Is your HVAC system trying to tell you something?

Jeffrey Anderson | Improvement Center Columnist | April 28, 2014

No matter how much you might enjoy winter, there aren't too many people who disappointed to see the trees beginning to bud, flowers bloom, and temperatures rise as spring signals its arrival. For one thing, it usually means getting a break from paying those monthly heating bills - at least until it's time to get the air-conditioning cranking and those costs start hitting your monthly budget. But now that you're giving your HVAC system a brief respite, is it good for another year or should you start thinking about new equipment? The only way to know for sure is to have a qualified HVAC contractor do an inspection, but there are a few red flags you might want to watch for yourself.

Is your HVAC system on its last legs?

While it almost always takes an expert to diagnose HVAC equipment problems, just about any homeowner can be on the lookout for early warning signs that something bad may be about to happen. Dealing with triple digit temperatures in the summer can be bad enough without having your home's air-conditioning go on the fritz. Be on the lookout for:

Central air-conditioning

The two biggest early warning signs that it may be time to replace your air-conditioner might be that's it's much louder than normal when operating and that it costs a lot more than usual to keep your home cool. While an excessively loud system doesn't always mean something serious is wrong, it definitely warrants having it inspected. As systems age, their efficiency often suffers so minor changes in operating costs may not be cause for alarm. However, if there has been a drastic jump from one month or season to another and temperatures haven't been unusually hot, it's possible your system could be on its last legs. A few other warning signs:

  • Age - The International Association of Certified Home Inspectors estimates that a typical central air-conditioning unit should last from 10 to 15 years. If the equipment in your home is approaching that age, it may be time to consider replacing it.
  • Unusual odors - Any out of the ordinary odors coming from your ductwork or equipment should be cause for concern - especially if it smells as if something is burning.
  • Frequent maintenance - An air-conditioner that needs repair on a frequent basis is just about always near the end of its operational life.


Perhaps the two primary signals your furnace might give off as indicators that shopping for new equipment could be in order are that your electric, oil, or gas costs are going up when the outside temperatures aren't falling and the system is needing repairs several times a year. Like other HVAC equipment, furnaces lose their efficiency as they age which can be a sign that purchasing a new system might be a good investment. Frequent repairs, especially when major, could be an indicator that your money might be better spent by replacing the unit. A few other furnace warning signs to watch for:

  • Uneven heating - If some rooms just don't seem to get warm enough anymore, it could be due to the age of the equipment.
  • Age - The National Association of Home Builders projects that a typical residential furnace should last about 15 to 25 years. If the one in your home is approaching that time frame, keeping a close watch on it might be a good idea.
  • An unusually dry home - As a furnace ages, it may lose its ability to add moisture to the conditioned air it circulates. If family members start to suffer from dry skin or your house plants begin to look sickly, your furnace may be ill as well.

Heat Pump

A heat pump's early warning signs are often similar to those of central air-conditioners. If that outside unit begins to be excessively noisy, there could be a serious problem. And speaking of serious problems, if your monthly energy costs skyrocket and your electricity rates haven't gone up, it may be time to invest in a new heat pump. A few other heat pump red flags:

  • Age - Energy Star estimates that the average lifespan of a residential heat pump is about 10 years. If your unit is approaching that age, you may be able to lower your energy costs by installing a new unit.
  • Stuck in one mode - A heat pump that only heats or cools could need major repairs that are costly enough that purchasing a new unit might be a better idea.
  • Ice developing on the coils - If you notice a buildup of ice on your indoor or outdoor unit, it might be a simple repair or a sign of more serious problems. In either case, it's time to call a qualified repairman and might be time for a new unit as well.

While none of these HVAC system red flags are sure signs that new equipment is in order, they all should be checked out by a qualified contractor.

About the Author

Jeffrey Anderson has a Degree in English from V.M.I., and served as an officer in the Marine Corps. He worked in Residential and Commercial construction management for 25 years before retiring to write full time. He spends his time writing, remodeling his old farmhouse, and in animal rescue.