REAL ESTATE- GIMME SHELTER- Boiler maker: Is it time to scrap that old furnace?

this week's expert

Tom Kavounas


Q: Our heating and cooling systems are getting older– we have an oil burning furnace and separate air conditioning unit– and they've been having problems we've had to repair. Should we keep repairing it or replace the whole system? 

A: First, there are three primary factors to consider: the operating costs of your system, the life expectancy of your equipment, and the configuration of your entire system.

Operating Cost

Operating cost is a continuous and ongoing factor that should be considered. Restoring an old system will only bring it back to its original level of energy efficiency. Although you may save the cost of the repair bills along with the frustration of system breakdowns, you still will not save on your energy bills.

Even a six-year old heat pump or air conditioner is considered grossly inefficient by today's energy efficiency standards. So are most furnaces built before 1980. You could save as much as 60 percent on your energy bills with new high-efficiency equipment. That's how and why installing a new heating and cooling system can actually pay for itself in energy savings within a relatively short time.

Life Expectancy 

When you're frustrated with an equipment break-down, it can be tempting to find the least expensive "quick fix" to get on with your life in relative comfort. That "quick fix" may be the least expensive now, but it may not give you the most value– or cost you the least– in the long run.

Paying for repairs to an old or inefficient system frequently just prolongs the inevitable. It's almost like putting a bandage on a serious injury. An older system that breaks down once is likely to break down again, and again, and again. That means more emergency service calls or, worse yet, the risk of damage to your home or to other components of your heating and cooling system.

The Total System

When one component of your system breaks down unexpectedly, it's easy to just focus on repairing or replacing that component. But each part of your system works integrally with the others to maintain efficiency and reliability. For that reason, heating and air conditioning professionals always recommend that their customers keep their total system in mind.

For example, replacing your old oil furnace with a new higher-efficiency model but leaving your old thermostat in place, will not allow you to enjoy all of the efficiency advantages the furnace has to offer. Likewise, if you install a new furnace but don't get a humidifier, the air may seem cooler, forcing you to operate your new system at a higher temperature to be comfortable. Plus, you can often save on installation costs if you have several components of your system replaced at the same time.

If you do decide to replace your system, remember that every home is different. Some are big, some are small. Older homes are not as tightly sealed as new ones, which means efficiency is reduced. The number and size of windows, what direction the home is facing, number of mature trees in the yard and many more factors can affect your comfort and may play a part in deciding what type of system is best for you. Your heating and air conditioning contractor should have the expertise to perform an energy audit and to assess any unusual circumstances surrounding the specific needs of your home, as well as to help you choose the right system.