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When Is it Time to Replace Your Aging HVAC System?

Grainger Editorial Staff

Even an HVAC system that is still in good condition will need to be replaced within 15 to 20 years. Here’s how to tell when it’s time to stop paying those frequent repair bills and instead invest in a new system.

As buildings age, facilities managers will often try to stretch the lifespan of outdated systems, while still trying to make sure those systems live up to current standards. As these systems age, however, their structural problems worsen. Allowing these issues to remain unresolved can have a significant impact on a company’s core business.

Consider this: According to a recent CareerBuilder survey, nearly half of workers (46 percent) say their office is either too hot or too cold. Fifty-one percent say sitting in an office that is too cold impacts their productivity, and 67 percent say sitting in an office that is too warm does the same. You can even run the numbers on how old HVAC systems impact employee productivity and hurt your bottom line. For example, a 100,000 square foot office building with seven employees per 1000 square feet could result in $420,000 per year in lost productivity when employees miss work due to poor indoor air conditions. Taking this into account, it's crucial to keep HVAC systems updated and running smoothly.

Why Is Your HVAC System Important?

A mechanical system that controls the environmental conditions within a facility’s four walls, a building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system (HVAC) is a critical system that should never be ignored. When operating properly, an HVAC system heats and cools both commercial and residential structures, filters and cleans indoor air, maintains optimal humidity levels and provides a comfortable indoor environment for occupants.

According to a recent Grainger survey of facilities managers, 66 percent of respondents view HVAC as the most critical area to address for older buildings. Of those managers who are dealing with old HVAC systems or units, 64 percent said their biggest problem is inefficient energy usage. Another 55 percent said they can’t find parts to fix their existing equipment and 53 percent experience frequent breakdowns.

7 Things that Impact HVAC Life Expectancy

Commercial real estate firm Austin Tenant Advisors says that the average life expectancy of commercial HVAC units is 15-20 years, and that it’s usually based on these factors:

  1. The size of the system compared to the building or space square footage. If the system has to run on overdrive to keep the whole space heated and cooled, it may wind up having a shorter lifespan.
  2. The size of the unit compared to the ductwork size. These and other design mistakes may push your HVAC system to work harder and/or run longer than it really needs to. Plus, ductwork that’s too small can lead to improper air flow, drafty conditions and inconsistent facility temperatures.
  3. The regularity of preventative maintenance on the system. Just like you would take your car to the shop for regular oil changes, HVAC systems need to be serviced regularly to ensure top performance. Skip this step and your system may not last as long as it should.
  4. Frequency with which filters are changed. This schedule will depend on your company’s operating environment. In clean, controlled indoor environments like data centers or switching offices, it’s typically best to change filters three to four times a year, custom air filter manufacturer Universal Air Filter points out. For harsher environments, the frequency of changing filters is exponentially higher. “To minimize the risk associated with clogged filters, change them regularly and make sure you always have an adequate supply of replacement filters on hand,” UAF adds. “Developing (and sticking to) a filter replacement calendar is the best way to ensure all systems and equipment function efficiently throughout the year.”
  5. Surrounding climate and weather conditions. If your building is located in Florida or Arizona, then there may not be too many work days when your air conditioning system isn’t pumping out cold air. If you’re in North Dakota or Wisconsin, where the winters can be brutally cold, then that system will be working on overdrive during those colder months. Either of these extremes can tax an HVAC system and reduce its useful life.
  6. Installation quality. Like anything, an HVAC system that’s professionally installed the right way will last longer and function better than one that was not installed properly.
  7. The age of the unit versus the age of the new components. Much like you wouldn’t put brand new plumbing under a sink that’s leaking, you don’t want to layer too many new components on top of an older HVAC system that can’t handle the strain.

How Much Will Replacing and Old HVAC System Cost Us?

When calculating replacement costs, the typical HVAC system costs anywhere from $4,500 to $6,000, with key considerations being the size of the space that’s being heated and cooled. For example, if you’re cooling a 1,500-square-foot space, you might need a 2-ton unit, whereas a 5,000-square-foot space could require a larger, 5-ton unit.

“For larger commercial spaces expect to pay anywhere from $4,500 to $10,000 for each HVAC unit being replaced,” Austin Tenant Advisors states. “Replacing HVAC units can be costly upfront however your return on investment (ROI) will be tremendous. When all the units are of similar age the entire system within the premises is more reliable and efficient, which means you can worry less about repair costs.”

More Reasons to Monitor Your Aging HVAC Systems

Another consideration when deciding whether to keep or replace an older HVAC system is the cost of ongoing maintenance and upkeep, both of which can get more expensive as these systems age. Even minor repair bills can begin to add up over time and outpace the cost of purchasing a brand new, commercial HVAC system. You should also consider the system’s downtime record and the potential energy savings that could come from buying a more modern HVAC system.

Finally, don’t overlook the comfort of your employees, customers, and other stakeholders who spend time at your facility. A roasting hot summer day with no air conditioning can be just as bad as a cold winter day when the heat refuses to go up a few extra degrees. Either extreme can hurt productivity and even lead to lost sales.

“As a commercial property owner or business owner, your HVAC system is one thing that needs constant care and attention. It is vital that your commercial HVAC equipment is running properly at all times,” contracting and HVAC service provider The Severn Group points out. “Whether you’re trying to keep your data systems cooled or your tenants comfortable, you must ensure the system is in tip-top condition.”

The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.


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