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Fall is here! Maybe you are celebrating the return football and all things pumpkin. Maybe you are wondering how you’re going to make it through the school year while trying to work and manage your kids’ virtual or hybrid school schedules. Maybe a little bit of both.

One thing is for sure though – you don’t need any new challenges or surprises on your plate this fall.

As you get your sweaters and Halloween decorations out of storage, don’t forget one crucial part of fall prep – having your furnace or other heating units serviced.

Not what you were expecting? Probably not – but it will save you from an even more unexpected event.  For properties with furnaces, boilers or water heaters, puff backs can be common fall emergencies – especially if the unit is oil-fired.

The temperatures start to drop so you turn on your heat and BOOM – you have black, oily soot billowing through every room in your house. Before you know it, your walls, ceilings, floors, furniture, belongings – they’re black and scorched as if they just barely survived a fire.

What causes a puff back?

Think of a puff back like a car exhaust backfiring – but on a larger scale. Your furnace burns oil to produce heat. Puff backs occur when residual oil or debris combust as your furnace ignites, for example. Poorly maintained furnaces can have a buildup of debris or fumes from unburned oil, oil may be sitting in the ignition chamber from a leak, or you could have a faulty shut down valve or nozzle – just to name a few.

For gas-fired appliances, puff backs are often caused by poor venting out of the system. If gases cannot escape through the vent during combustion, it can result in a dangerous imbalance of fuel and air inside the chamber. This can cause a flame roll-out, which can damage the furnace, poor combustion, and a fire risk.

How far the soot travels in your home or property depends on the type of heating system, the layout of building, if doors were closed, etc. The most damaging type of puffback occurs in oil-fired furnaces connected to a forced air system – this means very oily soot will be pushed through the duct work into every room with a vent.

How can I avoid this?

Routine maintenance of your furnace or other heating appliances is the simplest way to avoid this mess.  Have them cleaned and serviced by a trained HVAC professional once a year, especially before you turn it on for the fall and winter seasons.

It is an easy task to forget but is a simple solution to avoid a big mess and even bigger headache.

Are there warning signs?

Yes! Keep an eye out for some of these “symptoms” of a “sick” heating unit:

  • Black soot on the furnace or on the walls
  • A puff or bang when the burn cycle begins
  • Noises in the furnace even after it has stopped
  • Oil leaks from piping
  • Odd odors
  • Debris in the flue vent connector

These are signs that oil may not be burning properly or combustion gases are not properly venting. If you notice any of these, it is time to call a HVAC professional.

We had a puff back – what do I do now?!

Your first priority is protecting the safety of anyone in the house. Soot is full of carcinogens that you do not want to breathe in (not-so-fun fact: soot is made by the incomplete combustion of carbon-based materials – not something you want in your lungs).

If a puff back occurs…

  • Turn the furnace off
  • If there is a large amount of smoke or a risk of fire, leave the building
  • If your carbon monoxide detectors go off, evacuate immediately and call 911
  • Do not open windows or turn fans on – this will further circulate the soot through the building
  • If you can safely stay inside, be sure to wear a mask and do what you can to protect your belongings (tape up vents, close doors, place towels over carpets or upholstery to try to protect it from additional settling of soot)
  • Check your insurance policy and call your insurance carrier to file a claim
  • Call a restoration company to properly clean your home or building and your belongings

Can I clean my home myself?

We understand – the DIY methods found on the internet are tempting but not in your best interest. The DIY route will cost you countless hours of sweat equity and incredible frustration, only to find the odor is still present and the oily residue is still everywhere. Not to mention that, if not done in the right order, you will likely have tracked soot throughout your home.

Puff backs throw soot onto your walls, ceilings, floors, tables, light fixtures, curtains, clothing, beds, inside cabinets, drawers, pantry – you name it. And because of the oily nature of the soot, it takes special products and cleaning methods to appropriately remove it.

A professional restoration company will provide the trained manpower to treat all of the areas necessary to get your home or property back in order:

  • Hard Surfaces – They will use the same methods and products used in cleaning a property after a fire – with equipment to remove the odor and soot from hard surfaces, such as your walls, ceilings, countertops, flooring, fixtures, etc.
  • Odor Removal – Even when surfaces appear clean, the odor has settled into your furniture, carpets, and rugs. Special equipment and products are required to remove the odor from those tough to clean contents.
  • Soft Contents – Items that are soft in nature (clothes, curtains, stuffed animals, sofa, etc.) require a specialized treatment to make them like new again. A trained professional will have access to the proper content cleaning equipment to restore them.
  • Duct Cleaning: Especially for forced-air systems, your ducts should be cleaned to ensure your air quality and ventilation are safe after a puff back.

Find a partner you trust

So unless you keep air scrubbers, HEPA vacuums, duct cleaning equipment, and the other materials (as well as the time and patience!) to clean all of these items, you will want to hire a professional. Talk to your insurance carrier to see if they can recommend a restoration contractor they trust!

RestoreCore has more than 40 years of experience providing fire, smoke, and soot-related cleaning services. From commercial warehouses to apartment buildings to single family homes, our certified technicians know how to help you protect what matters most.

We certainly hope you never experience a puff back but, if you do, RestoreCore is here and happy to help you get back to normal – even if your normal looks a little different this year.