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Here's What Happens When You Don't Maintain Your Commercial HVAC System

When it comes to commercial HVAC systems, the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” becomes a convenient excuse for companies that either, a) don’t want to set aside the budget for maintenance, and/or b) don’t require day-to-day facility staff to ensure systems are running smoothly.

HVAC systems, like commercial plumbing or electric systems, are not unlike field goal kickers, punters, or offensive linemen in football. The average fan doesn’t notice them until they do something wrong, like when the game-winning field goal veers wide left or the quarterback gets pounded to the dirt after a missed block. The average facility visitor won’t even think about the HVAC system until that system breaks down, especially in the “super bowl” of HVAC systems — the heart of winter and summer. Instead of tears after a loss in football, broken HVAC systems reward occupants with nothing but copious amounts of sweat, a serious case of the chills, or unwelcome illnesses.

The truth is, if a company doesn’t set aside at least some resources for regular HVAC maintenance, they will often spend more money replacing equipment that breaks down prematurely. Small companies that keep their budgets too tight are often the most vulnerable.

Even with a tight budget, you don’t want to be in charge of a facility that doesn’t take care of its HVAC systems. Doing so could lead to a major break down when it’s needed most.

In the instance you do take the risk of avoiding regular maintenance, here’s an idea of what you can expect for your equipment and what you can do to improve your situation.

The Problems

Unreplaced Air Filters Cause More Damage Than You Think

“Air filter” is a slightly deceiving term given that the filter doesn’t exist exclusively to improve air quality, but to shield the HVAC system from particles in the air that can harm it from functioning properly. By consistently replacing the air filter, you’re giving the HVAC system a chance to cool your facility without overextending or overcompensating by using more energy than necessary. Checking the filter on at least a quarterly basis can substantially reduce the risk of failure.

After a while, like any filter, the HVAC air filters become increasingly clogged with dust and other airborne contaminants. By not replacing it, you’re effectively choking out your HVAC system and dramatically reducing its lifespan. In the worst cases, especially during the stressful summer periods, not changing the filter could — over time — lead to a complete premature system failure as the HVAC expends too much energy to function. The compressor, the piece responsible for moving the refrigerant through the system and the central cooling component of the HVAC system, can break down if filter change-outs are neglected.

And while the primary purpose of the air filter isn’t to maintain air quality, the dust and germs that build up in HVAC will inevitably wind up in the air of occupants. This can directly result in upper respiratory problems, like asthma, as a poorly filtered HVAC system is one of the primary causes of sick building syndrome.

In short, not replacing the air filter is no bueno.

Furnace Problems and Gas Leaks

An HVAC system’s furnace (heating unit) can break in multiple ways, which makes a lack of diligent maintenance all the more risky. Consistent cleaning will keep the combustion chamber safe (where gas is transferred and burned) and regular checks can identify and stop gas leaks before they become a major problem.

On the other hand, if regular cleaning doesn’t happen and gas leaks aren’t checked, the consequences can be severe. The combustion process releases carbon monoxide, a colorless and odorless toxic gas that’s difficult to identify without monitors in place. Normally, the carbon monoxide is exhausted through a flue vent, but a clogged exhaust can cause the gas to backup within the building, a circumstance that can be exceedingly dangerous to occupants if not immediately addressed.

Average Lifespan, Replacement Costs and Indirect Costs

A typical split unit HVAC system, if properly maintained, can have a lifespan of around 15 years or more. In the instance that air filters are not regularly changed and other essential maintenance is avoided, that estimated life-span shortens to roughly 8 years and possibly less.

Depending on the size of the facility, a full replacement for a typical split unit can cost between $8,000-20,000. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that an HVAC that isn’t running efficiently will expend more energy and thus increase costs. A unit that breaks down could also result in shutting down a facility for weeks, so the costs of labor and relocation for facility occupants must also be taken into consideration.

The Solutions

The DIY HVAC Maintenance Check

Day-to-day facility staff can help a maintenance partner or an emergency truck-based crew by listening.

Yes, listening.

While it’s difficult to identify specific problems without the proper training methods in place for staff, listening for potential gas leaks, dislodged parts or otherwise abnormal activity can be a sign that the HVAC system is in need of repair. This way problems can be identified before a dramatic temperature or humidity change indicates a full breakdown.

Giving a maintenance crew this intel can help them solve problems faster and more effectively.

Plan for Regularly Scheduled Maintenance

While this is the obvious suggestion, regularly scheduled maintenance will almost certainly ensure that you get the maximum life possible from your HVAC system — sometimes a difference in 7 years of life. You will also benefit from systems operating more efficiently, providing lower building operation costs.

Additionally, while a maintenance contract isn’t in the cards for everyone, occasional maintenance checks will be more beneficial than playing a game of whac-a-mole with emergency maintenance problems. In any case, a professional maintenance team will have the training to diagnose what’s wrong with your facility, while implementing planned maintenance measures to give you peace of mind.  

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