Light the fire or freeze

interior of lit gas furnace

Last Thursday night the weather forecast was calling for the coldest wind chill temperatures yet and while I wasn’t excited about that, I knew as long as I had propane, a working furnace, and my space heaters to supplement, I’d be fine. As it turned out, I wasn’t as fine as I’d hoped.

Around 6 p.m. that evening, I was working at my desk when I realized I felt colder than usual. I had my space heater running next to me but it wasn’t helping as it usually did, so I decided I’d check the thermostat to see what it was set to. When I read 58 degrees, I rolled my eyes in exasperation because I’d forgotten to turn it back up when I arrived home from errands. Thinking I’d found the easy solution, I turned the thermostat up a few degrees and waited for the furnace to kick on.

The thermostat made it’s usually click sound, the furnace blower turned on and ran for a few moments…and then stopped. The heat hadn’t kicked on and I wondered what the problem was. Beginning some furnace troubleshooting, I tried fiddling with the thermostat settings a little more, but no heat came out of my registers. I finally concluded that the problem must be with the furnace unit in the basement.

I put on my boots to go into the cold basement and walked down the stairs nimbly dodging the kittens that were curious about my activities. The first thing I did for the basement segment of my furnace troubleshooting was to inspect the circuit breaker and flip the circuit for the furnace. Once again, the blower on the furnace kicked on, but after a few moments, it turned off without creating heat.

The next thing I did was go to the furnace and that’s when I saw two little lights through the cover window. They were both green, but one was flashing. I had no clue what that meant, but I flipped the light style switch on the outside of the furnace to turn it off and on again. Again, the blower turned on, then off, but no heat and the lights were doing the same thing. Now I wasn’t quite sure what to do, but what I did know was that if I didn’t light that fire, I was going to freeze and that thought didn’t appeal.

While I’ve never dealt with furnace troubleshooting personally before, I’ve researched furnace systems as a freelance writer and some of that HVAC knowledge was stuck in my mind. I vaguely remembered reading something about an ignition switch being part of furnace troubleshooting and I figured since I’d never had to deal with a pilot light on my furnace, that it probably had an ignition switch

Settling into a sitting position on the cold, cement basement floor, I started reading the furnace cover to see if I could figure out any useful instructions. The diagram on the cover vividly pointed out where the ignition switch was inside the unit, so I decided to unscrew the cover and see what I could do. Making sure the furnace was switched off, I unscrewed the furnace cover and found myself looking at a confusing myriad of parts and circuits. When I looked closer at the tiny LED lights, I saw that there was third light, that it was yellow not green and that it hadn’t been on with the other two. I assume that was the ignition indicator light.

Even with the diagram on the furnace cover, I had trouble finding the ignition switch and when I finally did, it was a rather tiny thing located toward the top of the cabinet’s interior. The switch was in the on position, which puzzled me, so I decided to check the furnace filter to see if dirt on it had caused the unit to turn off for safety reasons.

Sure enough, the furnace filter had so much dust, cat hair, and dog fur covering it that I could’ve made a dog/cat/dust bunny hybrid. I had three brand new replacement filters that I’d purchased shortly after moving in back in 2011 so I promptly changed out the dirty filter for a nice, clean one.

That task completed, I returned to the open furnace cabinet and flipped the ignition switch from on to off and back to on. I figured if taking out my car fuse and putting it back in had fixed the blower problem, perhaps flipping that ignition switch would bring the same happy fortune. Not quite sure my furnace troubleshooting solution would work, I didn’t screw the faceplate on before turning the furnace back on, but I did hold the cover up over the unit in case the flame actually did kick on.

Sure enough, the flame poofed into life as soon as the blower had run a few moments and I found myself hastily screwing the cover on. For any DIY furnace troubleshooting people out there, I highly recommend screwing the cover securely on first because propane gas flames aren’t something to play around with. I didn’t suffer any injury, but I’d definitely screw the cover on first in the future!

Once I had everything reassembled and heat was coming from the furnace again, I took my cold body back upstairs and started thawing out. Never before had the hum of my furnace sounded so glorious! I was quite proud of myself for fixing the problem on my own and for retaining enough HVAC knowledge to be useful. One of the things I often read in HVAC articles is to hire professional service people for furnace troubleshooting, but as it was Thursday evening and I didn’t want to freeze to death or pay through the nose for someone to flip a switch, I chose to do it myself. I now know what to do should my furnace act up like that again and it’s knowledge that will serve me well.

Unless it’s an absolute emergency, I highly recommend that you try to figure out household issues on your own. While it’s “easier” to have a pro do it, it’s not free, and being able to take care of your own house is a very admirable quality. If you’re looking for furnace help, I’d recommend this Furnace Troubleshooting article from This site often has useful, well-written information.

The moral of the story is that when faced with the choice of lighting the fire or freezing to death, I chose lighting the fire. I think it’s a good analogy for life too because if you don’t light the fire within you to pursue your dreams and goals, then you’ll be left behind freezing in the cold of a mundane existence.