Turning Pilot Lights Off/On Seasonally

by Martin Newmark

Turning off pilot lights in gas fireplaces and furnaces during the summer can save a substantial amount of energy, and money. First you won't burn gas that you won't use, and second your air conditioning doesn't have to work overtime to cool off the heating effects of the constantly burning pilot light.

How much does it cost to run a pilot light? Calculations I've made from data on the web and our (Denver, Colorado) current cost of natural gas ($0.82/therm) indicate that you will spend between $3.60 and $5.40 per month per fireplace or furnace to run a pilot light. Turning the pilot light off from April through September would save approximately $22 to $32 per fireplace or furnace per year. Another authoritative source suggested that 3-4% of the fuel cost for a furnace with a pilot light is due to the pilot light. This is the reason that newer, more fuel efficient gas burning appliances are designed to not have a pilot light in favor of electronic ignition.

So, how do you turn off the pilot light? And, how do you turn it back on when it starts cooling off in the fall? Read on and I'll tell you.

Does My Fireplace or Furnace Have a Pilot Light?

The first thing to determine is whether your fireplace or furnace has a pilot light. Some fireplaces and most furnaces I see don't have a pilot light that is always burning. So, I don't want you looking for something you don't have.

The best way to determine if you have a 'standing', or 'always-on', pilot light is to look at the control knob for the fireplace or furnace. On a fireplace you will usually find the control knob under the fireplace behind a grate or door. On a furnace this control knob will be inside the furnace cabinet. Once you find this control knob you can determine if the pilot light is always on if there is a 'pilot' position on a knob in that compartment. So, if you see the word 'pilot' on the knob you know that there is a standing pilot light. See the image below.Gas Valve Knob Photo

Position of the Valve

Sometimes it's hard to tell if the valve is in the 'on', 'pilot', or 'off' position at first glance. Look closely for a small bump, sometimes painted red, near the knob.

Locating the Flame of the Pilot Light

Before you turn the pilot light off, it's nice to know where the pilot light flame is. Knowing where the flame is will help you the most when you go to re-light it, but it will also give you the confidence that you have actually turned it off when you do the next step. Locate the flame by looking around your fireplace for a small burning flame. Sometimes it's hard to find if it's in the back or behind some of the logs.  If you can't find a burning flame it may be out already.

Turning Off the Pilot Light

You would think that turning off the pilot light is as easy as turning the knob to the 'off' position. Sometimes it is, but most often you have to push the knob in and then turn it to 'off'. Other times you will need to push a little lever out of the way so that you can turn it to 'off'. Look and try with your particular model and you will figure it out. My main advice is to not force it. When you figure yours out it should be relatively easy. Once you turn the knob to the off position the flame you found in the previous step should be out. If it isn't you have a defective valve that needs to be replaced.

Turning the Pilot Light Back On

Turn your pilot lights back on when you feel that first chill in the autumn air or when you're ready to use your gas fireplace or furnace for the first time of the season.

Remember that you are working with gas that burns and can explode. You are literally playing with fire! If you don't feel comfortable trying this yourself ask someone that does to help you.

Before you begin make sure you don't smell any gas - a rotten egg odor. If you do, don't try to light the unit. Call a service technician.

If you don't smell gas, determine if you need a lighter to light the pilot. Many newer gas fireplaces have a button, usually red, that when pushed will click and create a spark at the pilot light location. If you don't have a spark button use one of those extra long lighters that lets you create a flame about four inches away from your hands.

Now you're ready to turn the valve to the 'pilot' position from the 'off' position. You may need to press down on the knob to get it to turn. Next, light your lighter and put its flame near the pilot light inside the fireplace or furnace, or press the clicker button to make sure that it is sparking (this may be hard to see in some fireplaces). Now press the knob, or a button near the knob, to get gas flowing to the pilot light. You should hear a faint hissing sound which is the gas flowing to the pilot light. With a lighter the pilot should light fairly quickly. If you have a spark button press it repeatedly until the pilot light ignites. Sometimes it may take a few seconds to a minute for the pilot light to ignite. If this happens be sure to stop and get help if you smell gas.

When the pilot light ignites you will need to continue to hold the button down on the valve to keep gas flowing until the thermocouple (a small rod that the flame hits) gets hot enough to tell the gas valve to keep gas flowing to the pilot light. You will need to hold this button down for 15 seconds to one minute. If the pilot light doesn't stay lit after that you may need a new thermocouple, there may not be gas service to the unit, or some other problem. Call a competent repair person for help.

©2011 Abacus Inspection Service