My job with Fire & Ice is to maintain and repair your system so that it’s running smoothly throughout the year. I love doing this, and nothing makes me happier than seeing a well-maintained system providing year-round comfort for a homeowner and their family.
Sometimes, though, that job is harder than others. Most of the time, this difficulty comes from maintenance or repairs that are delayed to the point where it creates other, more serious problems for your HVAC system.
Very little in HVAC equipment operates by itself. It’s a living, breathing system that is interconnected, and neglecting one aspect of it will often negatively affect the whole.
Customers come to us with all kinds of questions and problems. These require a variety of answers that are rarely “one size fits all.” However, they do tend to fall into certain categories of problems, which is what this article is about.
We’re going to talk about the potential risks (and costs!) of delaying a repair or replacement in your HVAC system. I’ll walk through some common examples of these risks by discussing how the equipment can fail if it’s not maintained, but it would be impossible to detail every single possible issue.
I hope that the examples and points collectively drive home the point that cost, value, and comfort in an HVAC system are directly tied together, and ignoring any of it can have serious consequences. I hope it also gives you some things to look out for, and strategies for avoiding these problems in the first place.
Decision Points in HVAC Systems
Sometimes when I’m at a home, the realization hits that a repair is going to cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending on the part. If it’s on an older system, the cost of the repair is probably not worth it.
Other times a system could probably get another year or two of life with minor repairs, but the difference in efficiency compared to a modern system again makes it a money sink compared to a full replacement.
To be clear, the decision on what to do always belongs to the homeowner. A good HVAC technician will educate you on the issues that they’re seeing and, if appropriate, discuss options with you. But you should never feel pushed into a decision.
The sections that follow will educate you on the types of issues we sometimes run into, and provide you with considerations that will help you decide whether or not to repair, replace, or “let it ride,” so to speak. There isn’t a “right” answer among those for all homeowners in all situations, but different factors can make certain options more attractive than others.
The first question that will inevitably arise is whether or not the system can continue to run in its current state.
Can It Still Run?
Usually, the answer to these types of questions is “Yes, but…” followed by an explanation of risks. If your system is currently running but you’ve noticed a drop in heating or cooling quality, or it’s begun to make noises, or perhaps it’s acting erratically, the length of time it can exist in that state will vary.
The best-case scenario is that maybe you have an older system that’s noisier than it once was. While it may be in its last years, if there isn’t a specific mechanical issue, it could continue to run adequately for several years with proper maintenance.
The worst-case scenario, however, is that it’s something that is affecting the integrity of the entire system.
Then there are edge cases where the system can run, and if it’s monitored, it won’t pose an immediate risk to the system’s operation, but you’re losing tons of efficiency and comfort in the process.
A common question along these lines concerns air conditioner refrigerant. The refrigerant line has sprung a leak, and will continue to leak, but will also continue to operate for a time.
Is it possible to top up the refrigerant, avoiding a costlier repair, to extend the life of the unit? Sometimes, the answer is yes. However, this is going to require more frequent maintenance visits and payments to add refrigerant.
The bigger fear, though, is that the refrigerant drops to dangerously low levels. Several problems can occur at this point. The pressure of the refrigerant will drop, which will affect how efficiently it can absorb and emit heat at various stages of the cooling process. It will also put you at risk of freezing various points in the system. When you see those large ice bubbles on refrigerant lines, this is one of the reasons they can form.
Even if that doesn’t happen, it’s going to make the rest of the equipment work harder than it should.
Think of it as a passenger bus with 30 seats. It can transport 90 people in three trips. But if you remove 20 seats, now it takes nine trips to do the same. Refrigerant is kind of like that, and it’s going to take more bus trips, so to speak, back and forth from indoor to outdoor A/C units, which taxes the whole system.
The result? Higher energy bills, overworked equipment, and a lot less comfort.
EXAMPLE: OUTDOOR FAN
That same outdoor unit is making noise, and it’s traced to an imbalance in the exhaust fan. Will it run for a time? Sure. That might be for a day or a year. But this is an example of a problem with a high risk, for two reasons:
- Given how much the fan is working (up to 1,000 revolutions per minute!), that small imbalance is eventually going to become a large, costly repair.
- The fan is tied to the unit’s motor, and it’s going to affect the motor because of its imbalance.
The worst-case scenario here is a full-system failure. At that point, “repair vs. replace” won’t be a decision you have available to you. The system will be shot and you’ll be staring down an unexpected expense for a brand new air conditioner.
What Are the Risks of Delaying Repair?
The examples above start to paint a picture. I’ll reiterate what I said at the beginning: that HVAC systems are living systems that are interconnected. A small repair won’t always stay a small repair.
The fan example is particularly important to my next point, which is this: some major part replacements can cost thousands of dollars.
That’s surprising to many homeowners, who think that absorbing a part replacement cost is going to be a lot easier. So when the repair is comparatively small, that doesn’t mean it will stay that way if you leave it for a year, a month, or even a week.
As the name implies, a contactor is a part that has two plates that “contact” one another when a particular electrical signal is received. There are pads that are installed on the plates where they contact.
Over time, these pads can deteriorate and burn due to the electrical charge they’re having to absorb frequently.
Replacing contactor pads is probably something we’d consider a “smaller” repair (but it’s an important one!). But what happens if you delay it?
The best-case scenario is that the contactor eventually stops contacting. Your system may fail temporarily, but it’s still repairable (though it will be more costly than the pad replacement).
The worst-case scenario is that the contactor plates weld themselves together due to the heat being generated. At that point, it’s a much costlier replacement, and can damage the integrity of the system in other ways.
Can I Get One More Year Out of It?
A more benign situation is where your energy bills are slowly starting to climb, your system is getting older and less efficient, but there isn’t a single mechanical issue that you’re worrying about.
A lot of homeowners want to push their current system as long as they can. The cost of a new air conditioner or furnace can be intimidating!
The downside here is that the difference between a system that’s 15-20 years old (or more!) and a modern system is profound, for two reasons:
- Yearly Costs. At a minimum, it’s a savings of hundreds of dollars per year, and often it’s in the thousands.
- Comfort. How often are you or a family member in your home? The typical answer I hear is 60-90% of the time. During COVID quarantines, the answer was probably 100% for many homes. Over an entire year, the difference in quality of comfort will be noticeable by everyone.
The other big consideration is this: HVAC equipment doesn’t get cheaper over time. The system you’re considering this year will almost certainly be 3-10% more the following year.
The decision also involves variables like your yearly budget and how long you expect to stay in your current home, so it’s not something an HVAC contractor can provide a definitive recommendation on. However, depending on what the answers are to those questions, it may be a conversation to have with your family and a trusted HVAC partner.
Costs of Skipping HVAC Maintenance
Usually, our customers are great about contacting us when something major is wrong with their system. Drops in airflow, heating, or cooling or increases in noise are generally pretty hard to miss.
Oftentimes, the bigger concern is skipping maintenance.
Take something as routine as replacing or cleaning a furnace filter. Your furnace is likely to continue to run for quite a while, perhaps even years, with a filter in need of replacement. But consider the consequences:
- Airflow will eventually become very restricted, which will make it harder to heat your home.
- This will either result in less heat or it will cause your system to work harder, thus burning more energy to get the same level of heat.
- Your air quality will take a dive, which opens your home up to allergens, pet dander, dirt and dust, and other particulates.
Over time, these problems become worse. The difference between regular maintenance and a neglected system is the difference between one that will last you 15-20 years and one that will last no more than 10-12 years.
Air conditioners are even more sensitive to maintenance needs. The outdoor unit is exposed to the elements, but doesn’t have a filter. It needs routine cleaning or it will break down well before it would otherwise.
You’ll get heating and cooling for a while from a neglected system. But you will have a failure earlier than you should, often around that 10-12 year mark. Making this pill even harder to swallow is that most warranties expire after 10 years. If your system fails after 11 years when you were expecting 18-20 out of it, you’re going to find yourself replacing the system entirely when you could have had several more years of efficient service from it.
EXAMPLE: THE MASKED RUNNER
Have you ever worn one of those plastic Halloween masks with low visibility? The inside of the mask gets really hot in a hurry, and usually, you’ll start to see condensation from your breath on the inside of the mask.
The reason for this is a lack of airflow. HVAC systems are similar.
Now, imagine having to run a marathon with one of those masks on. The runner’s breath will be more erratic, their body temperature will increase, and their marathon time will be much worse than without the mask.
That’s kind of what it’s like with a dirty filter. You’re depriving your system of airflow that it needs to run optimally.
Signs That It’s Time to Repair or Replace Your HVAC System
Your specific maintenance or repair might be similar to one of the examples, or it might be something entirely different. Either way, it requires the inspection of a licensed HVAC professional to properly assess, diagnose, and resolve.
Here are some things you can look for that may indicate it’s time to schedule that service call:
- An increase in dust around your home.
- A noticeable change in your allergies or pet odors.
- New noises from your system at various points in the heating or cooling process. Identifying the location and type of noise can often save time once a technician visits.
- A dramatic increase in your energy bills. Month-to-month costs change a lot depending on the weather, but it’s good to keep year-over-year averages to monitor your system’s health.
- Hot or cold spots around the home.
Many of these may simply require a filter replacement. Other times, it may require duct cleaning, mechanical or electrical repairs, or the replacement of a system’s parts.
Replacing vs. Repairing HVAC Equipment
Now that you understand some of the risks, how do you know how to make the best decision for you?
Ultimately, no one can decide for you, but here are some things to consider:
- The difference in comfort compared to a new system.
- Cost of the current repair.
- Cost of a system replacement, either for air conditioner, furnace, or both.
- Your yearly home improvement budget.
- How long you expect to stay in your current home.
- Whether or not your system is currently under warranty. A system under warranty should almost never be replaced, while one outside of warranty will be more expensive to repair.
If these considerations still aren’t enough, a conversation with a trusted HVAC partner can often demystify your options.
Do you live in Columbus, Ohio or the surrounding area? If you do and you’re having issues with your system, or want to schedule maintenance to ensure its health, get started below. We’ll be happy to do everything we can to get your equipment running smoothly, efficiently, and comfortably.