DIY Disaster Doctor: Deadly HVAC Design

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Charlie Rice of Pillar To Post Professional Home Inspectors in Sykesville, Maryland (via The Money Pit). Courtesy of the ASHI Reporter

To the untrained eye, this is a typical tangle of HVAC system hardware. But in actuality, this setup is anything but. The deadly arrangement places a wall-mounted air return vent less than two feet from a gas water heater's vent pipe, where carbon monoxide can easily be sucked from that water heater and sent into every room of the house!

Diagnosis
This is a DIY project gone dangerously wrong, and it illustrates why only a pro should design, place and install the components of your heating and cooling system. In such close proximity to the gas water heater, a return air vent will act like a vacuum for any carbon monoxide released when the water heater (or the furnace) is operating. As we all know, hot air rises, and in this scenario the tainted air will lift and make a beeline through the HVAC system's ductwork to interior living spaces.

Rx
In addition to contributing to the general comfort, health and well-being of a home's residents, the right balance of supply and return vents is critical to the proper functioning of an HVAC system.

Job number one in this example is to block off the existing return air vent.
That can be done by removing the vent grill (located on the wall) and cutting a piece of sheet metal to a size that's 1" wider on all sides than the vent opening, then securing that metal cover over the opening with screws and a silicone seal.

From there, a new return air duct will have to be installed elsewhere in the home -- and that's a job for a true HVAC professional.

The discovery of deadly design flaws in your home's heating and cooling system shouldn't be the only occasion for calling on HVAC professionals. Careful maintenance of all components is critical to proper function as well as money-saving efficiency, so make sure your calendars marked for an HVAC system check-up by a pro twice a year, before both the heating and cooling seasons. In between those visits, you can contribute to lower heating and cooling bills by changing filters at least once per month and sealing leaky ducts with UL-181 tape, a special duct tape that won't dry up and fall off. With those simple steps, you'll be sure that good, clean, comforting air can move into living spaces rather than out of reach.

Should You DIY It?
Nope; go with an HVAC professional instead. Even a DIY Ph.D. isn't education enough for this home system correction.

Tom Kraeutler delivers home improvement tips and ideas each week as host of The Money Pit Home Improvement Show, a nationally syndicated radio program. He is also author of My Home, My Money Pit: Your Guide to Every Home Improvement Adventure. You can also subscribe to Tom's latest home improvement podcast or free home improvement newsletter.

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