HVAC systems are evolving quickly. Advanced efficiency ratings, new system technologies, and high-tech thermostats are just some of the innovations homeowners have at their disposal to make their homes more comfortable—and their energy bills more affordable. But sorting through all of that new technology can be difficult.
To help us understand HVAC efficiencies and what happens when you replace your system, we talked to Bill Fitzgerald, an HVAC service expert in Austin, Texas. Here’s his take.
What are some warning signs homeowners can look for to tell that they need a repair or a total replacement—besides the obvious, of course?
The first thing is the age. Typically, when you start getting into something that’s 10 to 12 years of age, that’s when things start to break down. Now, that’s not to say they won’t break down before that, but that’s kind of a general rule of thumb we use—anything over 10 years, you might want to start looking at replacing or repairing. Especially because the energy efficiency just isn’t there. We can fix anything, even if it’s ten years or older, but you still won’t be getting good energy efficiency.
What would you say are some of the most common problems that you see?
Condensor fan motors on the outside going bad, and refrigerant leaks—both indoor and outdoor—on the coil. The more they age, the more brittle they get. Once they start to leak, probably 90 percent of the time those refrigerant leaks are not repairable, and then you have to replace at least a component.
Sometimes those components get pretty pricey, so then you have to weigh your options. Do you want to put an $800 or a $1,000 repair into something, or would you rather use that money towards a newer, more energy-efficient system?
How do you help homeowners make the decision between a replacement or a repair? Do you ever do partial repairs of just the heating unit, or just the AC?
Yes, we do just the inside, which is the heating part of it, and we’ve done just the outside, which is the AC part of it. Typically when someone calls in for a service call, we send a technician out, and they will go over with the customer what needs to be done. They’ll tell you your new repair price, and that if it’s old, you might want to look into getting something new.
We do all of our quotes for free, so there’s no obligation for one of our consultants to go out and get a bid on a new system. We have a lot of tech referrals. Our techs are really good at referring and guiding our homeowners in the right direction as far as [whether] it’s a good idea to replace versus repair at this time.
That’s good, because we know HVAC systems can be pretty complicated. What do your techs do to help homeowners understand their system needs?
Our techs will sit down with the client and go over it—and at that point, they’ll make the decision on whether they’re going to repair it or just replace it.
So, let’s say they’ve discussed it, and a total replacement seems like the best idea. Is there anything that homeowners can do to prepare for the job?
The only thing we ask is if they have an indoor unit in the attic, that the workers just have clear access to that space, that’s all. The outdoor unit shouldn’t have any shrubs or fences around it, so that it’s as easy as possible for workers to get the old one out and the new one in.
There’s not a lot the homeowner has to do before we show up besides just open the door and let us do our thing.
That sounds pretty simple. So about how much time should homeowners make for a project?
On replacements, I’ve seen my crews finish a whole system in three to four hours, but I’ve seen them also take seven to eight hours. Sometimes it’s a little difficult if the access to the indoor unit is a little tight and cramped, and things of that nature.
The average is probably five to six hours, I would say.
That’s not too bad. What kinds of things can complicate the project, though? What can make it take longer?
It doesn’t happen very often, but there are times where we get out there and we needed an extra man to take objects needed over a fence, or the attic access is tight. Then it can take a little bit longer to take the unit out and put the other unit in. Most of the time, everything goes smoothly but obviously this is the real world, so it doesn’t always go that way.
We adapt, though. We send an extra guy out there to help out. But that’s the only thing that would really hinder our progress in getting it done in a timely manner.
What about ordering parts? Does that ever cause a delay?
Not typically unless it’s really, really old—if it’s something that’s fifteen or sixteen years old, and the vendors around town don’t carry the equipment anymore. We have had cases where people wanted to do just a repair, and we couldn’t find the part.
We have a parts guy here, and he’ll go through all his resources here, but at that point, usually they’ll just need to go ahead and replace it.
What can homeowners do to extend the life of their systems once they’re replaced?
I compare it a lot to owning a car. If you keep your maintenance up on your car, your car will last a long time. It’s the same with AC. Do your tune-ups when necessary, change your filters regularly on the indoor unit, and keep them from getting clogged—it will extend the life of your unit. We offer maintenance plans here where we come out twice a year and check it in the fall, and again in the spring—so you just need to maintain it in the meantime.
How can homeowners make their systems perform more efficiently? What recommendations do you have for that?
Programmable thermostats. That’s a big one because you can program them and operate them from your phone, since of course you don’t need your AC running when you’re not home. They go into away mode when you’re not there, and then it reads your lifestyle, like your “algorithms,” and you can do it from your phone.
The best way is just a programmable thermostat. Even if it’s not a Nest, you can still program it to come on at certain times of the day and shut off a certain part of the day.
Do you help homeowners install and set up smart thermostats?
We sell a ton of Nest thermostats here, yes.
Are there ever any issues with the existing system with those? For instance, will they work if the HVAC system is very old?
From what I know, they can pretty much be put on any system, even if it is old.
Okay, be honest: what’s the number one mistake homeowners make with their heating and air conditioning.
Not changing their filters regularly when they should. Honestly. We run into so many service calls—you wouldn’t think that a little filter would cause such a huge problem, but if the filter gets clogged, the system’s not getting the proper air flow to the coil. Therefore, the coil freezes up. Once the coil freezes up, it stops the cool because it turns into ice.
A lot of times my tech goes out there, changes the filter, the ice melts, and it’s running fine. You’d be amazed that a little filter can cause so many problems.
Let’s talk innovation. What sort of new products or materials do you think homeowners should know about?
Well, the energy efficiency is getting higher and higher. The SEER ratings on air conditioners—now I think they’re up to about 25 SEER, which is super energy efficient.
The only other thing is the programmable thermostat. Nest is a go-to, and Honeywell makes one called a Lyric, which is similar to the Nest. They also have communicating thermostats now on certain systems where the outdoor system communicates with the indoor thermostat.
The thermostats are always changing, always getting more user friendly.
Is there any kind of system you recommend staying away from?
The only thing that we recommend they stay away from is an all-electric (or electric resistant) system. It’s just not energy efficient. They make gas furnaces, and then there are heat-pump systems, which are electric, but the heat pump is a little more energy-efficient.
All-electric, during your heating system, all it is is electric coils heating up, blowing hot air over the coil. I had an electric system at my old house, and my heating bills were actually higher than my AC bills—and I didn’t even run my heat that much.
If you have all electric, and you can switch to a heat pump. It’s a little bit more money on the front end, but it will save you a lot more money on your energy bills.
Do you think having components in a hotter area, like in the attic, can affect the system’s overall performance?
I don’t think it affects the overall performance. It’s sealed pretty good. When we get up there, we seal all the penetrations and doors. I mean, it is hot up there, don’t get me wrong. But we don’t have any evidence that it performs any differently. Sometimes people just don’t have the room downstairs in a closet or anything like that, so it has to go up there.
They make them so they’re pretty snug and confined, so I don’t think there’s an evidence that they run any less efficiently just because they’re up there.
Are problems ever due to the ductwork, rather than the system?
Absolutely. You can have a top-of-the-line system in your house, but if your ductwork is torn up, or old, or leaking, or not sealed properly, that brand-new energy efficient system might as well be your old system in there. You’re going to be cooling your attic, and have leaks and cracks and tears and penetrations from the ductwork to the unit and back and forth. If the ductwork isn’t in place, then you’re not doing yourself a justice by replacing that system.
Is there anyway for homeowners to check for those kinds of leaks in the ductwork?
They can, if they get a little ambitious. They can go up in the attic and poke around. But most of the time those ductworks are pretty long and stretch all the way across your attic. You can just kind of look for tears on the surface.
Also, if it’s old gray flex, which is stuff that we used years and years ago, that’s a sure tell-tale sign that it needs to be replaced. Also, just where the ductwork attaches to each room and each grill, make sure that it’s sealed the way it’s supposed to be sealed, so that it’s not leaking.
We understand that the SEER requirements have recently changed in some areas. Has that affected your work at all?
The manufacturer we use, it seems like every year they keep coming out with new lines, they just keep getting more energy efficient. Obviously, the more energy efficient you get, the more expensive the system gets. You can still get a good energy efficiency and pay a little bit less of a price.
We have what we call a basic system, and then we have a deluxe system, and you can kind of go anywhere from 16 to 25 SEER. We offer everything for everyone, because not everyone can spend the money on a super high-efficient system. But if you want one, they make one, and they just keep ramping it up to where it gets more energy efficient.
Okay, last question: what else would you like homeowners to know about their systems?
For me, and a lot of the people I work with, it’s all about energy efficiency. While they might get sticker shock in the beginning, I wish they would know that in the long run that that more expensive unit, that more high-efficiency unit, would pay for itself down the line in their utility bills. We try to let people know that. You are paying a little bit more money up front, but you get what you pay for. So you can spend a little bit less money, but it may not change your bills as
Over time, that investment—and it is an investment—it’s going to be 10 or 15 years, hopefully, after you put that new unit in your house. Over the first couple of years, you’re going to see your energy bills and your utility bills decline a little bit because they’re so energy efficient now. They’re like sport cars now. I just wish homeowners knew that just because it’s more expensive up front doesn’t mean they’re not going to save money. Just give it a chance, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised!