Having an air conditioning unit break down can be a huge nightmare for a homeowner. The process of repairing or replacing can be stressful and expensive. Warm air coming out of your AC makes it feel broken no matter how severe the actual problem is. Here are a few questions to ask when trying to determine if you need to replace or repair your unit:
Is The Problem Something Simple?
A huge majority of problems your AC can experience are things that are so easy to fix you can do it yourself. Clogged filters, built up dirt, and overgrown weeds can all cause your cooling system to grind to a halt, but are easily fixed with a pair of sturdy gloves or a quick trip to your hardware store. Especially if you’ve opted out of having your system regularly maintained by an HVAC specialist, there’s a good chance that the problem is… your system hasn’t been maintained properly. This simple troubleshooting guide can take you through the most common problems, and save you even having to call an HVAC guy, let alone the cost of replacing the whole system.
Is The AC Less Than 5 Years Old?
The typical lifespan of an air conditioning system is about 10 years, so right off the bat replacing one newer than that might be premature. But systems that are less than five years old specifically have a lot of things going for them in the “repair” column. First, chances are a 5 year old AC is still under warranty, which can significantly reduce if not entirely eliminate the cost of getting the unit repaired. As well, parts will typically be more available because there’s a better chance the unit is still in production, further lowering the cost of repair. Maybe most importantly, though, any air conditioner built after 2006 is held to much, much more stringent efficiency standards – the same standards as current models, which means that replacing the unit wouldn’t provide any significant energy savings.
Is The AC More Than 10 Years Old?
Even starting around 8 years old, air conditioners start breaking down more frequently, and aging in the system overall can even result in the same part (especially the most expensive part: the compressor) needing to be repeatedly replaced. That means that continuing to replace parts could actually end up costing you a significant portion of what you would have paid to buy an entirely new system. But once you hit the 10 year mark, you start getting government incentives, tax breaks, and tax credits toward getting a new, more energy efficient system that aren’t available for a faltering 9.5 year old unit. So if the repair is significantly less than the incentives would be in 6 months or a year, it might be worth holding out. That said, one of the hidden “incentives” to upgrading to an EnergySTAR air conditioning system that meets post-2006 EPA regulations is that you’ll save, on average, at least 30% on your cooling costs purely due to the efficiency boost, which should be money you factor into the short and long term costs.
How Efficient Is My Current Setup?
Even with the best maintenance a loving hand and a full wallet can provide, an air conditioner will never perform better than the efficiency rating listed on the box when you buy it, and as the system ages and the parts wear out, it’ll become progressively less and less efficient, and more and more expensive to run. The efficiency rating of an air conditioner is listed in SEER points (or the seasonal energy efficiency rating). Before 2006, most units performed somewhere in the neighborhood of 8-10 SEER, and are now a mandated (though often higher) 13 SEER. Put as simply as possible, with 10 SEER, you get 10 units of cooling for every 1 unit of energy; with 13 SEER, you get 13 units of cooling for that same 1 unit of energy, which can add up fast in warmer climates. So even if you have a 20 year old system that’s tuned up and running as well as the day you bought it, you might end up saving money in the long run by upgrading to a more efficient unit.
Can You Afford To Replace?
This economic downturn has been especially rough on homeowners, and a new air conditioning unit isn’t just a big ticket item, it can be a huge ticket item if you aren’t expecting the failure. But if your current setup predates the 2006 regulation changes, the cost of a new unit might be the least of your worries – many of the new EnergySTAR air conditioners come mated with energy efficient air handlers, which can save you a lot in energy costs long term, but easily doubles the up-front cost of getting cool air flowing back into your home. Because of this, many pre-2006′ers are turning to repairs, opting instead to replace parts on their older machines rather than taking the leap into a whole new system. This is especially smart if you aren’t planning on being in your home for the life of a new system, if your home isn’t adequately weatherproofed (which can negate the energy savings entirely as your cooling creeps out the cracks), if the home or building is likely to be torn down in less than 1o years, or if you or a future buyer might expand the home (which could put your home into a different cubic square feet bracket that would require a larger system anyway).
Can You Afford NOT To Replace?
All that said, if none of those “ifs” apply to you, and you’ve got a little financial wiggle room, a unit that’s 10 or more years old and has already been repaired more than once, and noticeably rising cooling costs, taking the plunge and getting a whole new system could actually save you a significant amount of money in the long term. With as much as 50% savings on your cooling costs, the energy savings alone can pay for the system relatively quickly, and with proper maintenance they can keep putting money in your pocket for years after you’ve recouped your expenses.
How Much Do You Trust Your HVAC Specialist?
This one is actually more important than you might think. Many HVAC repairmen are paid on commission rather than a flat service rate, which means it’s in their best interest to get you to replace when you maybe just need to repair, and repair when you maybe just need to maintain. So to be sure you’re getting good advice, you first want to find the right HVAC specialist to give it to you. A good expert can help you significantly extend the life of your system with good maintenance, and can advise you reliably when it might be better to replace.
Do You Need To Repair Or Replace Something Other Than Your AC?
While most major AC failures are pretty cut and dry (machine doesn’t work, call trusty HVAC guy), some problems are a little… weirder. If you have hot and cold spots around your house, your air is either too humid or too dry, your home is excessively dusty, or your AC is especially noisy, you probably do have a problem, but it probably isn’t with your air conditioning unit itself. From dirty, leaky, or undersized ducts to inadequate insulation or a system that’s simply sized improperly to your home, these are problems you definitely want to mention to your service person, as getting them fixed could mean significant energy savings. As well, if your bills are very high because you don’t have a programmable thermostat, you should have an expert install one and teach you to use it for a quick, inexpensive way to immediately slash your heating and cooling costs. And if you aren’t sure whether or not you’re paying what you ought to be, check out EnergySTAR’s Home Energy Yardstick to see how your use ranks in your area. If you score less than a 5, it might be time to call for service!