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HVAC 101: How to Buy and Maintain Your HVAC

How to Buy and Maintain Your HVAC

TL;DR

Don’t miss our 7 HVAC tips to save you money!

Introduction

Nearly every day, most of us interact with an HVAC system, even if we don’t realize it. While most people have heard the term “HVAC” before, not everyone understands what it means. HVAC stands for Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning – in other words, the climate control unit in your home, your office, your local grocery store, and countless other buildings. 

HVAC is a massive industry in North America, with a market value of over $13 billion. This is because HVAC systems are everywhere, from government buildings and shops to private residences. And while most people know how to USE their HVAC unit (i.e., how to turn it on and off), maintenance is an entirely different story. 

Learning how to maintain and clean your HVAC system is the key to getting a cool (or warm) home, clean air, and a fuller bank account. In fact, proper maintenance can extend the life of your HVAC unit, the most expensive system in your house, to over 15 years! And when you consider that energy costs are typically one of your biggest household expenses, don’t you want to know how to lower them?

What we’re going to cover in this article:

How an HVAC Works

Your standard HVAC system has lots of parts, which all work together to heat or cool the air circulating through your home.

In warmer months, warm air from inside your home will blow across your evaporator coil. The coil absorbs this heat, then converts it into energy that kickstarts the refrigerant in the HVAC system. This cools the air and blows it back into the house, making you feel cool and comfy.

Once the temperature drops, the HVAC system sets to the task of heating the home. Your furnace generates combustion gases to create heat, which then blows through the air ducts to send warm air throughout the home.

Of course, both warm months and chilly nights require a working HVAC system – which is why it’s so important to keep your system clean and maintained.

Most HVAC units contain the following: 

  • Air conditioner: A unit that pulls heat from inside your home, making the space cooler
  • Furnace: A large appliance that moves air into the air ducts
    • Sealed combustion: draws on air from outside of the house 
    • Atmospheric: draws air from within the home 
  • Air filter: A fibrous sheet that stops dust, pollen, mold, and other pathogens in the air from entering your space
  • Compressor: A machine that pumps refrigerant through the AC or heating system, allowing the refrigerant to flow in enough quantity and with enough pressure to cool/heat your space
  • Condenser coil: A coil in your HVAC unit (usually located outside the home) which helps dissipate heat
  • Evaporator coil: A coil inside your furnace that absorbs warm air
  • Damper: A movable plate that controls airflow from room to room
  • Ductwork: Air ducts that distribute warm or cool air throughout the various rooms of your home or office
  • Smart Thermostat: A thermostat that connects to your phone, computer, or other internet-connected devices, which allows you to set your ideal temperature remotely
HVAC system and units
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Diagram from Gainesville Mechanical

HVAC Maintenance

How long does an HVAC system last? 

Like most mechanical systems, your HVAC unit depreciates over time. The average system costs between $5,000 to $10,000 and is expected to last 10 to 15 years.

This means the annual depreciation expense ranges from $333/yr to $1,000/yr. However, as we mentioned before, proper care and maintenance can and should extend the life of your HVAC unit to 15+ years.  On a $10,000 unit, the difference between lasting 14 years and 15 years is worth roughly $700, making proper maintenance a worthwhile investment. 

How often should you service and clean your HVAC unit? 

The standard recommendation is to have a professional check your HVAC system once a year, and you should clean your air ducts every three to five years – based on normal usage.   

Standard HVAC Service Checklist

  • Replace all filters
  • Clean your evaporator and condenser coils
  • Remove any standing water from your drain pans
  • Check all pulleys or belts for signs of wear; replace worn parts
  • Check ducts for mold or excess dust; clear any away
  • Check refrigerant charge for leaks
  • Lubricate moving parts
  • Remove any debris from indoor and outdoor units

HVAC System Installation

Nearly 100 million homes in the United States have HVAC units, making them one standard equipment for most families. However, this doesn’t mean that HVAC systems are cheap. Installing a new HVAC unit in your home can cost between $5,000 and $10,000, depending on the quality of your air ducts.

Can you finance the purchase of your HVAC?  

If that cost has your eyes popping out of your head, don’t worry. You can finance your HVAC installation through your HVAC seller. You can also borrow against your home equity or apply for financing with the Federal Housing Administration. All these options can help you get a top-notch HVAC system at a price that works for your household.

Factor in HVAC efficiency savings

One of our standard recommendations is for homeowners to get a home energy audit. It is an excellent way of identifying your potential savings by making your home more efficient.  However, even if you don’t want to figure out a whole house plan right now, the likelihood is that you will be upgrading your HVAC system to a much more efficient unit. 

Our friends at HVACDirect have a great calculator for what you can save from the SEER upgrade alone. For instance, upgrading a 3 ton 8 SEER system to a 3 ton 16 SEER system can result in $600 – $700 in savings per yearOn a 15 year life, that is $9,000 – $10,500 saved     

SMART MONEY HOME tip 

Industry estimates suggest that 70% of homes have poorly installed or insulated ductwork. This means that you are spending hard-earned money that isn’t translating into the air moving to the right place at the right temperature.  Checking the ductwork during a new installation, an annual maintenance checkup, or a home energy audit will make sure you’re not throwing money away.

Finding the right contractor

Is the contractor involved in any professional organizations? 

Typically these organizations can be a good starting point for vetting whether or not it’s a good company. 

HVAC professional organizations: 
  • ASHRAE: American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers 
  • ACCA: Air Conditioning Contractors Association
  • ASME: American Society of Mechanical Engineers
  • ARI: Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute 
  • SMACNA: Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association

Does the contractor carry the full suite of insurance? 

It is important that a contractor carries insurance and workers’ compensation and be bonded for accidents. Should there be damage to your property, you want this covered by the HVAC contractor and not fall onto your homeowners insurance.  

Have you checked with the BBB?

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) will usually do a good job of aggregating reviews of various contractors.  Like anything, the people who are motivated to leave reviews can disproportionately be people with bad experiences.  Therefore, keep an open mind if there are a few negative reviews.  

Have you checked with home inspectors? 

Home inspectors have to check all the systems in their region, and they may have some experience with individual contractors.  Additionally, IMPORTANT FACT COMING, HVAC contractors typically push one brand as they are often dealers for that brand. Most of us aren’t shopping around, saying we want a particular brand of equipment. So if a home inspector sees a bunch of lousy work with Carrier equipment, but good work with Lennox equipment, they may have an idea of which contractor is doing a good job.  

Word of Mouth? 

Have any of your friends or neighbors used a contractor that they have liked?  This may be a good way of finding/vetting a contractor.  

SMART MONEY HOME tip 

HVAC companies will pay a lot in online advertising to acquire customers, and they love it when customers are referred by word of mouth.  If you are happy with your service, ask them what they can give you for referrals.  They should be willing to provide free maintenance checkups for good leads, as that would be a win-win for everyone.   

How to buy an HVAC… SMART!

Direct: 

  • HVACDirect
  • Amazon
  • Home Depot
  • Lowe’s

Pre-vetted contractors: 

  • Modernize

Good contractors, but you will have to vet:

  • HomeAdvisor
  • Angie’s List

How HVAC companies make money

The way that HVAC companies make a lot of their money is by capitalizing on your biggest pain point. You might have a 10-year-old system that got taxed after a couple of days of 95-degree weather, it stops working and you need it fixed.  Typically, a contractor will say, “I can fix it for “x” hundred dollars, but I’m going to be back here again within the next year.  You should replace the system.”  

Why do they do this? Because they have you captive as you want some cold air in your house, they make the most money by upselling you into replacing your system for which they will charge the $5,000 – $10,000 we mentioned above.  Does this mean all companies are looking to crush you in your moment of weakness?  Absolutely not, but they will certainly be opportunistic.  

How To Make HVAC Maintenance & Repair Affordable

Making HVAC maintenance and repairs affordable starts with making sure your equipment is under warranty – either the original manufacturer’s warranty or through your home warranty plan. Additionally, you should keep up with very simple standard maintenance.

Is your HVAC under the manufacturer’s warranty? 

Take a look at your installation paperwork. If the system is still under the manufacturer’s warranty, you’re in luck! A warranty replacement for your HVAC system is bound to save you hundreds in parts and labor costs.

Consider getting a home warranty.

While a homeowners insurance policy does not cover the systems in your home, a home warranty does.  The average cost per year for a home warranty typically runs between $500 and $600, covering most of the systems in your home, including your HVAC.  Consider what we said earlier that the depreciation on your HVAC system ALONE is anywhere from $333 to $1,000 per year.  When you compare those two annual costs and factor in the depreciation costs of all of your other household systems, a home warranty can protect you from panicking about your HVAC breaking down.  

Are you keeping up with standard maintenance?

Even if you aren’t bringing in an HVAC professional on an annual basis at a minimum, you need to be changing that filter every month to two months, both to save money and keep the system clean.  As household expenses go, they are pretty reasonable, and it will go a long way to keeping you healthier via cleaner air and your HVAC healthier with less dirt building up.  

Keep an eye out for deals. 

Finally, keep an eye out for deals, discounts, and rebates from your local HVAC dealers. If someone is offering a discount on inspections, take it! And if someone (say, your energy company) is offering a rebate for replacing an old, outdated unit, take it! Like we pointed out above, replacing an old unit can result in large annual energy savings.  

SMART MONEY HOME Recommendations

HVAC recommendations to save you money
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  • Assess how old your HVAC unit is and when it was last serviced. Replacing an old unit can result in $10,000 of savings over a 15-year life.  
  • Consider a home energy audit to determine how large your annual energy savings might be from improving your home. A comprehensive review can result in even greater savings. 
  • If the current system is not under warranty, get quotes for a home warranty as you come out WAY ahead financially by doing so.
  • Get into a habit of regularly replacing the filters as that will go a long way to keeping the system clean. 
  • Purchase a Smart Thermostat.  EnergyStar.gov suggests that the average home saves $180/yr from the use of a smart thermostat.  If we take the average cost of a smart thermostat at $250, the thermostat pays for itself in 1.4 years and has a rate of return of ~ 72% annually.  That’s a lot better than the stock market!  

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