, i.e., nozzle replaced, filter and/or strainer replaced, burner motor replaced, ignition transformer, fuel unit, chimney and/or draft changes.

One contractor, Brian Baker of Custom Vac Limited, Winnipeg, Manitoba, said that combustion testing is specialized and should be offered as a stand-alone test. Adding it to his normal maintenance check would drive the price up and the customers away.

“We have always offered a systems analysis as an extra charge,” Baker added. “We also encourage the homeowners to have the tests done. If we were to include the testing and market this as part of our services, then our costs would be higher and we would not get any work. Consumers call for lower cost cleanings, in fact they respond to the telephone solicitors and their specials.

“Now, we are not the low-priced guy in the market. I know that some might say they will pay more, but this in our opinion is a service that needs to stand alone. Unfortunately, most consumers feel that the furnace cannot fall out of tune, and therefore this service is just another way for contractors to get more money. If they were to call around, I can bet that over 95 percent of the contractors would tell them it doesn’t need to be done.”

NEWScontractor consultant Russ Donnici of Mechanical Air Service Inc., San Jose, Calif., guessed that less than 2 percent of contractors in his area combustion tested and added, “It is sad to say, but most don’t even use a digital magnehelic to check static pressure.”

Steve Breitkreuz of Ace Plumbing, Heating & Electrical Services, St. Joseph, Mich., was animated in his reply. “I do not know of any contractors [who combustion tests],” he said. “Why would you combustion test a furnace? Just so you know the percentage of CO? Gee, that’s neat. Does it give you the warm fuzzies to know your CO level? It might be nice to know, but what does it do for you on the standard furnace install?”

On the other hand, Paul Fredricks of Standard Oil of Connecticut, Bridgeport, Conn., believes that the majority of oil heat contractors perform combustion testing. “If I had to guess I’d say 80 percent,” he said. “I may be naive though. I believe a smaller percentage use electronic testing due to the high purchase and maintenance cost.”


The importance of sending techs to combustion testing/analysis training is also up for debate.

“Since we live in a cold climate, we have found this to be an issue with educating not only the public but the service industry,” said Dan Kittoe of Pinnacle Mechanical Inc., Anchorage, Alaska. “All of our techs are schooled in testing for combustion - and it is on our checklist on maintenance call outs. We use both the Bacharach and Testo combustion analysis kits, which will print out a report for our records and the client. This gives the customer an understanding of what is taking place and helps explain the reasoning behind why we need to clean the system, adjust fuel/air mixtures and pressures or add combustion air openings.”

Some areas of North America, like Florida or Texas, don’t have any lengthy heating season, but that does not stop some contractors likeNEWScontractor consultant Larry Taylor of Air Rite Conditioning Co., Fort Worth, Texas, from educating his techs and making them more professional. “We have sent our techs to training in the past and will continue to do so,” he said. “The better trained a technician is, the better job we can do and the more we can charge for doing our job properly. Overall the better we get, the better I can sleep as the owner.”

Sonny Knobloch of Help! Air Conditioning & Heating, New Orleans, said that although he doesn’t sell combustion testing in his market, and isn’t aware of any competitors doing so, he still sees a need for training. “Even if we did not sell the testing, I believe it would educate the techs and assist in troubleshooting,” he said. “If we found enough problem jobs and the technicians could get the customers to accept the additional time and cost, we would consider adding that service on as a needed option.”

“If I had the opportunity to send my techs, I would definitely do it,” said Tommy Castellano of Castellano Air Conditioning & Heating, Tampa, Fla. “Nobody else is doing it.”

Does an educated customer help when given the option of having their equipment combustion tested? Probably, but contractors said that customers don’t know enough to ask for combustion testing.

Frank Detmer of Detmer & Sons Inc., Fairborn, Ohio, said, “Our customers, like most people, don’t know much about this subject. I consider our customers to be pretty well informed about most issues but not this one. The lack of coverage and discussion by the industry as a whole is part of the problem.

“In some cases, when talking to customers about this issue they can get a little defensive and think you’re pushing something they don’t need, so we try to educate them the best we can.”

If more customers knew about combustion testing and why furnaces are often red-tagged or replaced, there may be fewer deaths and injuries. At least that is what Greg McAfee of McAfee Heating & Air Conditioning, Kettering, Ohio believes. “We have had many furnaces (probably six a year) that we shut off and red tag because of high CO parts per million [ppm] and the customers call another company who does not combustion test, that company says the furnace is safe and turns it back on,” he said. “This is a big problem. It not only makes us look bad, but it causes a dangerous situation for the homeowner and a big liability problem for the company who turned it back on.”

Publication Date:11/19/2007