Heat Not Working? How to Use Emergency Heat Safely and Temporarily

Finding yourself shivering because your furnace or heat pump stopped blowing warm air? No need to panic – most HVAC systems have a backup heating mode called emergency heat to get you through a malfunction. But emergency heat should only be used temporarily in true emergencies. Running it too much will leave you with sky-high energy bills!

You’ll learn how to spot signs you need to switch to auxiliary heat, what operating emergency heat involves, when to call in an HVAC pro, and tips to avoid relying on this expensive backup system.

When Should You Activate Emergency Heat Mode?

Emergency heat is designed for precisely that – emergencies . It should only be activated as a last resort if your main heating system stops working properly when outdoor temps dip below freezing.

Here are the main situations when it’s appropriate to turn on emergency auxiliary heat:

  • Your furnace or heat pump isn’t blowing warm air to reach the set temperature
  • Outdoor temperature drops below 30degF and your heat pump can’t keep up
  • Your heat pump’s coils are frozen over outside and it won’t start up
  • You have an obvious malfunction like your furnace not igniting
  • You need a temporary heat source while waiting for an HVAC technician to arrive

The key point is that emergency heat is for emergencies only , not everyday heating. Using it continuously will cost a fortune in higher electric bills. Think of it as a short-term backup to get you through a cold snap until repairs can be made.

Signs Your HVAC System Needs Emergency Heat

How can you tell when it’s time to switch over to auxiliary emergency heating? Here are some of the most common signs your unit needs help from the backup system:

emergency heat on thermostat
  • The indoor temperature drops well below what the thermostat is set to
  • You notice thick ice coating the outdoor unit meaning frozen coils
  • The emergency heat light or indicator comes on your thermostat
  • You hear unusual noises or smell odd burning odors from your HVAC system
  • The auxiliary/emergency heat light on your control panel switches on

Pay attention to these warning signs that your heat pump or furnace isn’t keeping up with heating demands. The emergency heat mode is there to provide temporary relief until an HVAC technician can inspect and fix the issue.

How Do Emergency Heating Systems Work?

To understand when to engage your emergency heat mode, it helps to know what it is and how it functions. Emergency heat systems typically use electric heating coils or strips to generate heat, unlike your main furnace or heat pump.

Here’s a quick overview of how most auxiliary heating systems work:

  • Electric coils or strips warm up to high temperatures very quickly
  • Blowers push the electric heat through existing ductwork into rooms
  • Provides immediate but less efficient and more expensive heat than primary HVAC
  • Backs up heat pump compressors during malfunctions or extreme cold
  • Acts as a failsafe to prevent homes from losing heat entirely

While electric emergency heat certainly warms your home fast, it lacks the sophistication of a furnace or heat pump. Emergency systems are intended for worst-case scenarios, not daily heating needs. Prolonged use costs more and can strain your HVAC equipment.

Types of Emergency Heating Systems

Several types of auxiliary heating may be installed to provide emergency heat. The most common options include:

  • Electric resistance coils – Metal coils that heat up rapidly when electric current passes through. Very common in heat pumps.
  • Electric ceramic disks – Disks of ceramic material that generate heat when electrified. Used in central and window A/C units.
  • Fossil fuel systems – Burn oil, propane, or natural gas. Found in some older furnace systems as backup.
  • Hydronic heat – Runs hot water through pipes and radiators. Used as emergency heat in some boilers.

Check your HVAC manual to learn what type of backup heating you have. This can help you monitor the system and use emergency modes correctly.

Operating Your Emergency Heat Setting

Once you verify that your heat pump or furnace isn’t keeping up with heating, it’s time to activate the emergency heat mode. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  1. Locate the emergency heat switch – Most thermostats have an “Em Heat”, “Aux Heat”, or similar indicator. Turn this setting on.
  2. Bump temperature up 2-3degF – To trigger emergency heat, set the temp slightly above your normal setting.
  3. Run for a few hours only – Keep use to less than 6 hours until an HVAC pro can assess.
  4. Turn off once main heat works – Go back to normal mode once your heat pump or furnace is repaired.

Emergency heating systems are built to handle occasional short-term use. But longer runtimes risk equipment damage or failure. Limit use to get through the immediate lack of central heating.

Optimizing Emergency Heat Operation

To maximize efficiency and minimize risks when using your backup heating, keep these tips in mind:

  • Only use emergency settings at 60degF or below outdoor temperatures.
  • Run emergency heat just until your indoor temperature reaches 68-70degF.
  • Turn off emergency mode before going to sleep to avoid overheating.
  • Never leave your home with emergency heat activated.
  • Contact an HVAC technician to inspect your system ASAP.

Careful monitoring and limiting emergency heat use to the bare minimum needed will reduce strain on your system. But don’t ignore underlying issues – get professional repairs done promptly.

Consequences of Prolonged Emergency Heat Use

What happens if you use your HVAC system’s emergency heat function too often or for extended times? A few serious consequences can result from over-reliance on auxiliary electric heating:

  • Skyrocketing energy bills from high electricity use
  • Overheating risks if left running an entire season
  • Excess wear and tear on heating coils shortening their lifespan
  • Straining other HVAC components like blowers and compressors
  • Increasing likelihood of costly HVAC repairs or replacements

While emergency heat works great during the occasional cold snap, the risks simply outweigh the benefits for prolonged use. Finding and correcting the root cause of primary HVAC malfunctions is critical.

High Electricity Usage Spikes Costs

The #1 problem with heavy emergency heat use is the burden of substantially higher electric bills. Emergency systems gobble up electricity to generate heat. It’s not uncommon for homeowners stuck using electric auxiliary heating for months to get power bills 2-3 times higher than normal winter months.

Rather than pay exorbitant rates indefinitely, invest that money in professional repairs to properly fix underlying issues with your heat pump or furnace. The long-term savings are well worth it.

Tips to Minimize Emergency Heat Use

Want to slash your reliance on expensive auxiliary heating? Here are some handy ways to avoid or reduce the need for emergency heat this winter:

  • Get yearly maintenance on your HVAC system to prevent breakdowns.
  • Improve home insulation and seal air leaks to retain heat better.
  • Lower thermostat temps at night and when away to reduce heating needs.
  • Clean debris off outdoor condenser coils to maximize efficiency.
  • Upgrade to a newer, more powerful heat pump or furnace.
  • Install thermostats with smart technology to optimize heating.

A little preventative care and weatherproofing goes a long way in minimizing emergency heating needs. But if problems do occur, address them promptly before relying too heavily on auxiliary heat.

Have a Tech Assess Frequent Emergency Heat Activation

Finding that your backup heating is kicking on regularly this winter? Take that as a clue that something needs attention with your HVAC system. If emergency modes activate often, it likely indicates:

  • Your heat pump or furnace can’t keep up with current heating demands
  • Declining performance or impending failure of system components
  • Low refrigerant levels reducing heat pump efficiency
  • Outdoor unit coils freezing up in cold weather

Frequent emergency heating activation usually signals a larger underlying problem. Get your HVAC system serviced to identify and correct issues to reduce future backup heating needs.

When to Call a Professional for Assistance

In most cases, you’ll need to involve a skilled HVAC technician to get your primary heating up and running again if relying on emergency modes. Here are some scenarios when it’s vital to schedule a service call:

  • Your main heating system stays broken after 6+ hours
  • Emergency heat keeps activating despite your thermostat being set to normal heat
  • You can’t get your main furnace or heat pump working again
  • You notice odd noises, smells, or smoke coming from your HVAC equipment
  • Your home is over 10 years old and you suspect your HVAC is failing

While temporary use of emergency heat serves as a useful band-aid, the only real solution is professional assessment and repair of underlying issues. Technicians have the tools and skills to accurately diagnose problems and get your unit running right again.

Regular Furnace and Heat Pump Maintenance Helps

Beyond emergency fixes, developing a maintenance plan for your HVAC system provides big benefits. Typical maintenance tasks like the following can improve performance and lifespan:

  • Checking and adjusting refrigerant charge
  • Cleaning evaporator and condenser coils
  • Replacing air filters
  • Inspecting electrical connections
  • Verifying proper airflow
  • Testing safety controls
  • Evaluating energy efficiency

Keep your HVAC system tuned up and operating at peak condition year-round and you’ll rarely need to activate auxiliary heating modes. Think of maintenance as frost insurance against expensive winter breakdowns.

Emergency heat settings provide a vital backup to keep homes warm when heat pumps and furnaces can’t do their job properly. Just don’t let the name fool you – auxiliary electric heating is expensive and hard on equipment, making it unsuitable for everyday use.

Limit emergency heat to only absolute necessities like equipment malfunctions below freezing until professionals can help. With careful monitoring and prompt repairs, you can avoid skyrocketing energy bills and keep your HVAC system running reliably all winter.

Stay cozy and energy efficient this cold season by understanding proper operation, risks, and maintenance tips for your system’s emergency heat mode. Just a little planning helps minimize the need for this costly last resort.

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