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Your heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system is one of the most important and expensive systems in your home. Equipment functionality issues can affect electricity use, which may result in higher energy bills. Detecting issues early can help you plan for repairs or equipment replacement.

The age of your equipment can be a major factor in function. The lifespan of a heating and cooling system ranges from 15 to 20 years. If your system is approaching or past the 20-year mark, it is wise to start saving for a new system and get replacement estimates. To find the age of your system, look for the manufactured date printed on the unit’s nameplate. You can also search online using the model number or call the manufacturer.

There are a few warning signs beyond equipment lifespan that may signal your HVAC system needs to be repaired or replaced.

1. Air conditioning is not as cool as usual. If the air from your air conditioner is warm or not as cool as it usually feels, the equipment has an issue. It could be a problem with the compressor or a refrigerant leak. Many refrigerants, especially the ones used in older systems, are harmful to the environment. Fix leaks before adding more refrigerant. Special certifications are required for handling refrigerants, so hire a professional to ensure the work is done properly.

2. Low airflow. If you aren’t getting good airflow, it could be an easy fix, such as filter replacement or opening closed dampers. If you’ve made these fixes and the airflow is not at normal levels, contact a professional. There could be a bigger problem with a motor or fan.

3. Bad odors. Heating and cooling systems sometimes smell when first turned on for the season. Those smells should be minor and dissipate quickly. Any serious smells – such as burning metal, melting plastic or noxious odors – are a sign the system is in trouble. If you smell those odors, turn the system off immediately and contact a professional.

4. Strange noises. There is typically noise associated with the fans and motors in HVAC systems. Take note of any excessive or new noises. If your system is making any clunking, clanging or whistling noises, turn it off and check the filter. If that doesn’t solve the problem, reach out to a professional.

5. Running frequently. Your system needs to run more often to keep up on extreme weather days, but there might be an issue if it runs too often outside of these special circumstances. Short cycling is when a system cycles on and off before completing the heating or cooling process. Contact a professional to diagnose this issue.

Decision-making factors to consider

Several factors come into play when deciding to fix or invest in new equipment. Consider the severity of the issue, repair costs, the likelihood of additional repairs, equipment lifespan and your budget.

The efficiency of your existing system is also a consideration. Heating and cooling technology improvements have come a long way in the last 20 years. Lower operation costs can offset the cost of a new system over time.

Be proactive and evaluate your options before you are in desperate need. And if you are ready to make a change, always get estimates from at least three contractors before making a choice.

Miranda Boutelle writes on energy efficiency topics for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing nearly 900 electric co-ops.

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