When homeowners are browsing HVAC sites, it’s usually when something major needs to take place. Replacements or large repairs, usually. Articles about repair and installation costs dominate search terms.
We forget about maintenance. This is not just a shame, it’s a massive expense to ignore it.
If we’re looking at costs, the difference between the cheapest and most expensive new air conditioner or furnace is nothing compared to the potential long-term costs of poor (or no) maintenance. Seriously, if you get a low-end system, then don’t take care of it, you might as well be buying a well-maintained top of the line HVAC system. The difference in cost over the next 10-15 years will be minimal.
Some homeowners know the value of basic maintenance, though. This article is for you, too. To that end, we have a couple of goals here:
- Instill the importance of routine HVAC maintenance
- Help you to understand the differences in maintenance plans, what’s included in them, and why these things matter.
So whether you just installed a new system or are trying to get a few more years out of your 18-year-old workhorse, read on. This article is for you.
Why Does My HVAC System Need Maintenance?
There are the more obvious reasons, then there are the less obvious reasons. Let’s talk about both.
HVAC systems break down. Even good ones. Maintenance can prevent that. That’s the obvious side.
Manufacturers will only honor their warranties (which are usually 10 years) on systems that have a maintenance agreement. This might not be as obvious if your contractor didn’t inform you of it, but it’s always going to be present. If you’re unsure, check out your current warranty agreement. It’s guaranteed to be there. So that’s the second big reason.
What we think about less, though, is what we’re losing even when a system is working “properly” (a term I put in quotes on purpose, since it’s problematic).
Take your air conditioner. The outdoor condenser is going to get dirty. This is an inevitable aspect of having a conventional A/C unit with an outdoor unit. Therefore, it needs to be cleaned professionally to ensure proper operation.
The fear is that it seems to be working fine, so maybe you skip this cleaning for a year or two. Once you start to ignore this responsibility, each year, the efficiency of the air conditioner will drop by approximately 10%.
Imagine a ferry, taking people from one side of a river to another. It can carry 100 people per trip. But it’s not cleaned or repaired with use, and eventually, a third of the seats are unusable. So now it’s only taking 66 people per trip, and is making a lot more trips. More fuel is being used, and there’s more wear on the hull of the ferry.
In this analogy, the people represent the refrigerant in your system, and the extra trips represent the extra energy and uptime being used by your air conditioning system during the summer months.
The next year, the ferry springs a leak, so it needs a repair or must carry even fewer passengers per trip. The following year, it’s no longer seaworthy.
Cleaning a condenser is a minor task...until it isn’t.
And that’s the point. Good maintenance will ensure smooth operation, both short-term and long-term.
So in our condenser example, the heat that is absorbed in the indoor A/C unit needs to be expelled at equivalent rates outside. If it’s not able to, due to lack of maintenance, it means more power used, more “trips” for the refrigerant, and higher energy bills.
Worst case scenario, it also means the eventual overheating of certain parts, which can result in leaks or other breakdowns that will cost significant amounts of money.
Psychology of Prevention Vs. Repair
We’re not psychologists, we’re HVAC experts. But there’s a trend that we notice both in HVAC and some other industries.
Some people love their chiropractor because their pain is relieved with each trip. By contrast, a trip to the physical therapist is likely not quite as pleasant, because you’re going to be given daily exercises that are intended to work through pain and soreness.
One is selling relief. One is selling long-term prevention. Both can be valuable (and indeed, both are necessary at times), but it’s tougher to buy into long-term prevention.
The best HVAC maintenance will make you forget it’s being done. It’s not as dramatic as an installation or as obviously beneficial as a repaired or replaced part. But it’s the long-term prevention to avoid those things.
HVAC System Life Expectancy
We’ll make this section short.
The life expectancy of an HVAC system that has professional maintenance twice a year? 20-25 years.
The life expectancy of an HVAC system where you change your filter as needed but otherwise ignore it except for full breakdowns or other major issues? 15-20 years, with reduced efficiency for much of its life.
The life expectancy of an HVAC system that is neglected entirely after install? 5-10 years.
Some napkin math will tell any homeowner that the first option is the most cost-effective, and will also produce the most comfort for you and your family. And if the examples up there sound made up, I can assure you that I’ve serviced several “broken” systems that only needed a clean filter to begin operating again.
A “Routine” HVAC Inspection
Saying that something is routine is a bit of a loaded term. While there are several common tasks performed at a maintenance visit or diagnostic inspection, some of it is going to be catered to the customer and their experience with the system.
Are they hearing any noises? There are usually adjustments that can be made to make the system run more quietly. Is part of the filter not capturing particles at the same rate? Some adjustments can make replacing the filter easier, or to better position it to promote airflow while catching particulates at a consistent rate. Is a particular area of the house more consistently hot or cold? There are a variety of adjustments that could ensure a more even distribution of conditioned air to the home.
These are all things that could be considered routine, but won’t always be necessary. They’re also things that can be useful when a system is operating well otherwise.
The other side of an inspection requires long-term thinking. We talked about how the long-term effects of a dirty condenser coil could ruin a system. Maintenance is about looking for things that could be problems a year from now. Or five years from now.
By comparison, a diagnostic analysis of a system can sometimes be easier. That’s about getting it up and running, with proper pressure levels and airflow. There’s plenty of complexity there, too, but it can sometimes ignore the finer details of long-term operation.
For example, an outdoor fan could be running a touch inefficient. While likely not a short-term problem, what’s causing the issue could be a huge long-term problem. The operation might be traced to a capacitor (a small component), but that, in turn, can cause issues for the outdoor motor (a much larger component).
Comparing Maintenance Plans
Since we have skin in the game here, it would be a faux pas to do any direct comparisons. Rather, we think it’s valuable to understand the types of services you’ll want to look for in a maintenance plan. Then in the following section, we walk through some major aspects of Fire & Ice’s maintenance packages, to give you a point of comparison.
Cost is one factor, surely. We stress the overall value of our products, especially with preventative services like maintenance, but everything has to fit into your budget.
The training of the technicians is another. Are they N.A.T.E. certified? Is there on-site training for service technicians? How many hours of continuing education does the company require per year?
The last big things to look for are items that protect the customer and their investment. Below, we talk about some examples of each of these.
Fire & Ice Maintenance Plan(s) Breakdown
For a full list of services in our available maintenance agreements, check out our Services Page.
Rather than exhaustively re-list the chart from the link above, below we talk about a few key aspects of the plans, and why they exemplify the desirable traits listed earlier.
Repair warranties for replacement parts sometimes last as little as 60 days from the manufacturer. With our three maintenance agreements extending this warranty to, respectively, one, two, and three years, there’s peace of mind knowing that a repair wasn’t done just to collect a paycheck and get it running for a short while. If we aren’t confident the repair will last for years, we won’t do it, and you’re covered either way.
Lifetime Workmanship Guarantee
Guarantees like this are rare in the industry. Ours states the following:
“We guarantee the following items for the lifetime of the equipment against defects in materials or workmanship from the date the system is installed:
- All ductwork we install
- All ductwork insulation we install
- Other items we install, including sheet metal straps, clamps, fasteners, hangers, locks, drivers, drain piping, and fittings
- All high-voltage electrical wiring, wire nuts, straps, ties, and connectors we install
- All refrigerant piping we install (does not include cost to gain access to underground or other inaccessible piping)
- Refrigerant insulation we install
- All equipment pads, stands, jacks, and vibration elimination devices we install
Proper maintenance is what allows us to offer this unique guarantee. The only requirement to keep this protection in force for the lifetime of the equipment is to renew your annual maintenance program when due.”
And if you think that these are empty words, I can again promise you that we’ve honored this agreement on those rare occasions when the work is done improperly. We pride ourselves on attention to detail, but no HVAC contractor is beyond fault. Having a guarantee like this is a protection for the customer.
No Overtime Fees
If a contractor is paid by the job, you run the risk of them doing a quick, poor job simply to rush to the next one. But if they’re paid hourly, a homeowner might worry about extended jobs. Protections like this are designed to hold a repair technician accountable, hold a company accountable, and standardize costs for customers.
Collective Energy Savings
Things like equipment tune-ups, free filter replacements, and evaporator or blower cleanings add up. All the reasons we discussed earlier apply to these common tasks, and guaranteeing that you’re having them done when they’re needed (often at a reduced cost) is going to benefit you over the life of your system.
Not to mention how this translates to your overall comfort.
HVAC System Health and Peace of Mind
The items above aren’t all that’s in our plans, but they highlight a common theme that runs through each item in the plans: they’re intended to save you time and money, and avoid frustration.
A company that takes care of its customer, and legitimately saves them money in the long-term, is going to earn their customers’ business again and again. If that ever isn’t the case, it should be a red flag. It’s why we never recommend something that we don’t think is truly in the interests of our customers.
I’ll end with a story: I was on a service call recently, and the homeowner feared a full breakdown of his system. Turns out, the condensation drain was clogged, which eventually choked the whole system. I barely needed any tools to unclog the line and get everything back to normal.
If you’re lucky, this will be you, and a quick flush of your drain line will get your system back to normal. Most aren’t that lucky, though. Don’t roll dice with a system that undoubtedly cost thousands initially, and could cost you thousands more if you’re not careful.
And if you’re in Columbus, Ohio, and need maintenance (or a maintenance agreement), get in touch! We’d love to help you out!