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Puff Back: What It Is And How To Prevent It

When you hear that someone has suffered a puff back you may be reminded of the Peter, Paul, and Mary song from the 1960s but when a puff back happens it is anything but magical. 

A puff back is a misfiring in the furnace that, at its worst, can send soot throughout your home, covering drapes, bedding, furniture, cabinets, walls, and everything in between.  It requires expensive cleaning and restoration in addition to repairs on your heating system.  The consequences are severe, but you can work to prevent them.

Puff back furnance

A puff back can happen when an oil burner doesn't ignite immediately and oil fumes are allowed to build up before ignition, resulting in an explosion similar to the backfiring of a car.  The buildup of debris can also create an excessive explosion at ignition.  In either case, the explosion can shoot soot and debris through the furnace or boiler's exhaust system and into your home.  If you have a forced-air system (a hot air system as opposed to a hydronic, or hot water, system) the problem will likely be worse as the heating ducts can spread soot into every corner of your home, with the same efficiency that they spread heat.  A puff back can be a chronic problem, with each ignition sending forth a small amount of soot that slowly accumulates on heating vents, ceilings, carpets, or baseboards, or it can be a single sudden event that sends a large amount of soot through the heating system.

Half cleaned tub

Puffback outside a home

The partially cleaned hot tub above shows how soot can cover every surface of the home.

This discharge of soot points to an underlying problem with the heating system which will need to be repaired.  Hopefully, the faulty piece will only be an inexpensive valve or filter and not a signal that the oil burner needs to be replaced.

What Should You Do?

It is quite amazing how much the soot can cover - it goes everywhere.  It can even force you out of your home in some cases.  This soot is not just a powder-like substance, but is black and sticky and will include a mixture of oil that is difficult to clean.  But this dirty residue needs to be cleaned as soon as possible.  Oil-based soot is extremely difficult to remove.  In addition to the soot, a puff back causes a foul odor to permeate your home.  So what should you do?

  • Assess the situation and the amount of damage that was done
  • Wash all affected clothing and fabrics in the house - some may require professional dry cleaning
  • Throw away all exposed food
  • Call a repairman to fix the malfunctioning oil furnace
  • Call a cleaning service to take care of the soot and chemicals

And that's where you need a puff back specialist to thoroughly clean and deodorize all affected items and surfaces.  ServiceMaster Dynamic Cleaning has the equipment and the expertise to get you back to normal.  It's not magic, but you'll be glad you called!

To prevent puff backs, have your oil burner and furnace system cleaned regularly, but if the worst happens, call (800) 865-5157 or Contact ServiceMaster Dynamic Cleaning and we'll be there to help.