Your HVAC Is Kaput. Should You Recharge or Replace?
I saw the problem with our HVAC system before I felt it.
"Come look at this," I asked my partner, taking him towards the window that looked out on our rectangular HVAC unit. "The fan keeps starting and stopping."
"That’s what it’s supposed to do," he said, giving the exterior unit a quick glance. "The fan doesn’t run continuously. It’s connected to the thermostat."
"I know that," I said. "But it isn’t supposed to start and stop every few seconds, right?"
This time he looked more carefully. The fan at the top of the unit began to turn, picking up speed until the blades blurred. There was just enough time to count to three—and then the fan began to slow down again.
"Is it the wind, do you think?" I asked, as the fan made another attempt at acceleration. We had one of those flower-shaped pinwheels in the garden, a metallic daisy that chained itself to the day’s windspeed. Those petals started and stopped, too.
"No," he said. "I think it’s broken."
It took a week or so before we could get a technician in to check our system—and by then we were feeling what we had previously seen. The cool air that blew through our interior vents got warmer every day, until our air conditioning became so inefficient that we turned it off completely.
In many ways, we were lucky. Our HVAC system stopped working in September—and although late-summer afternoons in rural Illinois could still reach 85 degrees, it was neither so warm nor so cool that the lack of HVAC required an emergency response. This gave us time to consult the experts and consider our options.
Recharge or replace?
Our first option was to recharge the air conditioning unit. Our exterior unit was leaking coolant, and we could mitigate this by paying a certified HVAC technician to refill the coolant every time the air conditioning system started to slow down. This would cost around $300 per service call, but the schedule would be unpredictable. "You might only need a recharge every few years," the technician explained, "or you might need one every year."
The other option was to replace the entire system. This would cost around $6,000, but it would also allow us to install a more energy-efficient unit—which could help us save money on our monthly utility bills.
The first question I asked my partner was whether we could recharge the coolant once—just to see how long it might take before it needed a second recharge—and then figure out whether we wanted to replace the system.
"If it doesn’t need another recharge for three years," I explained, "then that’s a win-win, right?"
He shook his head. "If we can save electricity and gas with a more efficient unit, every month we continue using the inefficient system is a loss."
"Not if we pay $6,000 up front," I argued. "You have to factor that in before you start subtracting utility bill savings."
"Sure," he said, "but you also have to factor in the value it adds to the house."
It costs money to make money (eventually)
If we were ever going to sell our home—which we’re not planning on doing anytime soon—we’d want to replace the HVAC system before putting the house on the market. The value we’d lose by trying to sell a beautifully restored, 90-year-old house with a janky HVAC would be like throwing money down the blades of the intermittently oscillating fan.
"And if we’re going to replace it eventually," I said, "we might as well replace it now. That way, we get to benefit from the new system too. It won’t be, like, something we buy just so someone else will pay more money for our house."
"Exactly," he said.
It ended up costing us $5,580—and it’s worth noting that the new system hasn’t saved us any money yet, thanks to rising electricity and gas prices, but it has resulted in significantly lower utility usage. Even if we’re paying about the same as we were last year, we’re still saving electricity in the summer and gas in the winter, both of which are small steps we can take towards a greener future.
Most importantly, we were able to cover the costs of the new system without using credit cards, thanks to our emergency fund. That’s another reason why we consider ourselves lucky, by the way. There’s a lot that can go wrong, when you own a home—but when you have the cash in place to make the repairs you need, you are more likely to make the kinds of choices that add value over time.
Asking the experts what to expect
Just to make sure our experience wasn’t atypical, I reached out to Mallory Micetich, Home Care Expert at Angi (formerly Angie’s List) to ask what other homeowners can expect from their own heating and cooling systems.
"An HVAC system can last an average of 15 years with proper care and maintenance," Micetich told us. "However, you might want to replace your system before the 15 years are up if you notice your system is becoming less efficient or your bills are running high. Newer HVAC systems are more efficient and do a better job at circulating hot and cool air in your home."
If you want to keep your current system running for as long as possible, it’s important to schedule regular tune-ups. "To save more money in the long run, I recommend homeowners schedule routine HVAC maintenance," Micetich advises. "Not only can you save money long-term, but regular maintenance can lower utility bills and help your machine last longer. I always advise scheduling at least two tune-ups a year, which tend to cost between $70 and $150 per tune-up."
The best times to schedule HVAC maintenance are during the most temperate times of the year—which, for many of us, are late spring or early fall. "Schedule your HVAC maintenance during the spring before the hot days of summer and during the fall before the cold of winter," says Micetich. "You’ll have a good idea of your system’s condition, which allows plenty of time for repairs or replacement so you can use your HVAC when you need it the most."
There may also be advantages to replacing your HVAC system early. "If you’re looking to upgrade your HVAC system to save on your monthly costs long-term, upgrading to a more efficient HVAC system is a viable option," Micetich explains. "Thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, homeowners can receive a 30 percent tax credit by installing a heat pump HVAC system, which is more efficient and can lower utility costs. If you qualify for the High-Efficiency Electric Home Rebate Act (HEEHRA), you can save up to $8,000 in in-state rebates."
Heating, cooling, and saving
I’ll end our story with a few numbers. In August 2021, the month before we replaced our HVAC system, we used 1374 kWh of electricity. In August 2022, we only used 1136 kWh. September’s numbers are even better—1276 kWh in 2021 and 890 in 2022.
For reference, those would be the months in which we generally cool our 2,450 square foot home to 75 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 77 during the night. In the winter, when we keep the house at 67 degrees during the day and 65 during the night, our gas usage has also decreased: 157 therms in December 2021 and 136 therms in December 2022.
Yes, the price differential hasn’t yet caught up to the energy differential—but imagine how much more money we would be paying if we were still using as much electricity and gas as we did in 2021. Saving energy saves money even during inflation, after all—and once our financial system settles down, our HVAC system might finally start paying for itself.
Illustration by Malachy Egan
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