Identify if your A/C is on Borrowed Time

Living on borrowed time.  That’s what they call it when something is used past its operational life.  It could be trying to get one more winter out of that leaky roof or not fixing your car even though it gets harder and harder to start.  Every appliance or piece of equipment will, at some point, just stop working and that includes your heating and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment.

You don’t want the HVAC unit to break down on the hottest or coldest day of the year.  By looking for signs that the equipment is close to failure, you can schedule a replacement and not be stuck for days without heating or cooling.

You don’t have to be a service technician to spot the tell-tale signs of failing equipment.  Here are some common indicators that your HVAC unit is close to giving up the ghost.  If you’ve got any of these, it might be time to bring in the professionals.

The a/c isn’t very cold. 

The thermostat is turned down all the way and the a/c has been running for hours, but it’s just not very cold in the house.  This could be an easy fix or the first indication that the end is near.  Over time, older HVAC units lose “refrigerant” or what most people call “Freon.”  If you’re lucky, a service technician can repair the leak, refill the a/c unit with refrigerant and everything will cool down again.  But some leaks can’t be repaired and some refrigerants aren’t available (or are extremely expensive).  The problem might be the worst case scenario, the compressor is failing.  Before a small problem gets really bad, contact a local service company and have them perform a complete inspection of the unit to give you repair or replacement options.

It’s more humid than normal in the house.

The a/c system works to keep both the indoor temperature and humidity levels low.  The compressor pumps refrigerant through an internal piping system that removes heat and moisture from the airstream.  An old, worn-out compressor can mean poor humidity control making it feel cool and clammy inside. A service technician can give you options to keep that old unit going a few more seasons or advise if it’s time to make the investment in a new system.

The unit is rusted.

Most HVAC systems have a piece of equipment sitting outside exposed to the sun, rain, and snow.  If the equipment or any of its components is rusted or has holes in it, that’s a good sign it is nearing its lifecycle end.  A residential air conditioning unit can last 10 -15 years depending on the equipment quality and how well it’s been maintained throughout the years.  A rusting or corroded a/c unit means water is likely dripping inside the housing and onto electrical components.  Left unchecked, the rust and water will eat apart the inside of your unit and one day it simply won’t turn on.

You smell gas or something burning. 

If your heating system uses propane or natural gas for heat, there is a small component in your unit called a heat exchanger.  The heat exchanger keeps fumes and flames away from the air in your home, but transfers heat to keep you warm.  If you smell gas or a burning smell, the heat exchanger may be cracked and letting smoke and carbon monoxide into your home.  This is not a problem that will go away on its own.  In fact, it could be a serious life-safety issue.  If something doesn’t smell right, immediately turn off the heat and call a licensed service contractor to inspect the system to determine if it is safe to use…or needs to be replaced.  A cracked heat exchanger cannot be repaired so your options are to replace the heat exchanger or buy a whole new unit.

Something doesn’t sound right. 

For the most part, you won’t notice the hum of your HVAC unit because the system is designed to be quiet and blend into the background noise.  But the clicking or grinding you didn’t hear yesterday could indicate something inside your HVAC unit is failing.  It might be the compressor or the fan, but a new sound will likely not go away tomorrow. Hopefully, it’s a small problem that can be repaired and doesn’t mean the end of your system.

The unit is 15 years old or older. 

The National Association of Homebuilders puts the average lifespan of heating and a/c equipment at 10 -15 years.  Even if the unit is working fine at 15, this is elderly for an a/c unit.  More frequent and increasingly expensive service calls, more downtime, or inadequate heating and cooling performance are all signs that old unit may be close to kicking the bucket.

If you’re not sure how old the air conditioner is, look for the SEER rating on the equipment nameplate. “SEER” is a measure of the equipment’s efficiency and the higher the SEER, the more efficient it is.  A unit with a SEER rating of 10 or less was installed prior to 2006 when efficiency standards were lower.

In some parts of the country, home air conditioning accounts for more than 50% of the home’s electric bill so the efficiency of the a/c unit is important.  An a/c unit gets a little less efficient every year and as your unit approaches 15 years old, you may see a spike in utility bills as the efficiency drops off.  You may even reach a point where an old unit is still working, but so inefficient that the energy savings from a new unit can pay for itself in short order.

You don’t need to be an expert to recognize when your heating and air conditioning unit is close to failing.  Luckily, not all of the clicks, squeaks, or unreliable performance require a full unit replacement. If you notice any of these indicators, call a reputable contractor to provide all the options so you can make the right repair or replacement choice for your budget and your home.