Q: We thought we would have more time before our HVAC system needed to be replaced. On a recent annual service call, however, the service professional told us we should start getting ready to make decisions about a new system because this one is on its last legs. The system is functioning well, but maybe not as well as it should be. How long should an HVAC system last?
A: First, it’s great that you had an annual checkup done on your system; that’s one of the best ways to prolong the life of your HVAC system. And you’re right—HVAC replacement can be expensive, so it’s a good idea to plan and save before the need to replace AC units or furnaces is immediate. That way you can choose your contractors and equipment without rushing, and not in an emergency when outside temperatures are extreme and your HVAC has blown out. While it’s a fact of homeownership that a system can break down any time, assessing the age and condition of your current HVAC system can give you an idea of how much time you should have left before you expect to replace it.
Before diving into how long different systems last, it’s important to understand what makes up an HVAC system. The acronym represents heat, ventilation, and air conditioning. The system is what keeps the air in your home clean, fresh, and temperate. The simple acronym is misleading, though. Each component of an HVAC system is complex, and often what looks like a total failure on the surface is a quick replacement or repair of a part in one of the systems. Your HVAC might not be the same as your neighbor’s; there are many types of heat systems with different fuel sources, and some exist separately from air conditioning while others are combined systems, along with vent fans and exhaust systems. So HVAC lifespan will vary based on the type of system you have as well.
Most HVAC systems can last between 15 to 25 years.
HVAC systems are core systems for your home that experience heavy use. If you live in a climate where all four seasons are extreme, you may run your HVAC nearly year-round. Residents of more temperate climates may cause less wear and tear on their systems. Even though they’re workhorses, HVAC systems are built to withstand this usage, and last, on average, between 15 and 25 years. These systems tend to be expensive to purchase and install—so much so that you expect they should last for decades—but 15 to 25 years is a broad range, and there are quite a few steps you can take to prolong their lifespan.
Keep in mind that individual components, like furnaces, heat pumps, boilers, air conditioners, water heaters, and thermostats, have varying lifespans.
Why is the lifespan so broad? HVAC systems are made of many components: the element that generates the power, the ductwork or pipes through which the air or water travels around your home, the electronics that control temperatures and airflow, and the systems that exhaust air and condensation. Some of the less expensive elements, such as vent hoses, temperature regulators, and thermostats, are often replaced as part of routine maintenance.
The bigger-ticket items, however, tend to last much longer. How long do air conditioners last? Central air units will last between 12 and 17 years with average use and good maintenance. They tend to fail sooner than heat-producing components because of the moisture being drawn through the system and exhausted. The chemicals used in the system to cool and dehumidify the air, as well as chemicals drawn through the system from the building materials in your home, are corrosive to the copper elements in the condenser; these can cause them to erode and break down. The size of the unit doesn’t affect the air conditioner lifespan unless it’s not the correct size for your home. For example, if you have a small 1.5-ton air conditioner trying to cool a house that really needs a 5-ton air conditioner, the unit will break down much faster from overuse than a properly sized (but more expensive) unit would have.
Heat pumps last an average of 16 years, and furnaces hang on for between 15 and 20. Depending on your usage, it can be difficult to identify the lifespan of the whole system because you could find yourself replacing your air conditioner at 12 years and your furnace at 20—by which time you’re already halfway through your air conditioner’s lifespan. While this may leave you feeling like you’re constantly repairing or replacing major components, it also helps spread out the cost of the replacements so you won’t be stuck replacing everything at one time.
Several factors contribute to how long an HVAC system will last, but the most important one is regular maintenance.
How often do you run your air conditioner? Do you use it 24 hours a day in the summer, or just to take the edge off at the hottest portion of the day? Is your heat chugging away for months at a time in frigid temperatures, trying to keep up? Climate conditions and the frequency with which you run your system directly affects its longevity—the more you run the systems, the more wear and tear they experience, shortening their reasonable lifespan. Ironically, improvements in insulation have presented new challenges for HVAC systems: While the improved envelope of your home reduces your overall need for heat and cooling energy, it also traps air in the home, which is great for your bills but prevents air from being circulated as well as in draftier homes. This allows chemicals, dust, and building particulates to linger in the air, which is hard on machinery.
Maintenance is the golden ticket to a longer lifespan. Annual cleanings and tune-ups by qualified technicians keep the systems running smoothly. Air conditioners are best serviced in the early spring; furnaces are best tended to in early fall before the weather turns cold. Technicians will clean out condensers and coils, check overflow valves, tighten connections, and check for problems—problems that you won’t know about otherwise until they cause an even bigger (and more expensive) problem. Annual maintenance may seem like an unnecessary expense if your system is running well, but if a small problem is found and attended to before it becomes a large problem, the money is well spent. Even better is if you have a home warranty—servicing your HVAC system won’t be as expensive without one and you’ll save on potentially replacing the entire system sooner than anticipated.
Some maintenance tasks can be handled as home AC repair or furnace maintenance by homeowners, with no service call charges or expensive parts. Changing the filters regularly (more often if you have pets or live in a dry, dusty area), keeping thermostats clean and dust-free, and regularly vacuuming vents and exhausts or air returns lets the system do its job more easily. More complex maintenance should be handled by professionals.
Both replacing your HVAC system early and regular maintenance can be costly—but with a home warranty, homeowners can save on the cost of maintaining their existing system.
A day early is much better (and cheaper) than a day late for air conditioner replacement or a new furnace or boiler. Furnaces are more expensive to replace on an emergency basis in the deep cold of winter than they are when installation is completed calmly in the off-season (plus you’ll need to pay to stay somewhere else until the replacement can be completed, which may take longer when technicians are in demand). The same goes for air conditioner replacement in the summer. Even then, the average replacement cost for an HVAC system runs between $5,000 and $10,000, running higher as you customize or add on components.
Annual maintenance can stave off replacement for several years, but technician visits aren’t cheap, either. You’ll usually pay a fee just to have the technician come to your door and then extra for replacement parts and the labor it takes to install them. HVAC is expensive to own, maintain, and replace—there’s no way around it.
You can, however, make it less expensive. Home warranties aren’t warranties in the traditional sense of the word; they are service contracts that homeowners can purchase that vastly reduce the costs of maintenance, repairs, and replacements of systems. Similar to homeowners insurance, policyholders pay an annual premium. When a covered system (such as electrical, plumbing, or HVAC) breaks down, policyholders file a claim on the home warranty and pay a preset flat service charge. The warranty company then pays for a technician to visit the home, assess the problem, and perform maintenance and repair work. If the system is too broken to repair, the warranty will likely pay for a replacement system of similar quality within the coverage limits of the policy. This can provide a tremendous savings to the policyholder: The national average cost of a home warranty stands at $600, and the service charge generally lands between $55 and $150. If your furnace needs to be replaced, that $750 or so that you paid for the warranty and service call can buy you a new furnace.
The best part of the service provided by one of the best home warranty companies is that it makes it easier and less expensive to maintain your systems. HVAC age starts to show itself through small creaks and gradually decreased efficiency. With technician fees and repair costs being unpredictable, many homeowners ignore a few rattles or bumps and thunks, odd odors, or inconsistent and underpowered air handling rather than taking care of them right away, fearing huge charges to correct something they think is a minor annoyance. But small problems become big ones, so those little rattles and thunks, ignored for too long, can turn into disasters that require major, expensive repairs or replacement. Home warranties make it easier to make the choice to call for service and budget for it: You already know exactly how much you’ll have to pay the technician because it’s in your contract. As a result, service and small repairs get done more frequently and extend the overall life of your HVAC systems, then cover your costs to replace them when it is eventually time to replace them. If you find yourself eyeing your older (but well-maintained!) HVAC units and asking yourself “How long do AC units last?” or “Just how old is my furnace, anyway?” investigating a home warranty is a potential avenue to saving on your HVAC maintenance and replacement.