Is your thermostat turning on the fan but failing to produce any heat? Don’t freeze – we’ve got you covered. Diagnosing and repairing a thermostat that won’t start your furnace can be done by any handy homeowner with our practical step-by-step guide. We’ll walk you through checking common issues like wiring, air filters, and furnace ignition so you can get your heat running again fast. With a few simple tools and our easy instructions, you can troubleshoot and fix many thermostat and furnace problems yourself. No more shivering nights or excessive energy bills from emergency HVAC calls. Just follow our guide to get your home warm and cozy once again.
Ensure Thermostat Settings Are Correct
Before digging into the furnace, first double check your thermostat settings. A simple settings mix-up is one of the most common reasons a thermostat will run the fan but not the heat. Walk up to the thermostat on your wall and look at the mode options. There should be an auto setting that allows heating and cooling as well as a manual fan option. Make sure the system or mode is set to either auto or heat. If it’s switched to fan only, the blower will run constantly without ever activating the furnace to produce warm air.
Next, check the current room temperature reading on the thermostat against the temperature you have set for heat. If the set temp is lower than the actual room temp, the system doesn’t think it needs heat. Bump up the thermostat a few degrees higher than the room’s current temperature to trigger the heating system. Older thermostats may require the set temperature to be at least 3 degrees higher. New programmable models only need 1-2 degrees difference to engage heating.
Adjust Incorrect Program Settings
If you have a programmable thermostat, make sure it hasn’t been overridden by a customized program setting. Check if it’s set to the right operating mode during the current time period. There could be a window of time where it’s accidentally set to just run the fan. Adjust any incorrect program parameters to fix the settings.
Check Thermostat Wiring
If adjusting the thermostat doesn’t resolve the problem, the next step is checking the wiring. Start by locating the panel on the base of the thermostat where all the wiring connects. Take off the cover plate to access the wire terminals. Verify that the wires are securely fastened to the correct terminal screws. Loose wiring is a common cause of signal issues between a thermostat and furnace. Check for any loose wire connections by gently tugging on each wire. Tighten any loose wires by unscrewing, adjusting, and re-tightening the terminal screw.
For a furnace and A/C system, typical wiring includes cables for R (24V power), W (heating), Y (cooling), G (fan), and C (common). Make sure the wire colors match the letters on the terminal blocks. R is usually red, W white, Y yellow, G green, and C blue or black. If any wires are missing, damaged, or connected incorrectly, the thermostat won’t be able to properly communicate system commands. Consult a wiring diagram to correct any errors.
Common Wiring Issues
- Loose wire causing lost connection
- Bare exposed wire touching terminal block
- Incorrect terminal for wire
- No C wire connected
Inspect Air Filter
Air filters provide an important function in heating systems by trapping dust, allergens, and debris circulating in the air. But filters that are clogged and dirty can restrict airflow, forcing the system to work harder to push through less air. In serious cases, insufficient airflow can cause the furnace to overheat and shut off as a safety precaution. Locate the air filter in your furnace system (often near the blower unit) and check its condition. If the filter is excessively dirty or clogged, replace it with a new one of the matching size and dimensions. Proper air flow is critical for efficient heating.
Warning Signs of Dirty Filter
- Reduced airflow from vents
- Dust around vents
- Furnace cycling on and off
- Funny smells from vents
- Thermostat trouble codes
Examine Furnace Limit Switch
Furnaces have safety switches called limit switches to prevent overheating and protect the system. Excessive heat can damage components and in extreme cases, lead to fire. The limit switch has a tiny button that trips and cuts power to the furnace burner when the temperature exceeds a fixed high limit. Locate the limit switch near the burner assembly and check its button position. If the button is tripped/popped out, press it back in to reset the switch.
If the limit keeps tripping, it likely indicates restricted airflow from a clogged filter or blower issue. The furnace may need service to address the underlying overheating cause. But many times a simple filter change and resetting the switch gets the heat running properly again. Just be aware that frequent limit switch trips can prematurely wear out the switch over time.
Limit Switch Functions
- Safety cutoff at excessive temperatures
- Auto reset when cooled down
- Prevents serious system damage
- Prolongs furnace component lifespan
Diagnose Furnace Ignition System
Gas furnace heating systems require the proper sequence of ignition system operation for the burner to successfully light and provide heat. Problems with ignition components like hot surface ignitors and flame sensors can prevent furnace start-up. Locate the rectangular ignition controller or circular flame sensor attached to the gas burner assembly. Check for any cracked ceramic, corrosion, or loose wiring connections. Dirty flame sensors may just require cleaning. But significant damage likely means pro replacement is needed.
Ignition sequences vary by furnace make and model. But generally, the hot surface ignitor heats to 1300+ degrees F to ignite the gas. The flame sensor then detects the burner flame and signals the gas valve to open for heating mode operation. If the ignitor is burnt out or the sensor doesn’t detect flame, the system safety measures will shut off the gas to prevent a dangerous gas leak. Replacing a faulty ignitor or sensor yourself requires matching the part specifications exactly for your furnace.
Furnace Ignition Process
- Thermostat calls for heat
- Ignitor heats up
- Gas valve opens
- Ignitor lights burner
- Flame sensor verifies ignition
- Furnace blower turns on
Call a Professional for Complex Repairs
In some cases, an underlying issue may be tricky to diagnose without specialized HVAC training and tools. If you’ve made it through all the steps above and your system still fails to ignite the furnace, it’s best to call in a professional. Heating systems have many interconnected components from blowers, heat exchangers, gas valves, and circuit boards. Licensed technicians can fully evaluate furnace operation and zero in on the root cause of problems.
We recommend getting an inspection and repair estimate over the phone first before approving any work. Some franchise or large companies will offer free house calls for diagnosis. Expect to pay anywhere from $75 to $200 per hour for labor in addition to parts costs. For pricier fixes, it can be worth seeking a second opinion.
When to Call an HVAC Pro
- Gas leak suspected
- Repeated limit switch trips
- Burner sparks but won’t ignite
- Furnace short cycling on/off
- Diagnosis required beyond basic steps
Prevent Future Thermostat Malfunctions
Take some simple maintenance steps to prevent a finicky thermostat from becoming a chronic headache each winter:
- Change furnace air filters every 1-3 months for optimal performance.
- Have an HVAC technician inspect the full system each year.
- Upgrade to a programmable smart thermostat for efficiency.
- Clean thermostat screen and buttons gently with a microfiber cloth.
- Check thermostat manufacturer battery recommendations.
With a bit of prevention and following this repair guide, you can keep your thermostat and heating system running smoothly all season long. No more frigid waking up with heating issues!
A thermostat that won’t activate the furnace to provide heat can make for a miserable and expensive winter. But many common issues from wiring problems to dirty filters can be fixed with simple tools and our detailed step-by-step instructions. First verify your thermostat settings are correct, then move on to checking critical furnace components like the air filter, limit switch, and ignition system. Call a professional for any complex repairs. With our practical troubleshooting guide, you can get your thermostat heating properly again and stay cozy all winter long!