Winter time is commonly known as "red tag" time when a simple check of your furnace can lead to it being shut down. Some Ottawa residents are warning others to seek a second opinion, saying their furnaces were "red tagged" for no reason. It has happened to many of us after a simple maintenance check; your furnace is shut off in the dead of winter. One company estimates that as many as half the furnaces are being red tagged for no reason.

Ottawa homeowner Peter Warren is a diligent about maintaining his furnace. His yearly maintenance inspection December 4th went well.

“The technician spent two hours doing the inspection,” Warren says, “He cleaned it and said everything good and told us one small part that needs to be changed but that it would be covered under our service agreement.”

A technician came back 2 weeks later, December 15th; supposedly to replace that small part but Warren says that's not what happened.

“When I went downstairs forty minutes later, he’s got my furnace in pieces, the part was still sitting on the floor and he’s got the furnace apart, almost like he was looking for something.”

Warren says half an hour later, the technician came upstairs to inform Warren and his wife that he had a much bigger problem than that small piece that needed replacement, “He says, “I found a crack in your heat exchanger. I’m going to have to shut down your furnace and leave you something called a red tag.”

Warren had never heard of a red tag. All he knew was that it was 6:30 at night, minus 31 and he and his wife had no heat. 

The concern with a cracked heat exchanger is that it could cause carbon monoxide to leak into the air. Under the Technical Standards and Safety Authority, the code requires that a technician who discovers a crack in the heat exchanger to have the owner repair or replace the part.   There are “A” and “B” tags; if danger of carbon monoxide seems imminent, your furnace can be red tagged and the natural gas line shut off.  If the furnace does not pose an immediate threat, the consumer may be issued a “B” tag that allows them several days to rectify the problem.  It is at the discretion of the licensed technician to determine whether a furnace should be “red tagged.”

Peter Warren quickly called another company for a second opinion. 

“The other company had heard about this happening a lot,” he says, “They commonly call it “Red Tag Season” in the business.  Within two hours, a technician from the other company inspected the furnace and lifted the red tag.”

As a financial planner, Imran Syed advises clients to take their time making the best decisions.  Something he couldn't do when his furnace was red tagged.

“I’ve actually had it happen twice,” he explains.  “You have very few options.  You're panicked, your heat is shut off, you're concerned that your pipes will burst and that you're going to freeze.”

Syed, too, got a second opinion and the red tag was lifted.  He says something is wrong with this system.

“I have a bit of an issue with the company that does the maintenance that sells furnaces is actually doing the inspection as well,” he says, “I’m concerned about conflict of interest.”

Marc Hannah with Ottawa Home Services says consumers should insist on a combustion analysis if their furnace is red tagged.  He says the gas code requires that companies must have one unit available to technicians.  He also recommends getting a second opinion before consumers purchase a new furnace.

“I would say, and this is a guess,” Hannah says, “that most likely 50% of the furnaces being tagged today for cracked heat exchangers are not necessarily warranted.”

Peter Warren ultimately ended up replacing his furnace, after the couple worried about the potential consequences.  They had the old furnace checked using a go-pro before they hauled it off.

“Ultimately there was no crack, there was nothing wrong with that furnace,” he says, “We replaced a perfectly good furnace.  That's very frustrating.”

Imran Syed says his advice to consumers? Don't wait until winter to get your furnace checked.  Do it in the summer so if there is a problem, you're not stuck without heat.