Heating and Cooling Systems – Do I Maintain or Replace?


As the cooling season nears, it is time to decide whether to perform maintenance on your central air conditioning system or replace it. Given the cost of replacement, this is not a trivial decision. So, how can you tell if your system needs to be replaced? Fortunately, there are telltale signs, so read on.

Generally speaking, a system 10 years old or older is nearing the end of its useful life…maybe. If you are starting to spend a fair amount on repairs, your system might be ready for replacement. If you have problems maintaining consistent temperature levels throughout your home, it might be time for a replacement. If your bills have been higher than usual, you might need a replacement. High humidity, excessive dust, noisy operation…you might need to replace. At this point, I am starting to feel like Jeff Foxworthy.

On the bright side, a new system will be significantly more efficient, saving up to 20% on your cooling bill. If your system is exhibiting some or all of these signs, call in a trusted contractor for a final pronouncement and an estimate on replacement.

When picking a system, opt for a high SEER (seasonal energy efficiency rating). The higher the number, the greater the efficiency – a SEER of 16 is not uncommon these days. The offer of lower rated equipment might reflect what a contractor has on hand rather than what is right for you so if uncertain, ask for details.

If you do not have a programmable thermostat, now would be the perfect time to have one installed. I’d recommend one of the smart models, either the Nest or Lyric. Having used both in my own homes, I like the way they operate. Plus, properly used, a programmable stat can save even more money. And consider having the system designed for high efficiency filters, especially if you have seasonal allergies. See the article on filters elsewhere this month for more details.

If the old system isn’t ready to start pushing up daisies just yet, give it some tender loving maintenance. Clean the outside compressor with a garden hose to remove dirt and debris from the coils and fins. Don’t blast the fins with a high pressure water stream as that can bend them and reduce heat exchanging capacity. If you already have dented fins, buy a fin comb and gently comb them back into shape. Or a wire brush might serve the same purpose. Whichever route you go, wear gloves, those fins are sharp. Finally, clear a 2 foot space all the way around the compressor, if possible. More air flow equals better operation. Ideally, it is best to have your HVAC unit serviced professionally on an annual basis. Many contractors, and probably yours, offer special rates for annual service agreements.

Inside about all you can do is replace the air filters (more on this also in the filter article). The coils inside the ductwork may be in need of cleaning too but given the fact they are often hard to get at, have your contractor do it or recommend someone. If you have hired a contractor for some of the maintenance, be sure they check the refrigerant, proper operation of the unit, and provide any tuning needed for best performance. Unfortunately, this is the point where I must present a caveatemptor. If your system has been running well and showing no signs of distress, be wary of a contractor diagnosing need for immediate replacement. Unless this is an absolutely trusted or highly recommended firm, second opinions are never a bad idea.

Now you can enjoy a cool summer.