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As heating and cooling units age, they lose their efficiency. This can lead to frequent breakdowns, costly service visits, or an expensive replacement.  We’ve compiled a list of factors to consider when determining if you should repair or replace your HVAC system—and what to consider when purchasing a new unit.

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Repair or replace HVAC?

Air conditioning systems and heat pumps break down more frequently and lose efficiency after 10 years. If your HVAC system is more than 10 years old, it’s time to plan for major HVAC repairs or replacement.

That’s not to say that replacement is imminently necessary—hopefully it’s not. New HVAC systems are expensive, ranging from $6,000–$8,500 for an installation without any extras and without any ductwork. To add ductwork—estimated to be needed in 10%–15% of HVAC system replacements—the cost rises to $9,000-$12,500.

Systems last 10–15 years with proper maintenance and care. By beginning to plan for replacement early, you can often prolong the life of your current system and take steps to begin saving money to invest in a new unit or system when the time arises.

If you notice any of the following, it’s likely time to call in a professional to run a diagnostic test on your system:

  • Increasing energy bills—A spike in your energy usage—beyond a typical seasonal adjustment—could indicate an issue with your HVAC system. If you’ve been in your home for more than a year, compare your utility bills to determine whether you are consistently above your prior year’s energy use.
  • Humidity problems—Your house is too dry in the winter or too humid in the summer. Humidity issues are an indication that there may be a problem with your ductwork. For some, this is a feasible DIY task—though costly and time intensive. For most, however, installation and replacement of ductwork is best left to professionals.
  • Uneven temperatures—Homes with more than one level will experience temperature fluctuations with a one-zone system. A wide variance in temperature between rooms—even on the same level—or between floors might indicate there’s something wrong in your system. Call a service technician to help diagnose whether this is a simple issue with your thermostat needing to be recalibrated or a more concerning issue like leaking ductwork.
  • Frequent repairs—Making multiple repairs to your system each year? Sprung a freon leak? It might make more sense to purchase a new system and absorb the short-term cost than to continue to pay out of pocket for frequent, expensive repairs.

Maintenance is recommended biannually—once in the spring before summer and once in the fall before winter. Proper maintenance—even without any known, identified, or suspected issues with your system—is important to ensure proper functionality and prolong the life of your system.

If your HVAC system isn’t working

If your system isn’t functioning and you can’t troubleshoot what’s wrong, it’s time to call an HVAC technician. Rely on recommendations from friends or family in your area to identify viable options—then call and interview each company that you’re considering prior to setting an appointment. Expect to pay $59–$179 for an initial service visit—and extra should there be immediate repairs needed.

Crucial maintenance check points that a technician should perform as a part of a service visit:

  • Run diagnostic to test your system
  • Inspect or clean air filter
  • Calibrate and inspect thermostat
  • Check Freon levels
  • Test system safety mechanisms
  • Inspect heat exchanger and clean burners
  • Check condensate drains and pumps
  • Inspect duct system
  • Check and clean humidifier
  • Asses flue piping
  • Examine and clean coils
  • Verify electrical components
  • Check zoning controls
  • Evaluate motor and compressor amp draws
  • Apply motor oil if necessary

Issues with some of these components are no big deal and the technician will likely address for minimal or no cost. For others, however, significant costs could apply. Ask the technician to draft a written report and write an itemized estimate for any recommended repairs or replacement parts. This will be helpful as you determine whether you wish to repair or replace your unit.

Other factors to consider:

  • Investment cost—Rather than continue to make costly repairs, it might make sense to replace your system. In replacing an old system, you gain immediate increases in energy efficiency that could result in lower monthly utility bills.
  • System efficiency—Efficiency is measured by annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE). This rating is always listed as a percentage and is a calculation of how efficient the appliance is in converting energy to heat throughout a typical year in your house. Call an experienced technician to measure the AFUE of your unit and determine if a replacement is necessary. The US Department of Energy recommends an AFUE of 90% or higher, so any rating below that mark is worth considering a replacement.
  • Utility rebates—Some companies provide incentives to upgrade to more energy efficient systems. If you’re debating repairing or replacing your unit, look up rebate programs from your utility company. You may get a rebate that helps cover the upfront cost of installing a new system.
  • Your budget—There’s never a good time to replace a major appliance. Sometimes, all you’ll be able to manage will be the short-term repair. If this is the case, start planning now for a full replacement.

The decision to repair or replace your HVAC system is yours. Understanding the factors and the risks will help you make the right choice.

New system considerations

If you’ve determined you need a new heat pump or furnace, these are vital factors to consider when selecting a unit:

  • Geography—Colder regions typically require more heat—a more energy efficient yet higher priced furnace likely makes more sense in Colorado than in Florida as the long-term savings will be more likely to offset the upfront price differential.
  • Current system—Based on your current system, it may be easier to do a simple change-over of the same type of equipment you’re replacing. If you want to add air conditioning to your home, a heat pump is a good option. Installing a boiler makes more sense if your home doesn’t have ductwork.
  • Power type—Research your options before purchasing a new furnace. Choose from a gas furnace, electric furnace, oil furnace, heat pump, or boiler.
  • Tax credits—Tax credits can save you up to 30% of the cost of newer, more efficient systems. Look for ENERGY STAR options when replacing your heater.

Decided to invest in a new air conditioning unit? These are the critical factors to consider when selecting a unit:

  • Geography—Based on where you live, the humidity, average temperature, and climate will affect what type of system you get.
  • Existing unit—If you don’t currently have ductwork in your home, save on installation costs by purchasing an appliance that doesn’t require ductwork like a portable AC unit or ductless mini-split.
  • Energy efficiency—By upgrading to a more energy-efficient system—like an ENERGY STAR–rated appliance—you can save more on cooling costs.
  • Size of home and unit—Larger homes greater than 1,000 square feet may increase efficiency with central air conditioning. For smaller homes, portable AC units could be a more affordable option.

HVAC professionals are busy in summer and winter as demand for services and equipment is high. If you’re in no rush to replace your system, but know you will eventually, plan to replace your unit in the fall. Since contractors are in between cooling and heating seasons, they will be more available to help you choose the best system for your home. This also gives you ample time to research options and seek out the best deals. As demand is lower, prices might be as well.

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