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Oil Furnace and Burner Puff Back Causes, Prevention, and Treatment

By Luke Armstrong

If your home’s heating system contains an oil burner or furnace, it is prone to a puff back. When these occur, oil explodes when ignited within the system, releasing smoke and soot onto surrounding surfaces. If your home uses a forced air system, the byproducts also can spread throughout the home via the air ducts, covering the entire property in a thick oily, residue.

Frequent cleaning and maintenance will reduce the risk of an oil furnace puff back.
Frequent cleaning and maintenance will reduce the risk of an oil furnace puff back.

While it looks disgusting and will surely cause permanent damage if left untreated, this residue should never be cleaned with home remedies. Instead, contact a professional cleaning and restoration company; they will use professional cleaning products to remove all smoke and soot byproducts.

What is a Puff Back

A puff back occurs when an oil burning furnace does not ignite when prompted. The vapors build up in the boiler’s exhaust system, causing an explosion of smoke and soot when the igniter is turned on. Especially if your home uses a forced air system, which many of them do, the smoke and soot are carried throughout the air ducts and blown through the air vents. It won’t take long before all surfaces are covered in a thick, oily residue.

What Causes a Puff Back

All puff backs in oil burners and furnaces are caused by problems within the furnace; the oil in the ignition chamber is not burned when prompted. This could be due to bubbles in the oil line that enlarge and push oil out of the burner nozzle, the burner nozzle is clogged, the burner nozzle is not working properly, or oil leaks within the system.

The result of these problems occurs as oil leaking into the chamber when the system is turned off. It then accumulates within the chamber until it ignites when turned on, causing a puff back explosion.

How to Prevent Oil Burner Puff Backs

Fire damage in the house
A forced air system will spread the smoke and soot byproducts through the air ducts to contaminate the rest of the home.

There really is no guaranteed prevention of an oil burner puff back. But regular maintenance and cleanings will certainly lower the risk of it from happening. To be on the safe side, schedule a professional service appointment at least once each year. The unit will need to be opened, inspected for signs of damage and warning signs, and cleaned to ensure that everything works properly.

You can also frequently inspect the unit yourself, monitoring for any strange smells, oil leaks, and debris around the unit. Identifying a problem now can save a big cleanup job in the future.

Signs of a Furnace Puff Back

While oil furnace puff backs may not be fully prevented, being on the lookout for warning signs can prevent a big, oily mess in the future. These signs will include black soot on the furnace, continued noises from the combustion chamber after the furnace has been turned off, or even a pop, bang, or puff noise from pooled, unburned oil that is ignited.

Cleanup from an Oil Furnace Puff Back

As soon as you notice the oil burner puff back in your home, taking immediate action is crucial to preventing permanent damage to your building materials. But again, using home cleaning products will not remove the smoke and soot byproducts from the affected surfaces. In fact, doing so will worsen the damage, smearing the residue deeper within the materials.

First, notify your insurance company right away as a professional smoke and soot removal service is needed to remove the byproducts. Then contact the restoration service to handle the cleanup process. Finally, call your local repairman to fix the furnace and try to prevent the problem from happening again. Remember that if any food was exposed during the puff back and is covered with the residue, throw it out right away.

If you are not sure who to contact to remove the smoke and soot residue, your local ServiceMaster has years of experience in handling this type of work. Each of their technicians has also been trained to use commercial products on affected surfaces, removing only smoke and soot byproducts without causing additional damage in the process. Finally, they will ensure that all affected building materials are returned to their original conditions and also work with your insurance company during the claims process so you can focus on other matters. Don’t hesitate to give them a call at any time an oil burner or furnace puff back occurs in your home.