When a Backdraft Blows the Pilot Light Out

Water heater problem may have simple solution, expert says.

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Q: I have a power attic fan, and when I turn it on, the pilot light in my water heater goes out. The gas company said the fan was causing a backdraft in the flue of the water heater, and that the backdraft was blowing out the pilot light. I had two chimney companies out and the problem is not solved. It seems as though they are just guessing. I need to use my fan to cool the house in the summer, but I'm afraid to use it. I'm retired and on a limited income. I can't keep paying for guesswork. -- J.D.A., Oak Lawn, Ill.

A: Since the backdrafting is a recent phenomenon, something inside or outside your home has changed. Whatever it is, it's contributing to the pilot light's failure.

In any case, the attic fan is pulling air out of the burner area. The room where the water heater is located needs to be closed off from the remainder of the home and a make-up air opening added to the room.

The makeup air is used in the combustion of natural gas and also for venting of the water heater fumes. If there is a window in the water heater room, opening the window just a few inches could make the difference. Or, opening several windows in other parts of the home might reduce the reverse pressure at the water heater flue. These are simple remedies you can try at no cost.

If you continue to experience the same problems, contact your utility company for the name of a contractor who will perform an energy audit on your home. The contractor will use a blower door fan to determine where energy is lost and where unconditioned air enters. He will be able to determine the source of your problem, which you can then present to a heating, venting, air-conditioning (HVAC) contractor for repairs.

(Dwight Barnett is a certified master inspector with the American Society of Home Inspectors.)

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