Aging HVAC Systems: To Repair or Replace, That is the Question!


I’ve heard some nightmarish HVAC tales, stories of success, and mostly lots of frustration, confusion, and anxiety around dealing with a building’s costliest and most complex systems.

These stories stem from the people who run many of our CPA member organizations - church administrators, school-based facility managers, and synagogue Executive Directors. They’ve been telling me about how they approach preventative maintenance (quarterly checkups vs. wait til it breaks), the ups and downs of service tech quality (some are trustworthy while others needed to be babysat), and how a new $2 Million system never worked quite right (and still doesn’t).

What I’ve learned that impressed me the most is that many have done an incredible job keeping old systems operating for decades, through a combination of regular maintenance, emergency repairs, and a little bit of duct tape and prayer. Eventually though, systems fail for good and the need to replace a 25-year old chiller that’s given you everything it has is unavoidable. And so the ultimate question that anyone who manages a building is faced with is: “When do we stop spending money on costly repairs and buy new equipment?”

A good place to start is by considering two main factors:

  1. Age of equipment: As old equipment breaks down more frequently, the need for replacement increases. However, in some cases where maintenance has been less than regular, there may be a chance to squeeze out a few more years of life if you bring in an HVAC contractor to assess the condition of your equipment, get it in working order, and then develop a proactive preventative maintenance plan. Mike Kaminski, President of Advanced Building Services and CPA preferred vendor, tells us that  “usually, when maintenance has been deferred for long periods of time, we would prefer to make repairs and allow some maintenance history under our belt before condemning a unit.”

  2. The 50% Rule: Another factor to consider is the cost of repairs vs. the cost of a new system. Manufacturers and many in the industry seem to follow the 50% rule from Consumer Reports which recommends equipment replacement if the cost of repairs exceeds 50% of the cost of new equipment.

Replacing an HVAC Unit: My how things have changed!

Once you’ve decided that new equipment is needed, it can be a daunting task to figure out the best course of action.

An example of an aging system from one of our member institutions.

An example of an aging system from one of our member institutions.

Several of our member organizations were in that exact situation earlier this year and we led an HVAC RFP for a few houses of worship and a couple of schools. We learned that there is a lot to consider when equipment shopping. The simplest and fastest way to replace a broken down HVAC system is to put in a new version of the same equipment. In some cases this works perfectly but in others it isn’t as straight forward.

Often times, systems were installed 20 or even 30 years ago. It’s highly likely that the way spaces in a building are used today vary greatly from what was going on in a church or a school in the 90s. When a heating or cooling system is originally installed, it is sized and designed to meet the occupancy patterns, daily needs, and technology constraints at the time. But things change, and so should the way new HVAC systems are implemented.

To determine whether your building would benefit more from either a 1-for-1 replacement of equipment or a complete overhaul of your system, ask yourself (or someone that’s been around long enough) some of the following questions:

  • Has the building’s layout or purpose changed? If you are hosting more large gatherings than you used to (e.g. big group meetings, weddings, or parties), you may find that your system struggles to keep spaces cool in the summertime when a room is filled with people. If you're renting portions of your space out to a daycare or after school program and have done some light remodeling to accommodate your tenants, you may notice folks bringing in space heaters during the coldest winter months.

  • Have you added new large equipment? If you've upgraded to a commercial kitchen, you may notice significantly increased heat from stoves and ovens and the need to run your whole building's A/C on overtime.

  • Have you noticed mold or mildew odors? If you have a space that's not used as frequently as it once was, you may be facing air quality and ventilation issues.  

If the answer to most of these questions is “Yes” it’s likely you’d benefit from newly designed HVAC system that better suits your current needs.