What is a Furnace Puffback? What You Need to Know

By: Diana Rodriguez-Zaba
Updated on: March 18, 2024

When you’re dealing with furnace puffback, you’re facing a huge cleanup problem. The mess sticks to walls, floors and ceilings. It spreads a terrible smell through the house.

For more than 85 years of combined experience, ServiceMaster by Zaba has restored Chicago homes affected by smoke damage due to puffbacks.

This guide will help you understand what causes a puffback, how it affects your home and how to prevent it from happening again.

What is a Furnace Puffback?

what is a furnace puffback

A furnace puffback is similar to a car engine backfire. There are numerous causes, but the results are the same. The furnace suddenly discharges smoke and oily soot through its exhaust system.

This internal misfire can happen in boilers and gas furnaces, but it’s much more common in oil-fueled heating systems. Oil doesn’t dissipate as easily as water or gas, and that creates the conditions that generate a puffback.

Puffback is especially hard on homes with forced-air heating systems. One explosion can push hot air, smoke and soot through the ductwork and into every room in the house.

How Do I Deal With a Puffback?

how do i deal with puffback

1. Shut Down the Furnace

A small puffback may not set off the smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, but you can’t miss the sudden discharge of debris and soot. Immediately shut down the furnace. This should prevent the system from generating further ignitions.

Power Tip: If the alarms do go off, don’t take any chances. Alert everyone in the house, immediately evacuate, and call 911 from a safe location outside.

2. Contact a Reputable Furnace Repair Company

If you don’t already have a furnace repair company in your contacts, ask friends or family for a recommendation, or check independent review sites.

Confirm the company’s license and insurance credentials before scheduling heating system repairs. 

Power Tip: Resist the temptation to turn the furnace back on. Repeatedly resetting the system can make the situation worse. Let your repair technician take care of the problem. 

3. Call a Professional Restoration Company

Call a certified restoration company, like ServiceMaster by Zaba, that specializes in puffback cleanup. For example, our technicians have the experience and equipment necessary for safely remediating interiors damaged by smoke and soot.

We provide industry-certified cleanup for heating system ductwork and vents, and we clean and restore contents and belongings. Our staff helps file your insurance claim too.

Power Tip: As Chicago’s leading restoration pros, we’re available for emergencies and always ready for your call.

4. Talk to Your Insurance Agent

Speak with your insurance agent about the situation. Most homeowners policies cover interior damages from puffback smoke and soot. However, they don’t cover furnace breakdowns due to neglected maintenance or faulty installation.

Power Tip: Document the puffback damage to your home with pictures and videos. Organize the files so that you can share everything with the insurance adjuster and support your insurance claim.

Why DIY Puffback Cleanup Doesn’t Work

why diy puffback cleanup doesn't work

It’s difficult to clean up oily soot from a puffback. Trying to remove it with regular household cleaners embeds the particles deeper into surfaces.

Soot particles cling to everything, so DIY cleanup can actually spread the hazardous substance.

Be very careful about puffback in the kitchen. Soot settles onto anything left out on countertops, even in covered containers. It penetrates into cabinets and contaminates packaged food.

If you suspect the puffback may have affected any food in the kitchen, stay safe and throw everything away.

How Do Smoke Damage Restoration Experts Handle Puffbacks?

A professional restoration company applies a broad range of capabilities to cleaning up puffback damage, including:

  • Property-wide smoke and soot damage restoration
  • Ductwork and vent cleaning, sanitizing and deodorizing 
  • Cleanup for smoke- and soot-damaged belongings
  • Emergency cleanup services for homes and businesses
  • Assistance with filing homeowners insurance claims

Preventing Puffbacks

Regular furnace maintenance is the best way to reduce the chance of a puffback. Schedule an inspection with an HVAC professional once a year before the weather turns cold.

Arrange for a second inspection at the end of the season if: Your heating system is older; it required previous repairs; or you run the furnace non-stop during the winter.

Practicing smart puffback prevention strategies can make a big difference too. Routinely check and clean or replace furnace filters. Keep your carbon monoxide detectors in good condition.

If you spot any of signs of possible puffback, call your heating repair company right away.

Need Professional Puffback Cleanup in Chicago or Suburbs? We’re Here to Help!

professional puffback cleanup in chicago

Puffback damage can make your home seem unlivable, but it’s not a situation you can take care of by yourself. You don’t have to. We’re here to help.

ServiceMaster by Zaba provides industry-certified smoke and soot damage cleanup for Chicago and the suburbs. We have offices in Downtown Chicago, Skokie, Buffalo Grove. Let us restore the comfort of your home or business and restore your peace of mind.

We’re just around the corner, ready for your call: 773-647-1985


What Causes Furnace Puffbacks?

Fuel accumulation in the combustion chamber is the most common cause of furnace puffback. This typically happens when furnace oil or gas doesn’t ignite properly. Once the accumulated fuel is finally released during an ignition, the explosion causes puffback.

These are examples of the mechanical issues that can result in furnace puffback.

  • Combustion chamber leaks
  • Heat exchanger cracks
  • Rusty or clogged burners
  • Clogged air handler or blower
  • Air inside oil supply pipes
  • Broken or clogged fuel nozzle
  • Repeated manual system resets

What Are the Signs of a Potential Puffback?

A puffback can cause an explosion, but you can minimize the risk by recognizing these signs of furnace trouble.

  • Soot on the furnace and surrounding surfaces
  • Oil leaks near burner and furnace pipes
  • Pervasive oil or gas odors, even when the furnace is off
  • Banging noises when the heating system fires up
  • Soot-covered cobwebs adjacent to the furnace

Can heating system puffback be dangerous?

Any furnace malfunction can pose a danger to your home and your health. The ignition from a large puffback can start a property fire. Small puffbacks can damage heating system components. Accumulated soot poses a health risk for individuals with respiratory issues. 

Can boilers cause puffback problems?

No, a boiler doesn’t cause puffbacks. Faulty heating system components are the source of puffbacks. For example, oil pipe leaks, oil burner issues and chimney blockages are typical problems that can result in puffbacks.

Does homeowners insurance cover damage from a puffback?

In most cases, yes. Homeowners insurance should cover the cost of cleaning and restoring interiors damaged by puffback smoke and soot. It may not cover the mechanical breakdown that caused the puffback. Check with your agent for details about your policy’s coverage.

Helpful Resources for Homeowners

Home Furnaces and Boilers – Energy.Gov 

Home Fires – Ready.Gov

Carbon Monoxide Alarms – NFPA