Your HVAC system runs year-round, day and night. At that pace, it won’t last forever. The average lifespan of an air conditioner is about 12 to 15 years, and furnaces usually last about 20. If you stay in one home for long enough, system replacement is inevitable.
It’s also one of the more expensive home maintenance tasks you’re likely to face as a homeowner, so you’re going to want to delay that inevitability as long as possible. And since replacing a broken HVAC system isn’t one of those jobs you can put off until a rainy day, it’s important to have a plan to replace your system before it breaks down for good. Follow these tips to extend the life of your HVAC system and delay replacement for years to come.
Extending the Lifespan of your HVAC System
If you’re good to your HVAC system, it will be good to you. It’s not unheard of for air conditioners and furnaces to last for many years beyond their average lifespans. But even a long system life can come with its own costs.
As your equipment ages, even if it’s well cared for, it will suffer reduced energy efficiency. This will cause your utility bills to gradually creep up. And individual parts will all meet their maker at some point, so you’re likely to spend more on emergency repairs once your system reaches its golden years.
What’s more, while your system is giving you all those years of great service, HVAC technology is always on the march. By the time you’re ready for replacement, the latest HVAC systems will inevitably be more efficient than your old system was when it was brand new -- and the difference could be significant.
Here are our seven key tips for getting the longest life out of your HVAC system:
1. Schedule two tune ups per year.
HVAC systems aren’t particularly high maintenance, but that doesn’t mean routine maintenance isn’t important. Your air conditioner and furnace should both be inspected, cleaned and tuned up every year. It’s best to schedule your air conditioner service in spring and your furnace service in late summer or early fall -- that way, your system will be optimized for efficiency the first day you need it, and if a serious problem is discovered, you can deal with it before it comes time to switch systems.
Tune ups typically include a thorough inspection and lubrication of all moving parts, condenser cleaning, clearing buildup out of the condensate drain tube, checking refrigerant levels, replacing filters, checking the heat exchanger for cracks and other tasks that make your system safer, more efficient and longer-lasting.
2. Change the filter regularly.
Though your HVAC technician should check your filters during your twice-annual checkups, this task is really up to the homeowner. Most homeowners use disposable 30-day fiberglass filters or 3-month pleated filters, and these should be checked regularly. If they’re seriously dirty, they should be replaced, even if it’s ahead of schedule.
A dirty air filter means that your HVAC system has to work harder to circulate air throughout your home. This can be especially taxing on the fan, but the whole system can suffer when it can barely breathe.
3. Use the “auto” fan setting.
Most HVAC systems have two fan settings: “auto” instructs the fan to run only when the system is actively heating or cooling, and “on” instructs the fan to run constantly. Some systems have dual-speed fans, which allow for a slower, more energy-efficient fan setting between heating and cooling cycles.
There are benefits to using the “on” setting. It helps trap more dust, and in homes with people who have respiratory sensitivities or allergies, it can help make it easier to breathe. But the major disadvantage is that it forces the system to work much harder, and that shaves time off of its life. It also leads to filters that clog up faster, so if you don’t change them regularly, you could really be taxing your system.
4. Check up on your condenser.
Somewhere outside your home is your air conditioner’s condenser, which is built to stand up to the elements. It can, however, become damaged from hail or windblown debris from severe storms. Every once in a while, and especially after every major storm, look over your condenser for signs of damage.
While you’re at it, be sure to clear away any accumulation of leaves or weeds on or around the condenser. If vegetation is growing right next to the unit, cut it down. Your condenser needs room to breathe, too.
5. Upgrade your insulation.
The less often your HVAC system runs, the longer it will last. And in the struggle to keep your treated air inside your home, insulation is your best friend.
The most important place to check for sufficient insulation is in your attic. The amount and type you need varies by region, so check the Environmental Protection Agency’s insulation climate map and guidelines for insulation upgrades.
If you have insufficient insulation throughout your home, it may also be worthwhile to insulate your basement or add more insulation into wall cavities. The best way to locate and evaluate your insulation weak spots is to schedule a professional energy audit.
6. Get a smart thermostat.
The latest in thermostat technology, smart thermostats are easy to program and control from anywhere using your smartphone or tablet. Some models can even learn your HVAC habits and schedule so they can make energy-saving adjustments without any programming at all.
When it’s easier to micromanage your thermostat settings, it’s easier to use your system less. And that will make it last longer.
7. Take other steps to ease the burden on your system.
Don’t stop with just the smart thermostat; give your system a break by using your ceiling fans during hot weather to stay cool while pushing the temperature a little higher. Invest in reflective shades to block out unwanted heat from the sun.
Then, in winter, throw those shades open to let the free heat pour in, and use sweaters, blankets and space heaters to stay comfortable while setting the thermostat a little lower.
When to Replace Your HVAC System
Taking great care of your HVAC system is half the battle -- and replacing it at the right time is the other half.
None of us can predict the future, so it can be tricky to make sure you get the longest possible life out of your equipment while also avoiding the costs of efficiency losses and parts replacement due to age. The best way to estimate the ideal time for replacement is to choose a reliable HVAC company to perform your preventative maintenance and ask for their input. Be honest with them about the maintenance you’ve performed as a homeowner -- if you’ve been lax about replacing the filter, for example, or if you frequently use the “on” fan setting. If you trust your HVAC technician, her opinion is the most valuable.
Things to Consider When Replacing Your HVAC System
There are a couple of other key considerations to make long before you buy a new system.
1. Know your system size. First, you should know what size system you need, and for that you’ll need HVAC professionals to conduct a process called “load calculation” for your home. If this has already been done and there have been no major upgrades to your home since, you shouldn’t need to do it again.
2. Do you need to replace both the AC and furnace? The second decision is whether to replace both of your systems at once. If both are due for replacement around the same time, you may be able to save big by replacing them simultaneously. But if that would mean replacing a system that has a lot of life left, it might not be the cost-conscious move.
3. Plan Ahead. Once you know approximately when you’d like to replace your system, identify a 12 to 18 month window in which you plan to get it done. By saving up money in the meantime, you can hopefully avoid financing costs and pay for your new system upfront. And by choosing a lengthy period in which to actually make your purchase, you can stake out the best sales.
Just because HVAC system replacement is expensive doesn’t mean it has to be nerve-wracking. Make a plan now so you can anticipate this inevitable upgrade, and you can effortlessly reset the clock for another 15 to 20 years.