Graphic image showing the difference of a pilot light from an electric ignition

Homeowner’s Troubleshooting Guide to a Broken Heater

The middle of a cold Manhattan winter is the worst time to find yourself with a broken heater. However, calling for a furnace repair technician right away isn’t always the best thing to do. For one reason, HVAC companies like Standard Plumbing Heating & Air Conditioning will be busy addressing heating problems in homes across Manhattan and surrounding Kansas towns when a cold snap hits.  But the problem may be something you can fix yourself.

There are lots of different issues that could cause your furnace to not work, including its ignition. If your furnace is not igniting, there are several things you can do to try and fix the problem. These troubleshooting attempts may help you save time, money and keep your family from spending even one night in a freezing house.

Graphic image showing the difference of a pilot light from an electric ignition

Furnace Ignition Instructions

Your furnace ignites in one of two ways. The first step a homeowner should take on a broken furnace that won’t ignite is to find out which ignition source is the one for their unit.

Icon of a gas furnace that uses a pilot lightIgnition by Pilot Light

The oldest way furnaces have been made to light is by a pilot light. This is a is a small flame constantly burning in your furnace. See if your furnace has a pilot light. Look into the bottom of your furnace where there is a tray of burners.  A pilot light is typically located to the side and just a bit above the tray. To ignite, you will need to get fire to this pilot light. First, make sure the control knob on the gas-valve is set to pilot. A long lighter or a long match are good tools for supplying this needed flame.

5 Steps: Lighting a Pilot Light

  1. Before even dealing with the actual heating unit, turn the thermostat down low enough so that the furnace won’t come on right away when lighting the pilot light.
  2. You will need to remove the door on the furnace to expose the burner area and locate the gas-valve. Next, turn the gas-valve to “pilot”.  It should be set to “on”, turn it off and wait five minutes. This will allow any remaining gas to clear out.

WARNING: If after waiting 5 minutes you smell gas by your furnace, you could have a gas leak somewhere in the unit. If that is the case, DO NOT attempt to light it yourself. Contact us at (785) 776-5012 for us to come and make sure your system’s lines are safe for your furnace to be relit.

  1. Now you can turn the gas-valve to “pilot”. Push down on the knob your just turned and hold-down. You may notice the faint sound of gas going through the pipe. With that knob pressed, use a lit match or long lighter to place flame under the gas port of the pilot. Do you now see a flame burning from the pilot light? If so, continue holding down that knob for at least a minute.

NOTE: Be aware that it may take several minutes for your pilot light to heat up, especially if this is the 1st time you’re lighting your furnace for the season. The gas needed to ignite the pilot flame will have to travel the entire length of the gas line. The longer your line is, the more time it will likely take before your pilot light ignites.

  1. Now you can release the knob slowly. Your pilot light should stay lit. If so, you can turn the control knob to “on”.
  2. Go back to your thermostat and turn it up to the desired heat. If you go back to your furnace, you should see more flames burning in the tray. Put door back onto furnace.

Igniting an Electric Furnace

Icon of an electric furnace ignitionAn electric furnace ignition is the most common ignition source for modern furnaces. An electric ignition is considered a safer type of ignition because it does not require gas. These ignitions are made of a metal alloy that heats up when an electric current runs through it. The heat from this current causes the gas-air mixture in your furnace to ignite.

If your furnace won’t light, this type of ignition source poses a larger problem. You can’t relight an electric ignition. But you can check if the electric ignition is lighting up. Determining this will help diagnose the problem and potential solution, which may be to replace the ignitor.

4 Steps: Checking if a Furnace’s Electric Ignition is Burnt Out

  1. Turn the power to your furnace on. This often looks like a light switch on your heating unit.
  2. Look into your heater and check to see if your electric ignitor is glowing. This is usually in the same place as a pilot light would be (see above Ignition by Pilot Light section).
  3. You should hear a click when the gas valve opens. You may also hear gas hissing. Do you see any flames coming from your electric ignitor? If not, that means it is very likely that your ignitor is burnt out.
  4. If you can see the ignitor, look for cracks. A crack in an electric ignition is another indicator that your ignitor is burnt out or there is some problem stopping the electricity needed for ignition.

Can you replace a broken electric ignitor yourself? It’s possible, especially if a homeowner has the ability to handle more than basic maintenance skills. However, you do need to consider what type of furnace you are dealing with. Most of the modern, high-efficiency furnaces contain an electric ignition that is placed so far inside the unit that homeowners aren’t able to access it.

Graphic showing the troubleshooting steps of dealing with a furnace that won’t light

Troubleshooting Why a Furnace Won’t Light

If you’ve taken steps to ignite your furnace and it still won’t ignite, your furnace ignitor may be broken and need to get replaced. But there are a few other things that could keep your furnace from lighting that a homeowner can easily check.

Here are 4 issues you could check before paying for a service call. Most are easy and can be done by a homeowner of any skill level. But if you do not feel confident in handling any issue, especially when it comes to electrical matters, do not hesitate to contact Standard for a quick furnace repair.

  1. Thermostat showing 68 degreesCheck the thermostat
    Is your thermostat is set to heat? Is it set to temperature above the current ambient temperature? If not, set the number up a few degrees. Most digital thermostats require new batteries to be installed about once a year.
  2. A dirty air filter next to a clean air filterCheck the air filter
    If your air filter is dirty, that could what’s keeping your furnace light from igniting and perhaps over-heating the furnace itself.
  3. Check the circuit breaker
    Has the circuit to your furnace gotten tripped? If so, turn it off for a couple minutes and then reset it. Does it trip again? If so, you should call a professional to see what’s causing the problem. Contact us at Standard and we will send a technician out to your house to repair your furnace problem.
  4. Check your gas line
    Look for a switch near the furnace that turns the furnace on. Turn it to the on position if it’s off. You can also check out the gas valve and ensure it is open. If you have other gas burning appliances, check if those are working to determine if the gas is on.

One Little Way to Avoid a Big Furnace Problem

Discovering that your furnace isn’t working in the dead of a Kansas winter is the worst time to realize you have a problem with your home’s system. The best way to avoid that is a step you can take right now.


Schedule a reminder on your phone for late summer or early fall. This reminder is for you to do the simple task of turning on your furnace to give it a good test run well in advance of needing it for the coming winter season.

This early reminder should be done for your air conditioner as well. Right now, set a reminder to turn your air conditioner on in early spring.

Furnace Ignites but You’re Not Getting Heat?

If you can light your furnace but still don’t feel heat coming through your vents, there could be several different issues that’s causing your furnace not to work. Some of the easy and common ones relate to your thermostat or air filter. Going through the above steps to address those areas may solve other problems your furnace could be having.

Standard heating technician working on diagnosing the problem of a broken furnace

If you notice any problems with your heating or air that is beyond your ability to fix, contact us at Standard and we’ll work to get your system back up and running again as quickly as possible. We have a large team of experienced HVAC technicians and service Manhattan, Wamego, Junction City and surrounding Kansas towns.

Call us at (785) 776-5012