Author Topic: Furnace+AC Replacement - what to do?  (Read 604 times)

Raenia

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Furnace+AC Replacement - what to do?
« on: July 07, 2019, 10:29:10 AM »
The immediate issue:

Our AC unit is 20 years old, still runs on R22, and is running very inefficiently.  The furnace is 14 years old and was improperly installed originally, with no filter on the return duct, causing dirt, dust, and who knows what to get into the fan, which is not working very hard to little effect.  Very little air is getting to the bedrooms (3 story rowhome, furnace in basement).  The HVAC tech that we had in to look at it recommends complete replacement, of course (Option A, 13k).  He also gave us a quote for replacing the AC unit and installing the filter on the furnace (Option B, 7.7k), and for just installing the filter and topping up on coolant (Option C, 3k).  We can't afford to pay out of pocket for A or B without pulling from investment accounts, and are waiting to hear back about their financing options.  I'm told most places offer 0% for this sort of thing, just have to find out the terms.

My first instinct was to take Option B, finance it as short a term as possible, and prepare to replace the furnace in a year or two.  The downsides to this are, the AC still would not be very effective with the furnace fan still damaged, thought the filter will prevent the problem getting worse.  Plus if the furnace fails in the winter, we have a worse situation, having to pay for a rush job in potentially sub-freezing temperatures.  So now I'm thinking maybe A is worth it?

What would you do?  Go with Option C and hope the system lasts another year or two?  Option A and take the 0% financing and decrease savings goals to cash-flow the payments?  Are there potential unintended consequences to B or C that I'm not thinking of?  The choices are between Options A, B, or C, and between financing to cash-flow or taking out investment funds.

The extended issue:

We bought this house at the end of May, our first house.  We had about 15k in excess of closing/DP costs saved for work that would have to be done - we knew the breaker box needed to be replaced/rewired, some shut off valves for the water and gas needed to be replaced, the water heater, AC, and furnace were all nearing expected end of life, and there were a variety of other projects that we expected to take on later down the line, but weren't urgent.  Now, a month into living here, we've had to replace the water heater (corroded shutoff and pipes couldn't be replaced without replacing the water heater as well), the washer and dryer (broke the first time I tried to use them - we tried to DIY fix and failed), the AC and furnace might not make it another year, the damage to the retaining wall is significantly worse than we thought, the tiling in the shower was improperly installed, the vines at the back have damaged the plaster, there's evidence of old water damage in several rooms, etc.  I expected many of these things, but I didn't plan for them to all happen in the first two months.  It seems every time we turn around, there's something else that was shoddily done by the previous owners, or just wearing out.

How do you prioritize these kinds of things, to determine which need to be handled right away and which can wait?  We've run through most of our set-aside funds at this point.  Do we stop or decrease retirement contributions until the house is fixed?  Pull from brokerage accounts?  Delay repairs until we can save up the money without sacrificing savings goals?

And finally, how do we deal with family and friends and their inevitable nesting instincts kicking in?  My mom wants to go furniture shopping with us and help us pick out a couch.  My sister listened to our laundry list of upcoming projects and asked, "well, yeah, but when are you going to make it home and decorate?"  All our relatives seem to see 'home' as furniture and curtains and throw pillows and decorative lamps.  How do I explain to them that if the choice is between owning a couch and owning a furnace, I'd rather have the furnace?  They know we have healthy savings, and don't understand why we can't have both.  And by both, they seem to mean everything.  Like, I'm sorry I haven't had time to hang art on the walls, I was busy re-caulking the shower.

Thanks for any advice!

Blue Skies

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Re: Furnace+AC Replacement - what to do?
« Reply #1 on: July 07, 2019, 10:53:54 AM »
I would take option A.  This would be my choice because we DID have a furnace die in the middle of winter.  It was not fun.  I would finance and cash flow, but that is more my mentality than actual numbers regarding what would end up better in the end.

Prioritizing is difficult when there are so many items on the to do list.  I would look at safety first.  If the problem could cause a fire, or water damage, or other damage to you or the house then that would be first to fix/replace.  What is the worst that happens if the retaining wall fails?

In terms of decorating - do you just not have a couch at all?  I can see your mom/siblings harping on that one.  I would go to goodwill or craigslist and buy a couch for $40.  Let it bake in the hot garage for a few days to make sure no bedbug issues, and use it.  Unless you are making major structural changes, paint the walls.  Paint is cheap, and you can ask mom to come help.  Maybe mom and spouse paint while you get some other projects done on a weekend?  It sounds like it is more of a money issue than a time issue, so do some of the cheap things that take time and will make an immediate difference.


Cranky

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Re: Furnace+AC Replacement - what to do?
« Reply #2 on: July 07, 2019, 12:13:15 PM »
Is the furnace likely to fail this winter? How hot is it where you are?

Because you have many things that need to be done (oh, the joy of owning a home!) I would work my way down the list in order of disaster potential.

What will get the furnace through another year or two? Meanwhile, I'd spend a couple hundred bucks on a window a/c for my bedroom, and a fan for downstairs, and deal with the heat, unless somebody has health problems and the usual disclaimers.

I agree - paint and buy a cheap couch and some art at Goodwill or the ReStore or Craigslist. Start hoarding money for what absolutely needs to be fixed.

Raenia

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Re: Furnace+AC Replacement - what to do?
« Reply #3 on: July 07, 2019, 02:46:35 PM »
I would take option A.  This would be my choice because we DID have a furnace die in the middle of winter.  It was not fun.  I would finance and cash flow, but that is more my mentality than actual numbers regarding what would end up better in the end.

I've had it happen too, though I was renting at the time.  14 F and no heat - very not fun.

Is the furnace likely to fail this winter? How hot is it where you are?

Difficult to say how likely it is to fail.  The HVAC tech made it sound pretty likely, but then, I expect he's biased in favor of a full install.  It's been quite hot this summer so far, lots of days in mid 90's and 80%+ RH.

Quote
What will get the furnace through another year or two? Meanwhile, I'd spend a couple hundred bucks on a window a/c for my bedroom, and a fan for downstairs, and deal with the heat, unless somebody has health problems and the usual disclaimers.

No health issues, though DH hates the heat and isn't able to function to full capacity.  We do have ceiling fans and portable fans.  I'm not sure if anything can guarantee another year out of the furnace, from what the tech said it could fail or it could survive, but there's not much to be done.

Quote
Prioritizing is difficult when there are so many items on the to do list.  I would look at safety first.  If the problem could cause a fire, or water damage, or other damage to you or the house then that would be first to fix/replace.  What is the worst that happens if the retaining wall fails?

Yep, safety first!  That's why we did the electrical work, water heater, and everything to do with gas lines first.  There's some work in the basement that is still necessary to prevent water damage, but that's mostly labor and we intend to DIY, the actual cost should be not as bad.  We are unsure if the shoddy bathroom installation presents a risk of mold, or if sealing it up as best we can will be good enough.  The cracked plaster on the rear facade may or may not be a risk for water damage, hard to tell right now.  The retaining wall is probably not a safety issue, but if it came down in an uncontrolled manner the neighbors would be understandably unhappy with us.

Quote
Because you have many things that need to be done (oh, the joy of owning a home!) I would work my way down the list in order of disaster potential.

Yeah, it's mostly an issue of determining which things have high disaster potential that I'm not aware of, vs what can sit for a year and not get any worse.

Quote
In terms of decorating - do you just not have a couch at all?  I can see your mom/siblings harping on that one.  I would go to goodwill or craigslist and buy a couch for $40.  Let it bake in the hot garage for a few days to make sure no bedbug issues, and use it.  Unless you are making major structural changes, paint the walls.  Paint is cheap, and you can ask mom to come help.  Maybe mom and spouse paint while you get some other projects done on a weekend?  It sounds like it is more of a money issue than a time issue, so do some of the cheap things that take time and will make an immediate difference.

Quote
I agree - paint and buy a cheap couch and some art at Goodwill or the ReStore or Craigslist. Start hoarding money for what absolutely needs to be fixed.

We did paint the first floor - living and dining rooms.  We have some art to put up, but most of it needs to be re-matted and framed to suit the colors we want.  Some of those are in progress, but we haven't had the time to get them completed yet (DH is making custom hardwood frames to match).  We don't have a couch at all right now, but we also don't really have a place to put one, as the living room has become the dumping room for things that don't have a permanent spot yet.  Working through that stuff is my ongoing project on days we don't have time for more important work.

Mostly, I'm feeling a lot of decision fatigue - after spending a lot of energy thinking about and working on the actual structural problems, I just plain don't want to think about coffee tables and curtains.  It's not the priority right now, and I can't focus on everything at once.

Cadman

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Re: Furnace+AC Replacement - what to do?
« Reply #4 on: July 07, 2019, 03:00:15 PM »
$3k for filter and R22 top-off? That's insane. Any sheet metal shop can fab up a filter housing to your specs for <$100 (or ~$50) assuming there isn't a place for a filter. You can install it yourself with a few sheet metal screws. But until you have proper airflow through the system, nobody can say one way or the other if you actually are low on R22. First things first is to clean evap and condenser coils and verify all ducts are flowing freely.

You can have a perfectly working furnace and AC system that will give you these exact problems if everything's plugged up. The 'Fan On' mode should give you full flow, and work from there.

Daley

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Re: Furnace+AC Replacement - what to do?
« Reply #5 on: July 07, 2019, 03:39:42 PM »
$3k for filter and R22 top-off? That's insane. Any sheet metal shop can fab up a filter housing to your specs for <$100 (or ~$50) assuming there isn't a place for a filter. You can install it yourself with a few sheet metal screws. But until you have proper airflow through the system, nobody can say one way or the other if you actually are low on R22. First things first is to clean evap and condenser coils and verify all ducts are flowing freely.

You can have a perfectly working furnace and AC system that will give you these exact problems if everything's plugged up. The 'Fan On' mode should give you full flow, and work from there.

Mostly this. First step is getting the fan, evaporator coils, and (potentially) ducts cleaned. Then just install a filter yourself. Seriously, most units already have a place to put the filter(s), and if they don't, it's not difficult to replace the air return grate in the house for a grate that you can place an air filter in yourself for around $30. Cleaning the coils and fan alone will go a long way toward restoring airflow. That's a cheap job, even if you pay someone else to do it.

It also probably wouldn't hurt to replace the capacitor on the fan. It's a $10 fix that you can do yourself if you know how to get to the fan and have the knowledge to safely play with electricity.

However, a tech can tell if the AC unit is running low on coolant through a pressure check. If it is running low, it's quite possible and likely that the leak is from the old evaporator coils itself, which can be hard to fix. This said, if it's a really slow leak, you're positive where it is, and you have nothing to lose at worst, it'll cost about equal to pay someone to recapture the remaining R-22 and refill the entire unit with NU-22B (R-422B) or R-22D (which runs under $50/lb) along with a sealant (only if it actually has a small leak - sealants can be a risky gambit, but can sometimes pay off if the leak is small, there's no moisture in the coolant and you run the compressor for a good hour after putting it in to buy you a couple extra years) than just what it would cost to put a couple pounds of the old R-22 in at around $200/lb. And even if the thing still leaks after that point, topping back off becomes substantially cheaper and less environmentally awful. Pay to recapture now, or recapture later when you replace. Either way, the old R-22 will have to be recaptured if it doesn't entirely leak out on its own, which usually costs more to do than with the newer stuff due to disposal. Just be sure that if you do get an R-22 alternative put in, they put the sticker on the system that says so.

This said, given the age of the old AC unit, it's probably a SEER 10 or worse. An upgrade to SEER 14 or higher would probably be a significant bump in efficiency and lowering your cooling bill enough over a few years to pay for itself... but if money is tight now and you need to save up, there are obviously ways to kick the can and set yourself up better for when you do replace.

And when you do replace? Price multiple shops. Know the size of AC unit and heater you're using, and the fan capacity. Ask for a quote on an (X) ton AC and (X) btu (type) furnace with a scroll or roller compressor approved, but no reciprocating compressor units, and no manufacturers that start with the letter L. Ask for the cost on a 10 year non pro-rated warranty on that install, too, and make sure the cost includes disposal of the old unit. Ask for references from other clients, check for their license, and do some research online about the places you're contacting. It's also worth noting that frequently AC shops that are about 20 minutes out of town will run a bit cheaper than the in-city shops with big ad budgets.
« Last Edit: July 07, 2019, 03:51:51 PM by Daley »

Papa bear

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Re: Furnace+AC Replacement - what to do?
« Reply #6 on: July 07, 2019, 03:48:58 PM »
You need to get more quotes for a full replacement.  Material and labor for a 96% efficient furnace and 15 SEER ac unit replacement should run around 5-6k total.

Then go with option A and get it done right.


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Cadman

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Re: Furnace+AC Replacement - what to do?
« Reply #7 on: July 07, 2019, 04:23:39 PM »

However, a tech can tell if the AC unit is running low on coolant through a pressure check.

Just so the OP is aware, a pressure check is meaningless without the correct airflow across the evap and condenser. If the tech hooked up a gauge set with the current issues and based his prognosis on that, he's more interested in pushing new than fixing the problem.

Raenia

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Re: Furnace+AC Replacement - what to do?
« Reply #8 on: July 07, 2019, 05:50:36 PM »
$3k for filter and R22 top-off? That's insane. Any sheet metal shop can fab up a filter housing to your specs for <$100 (or ~$50) assuming there isn't a place for a filter. You can install it yourself with a few sheet metal screws. But until you have proper airflow through the system, nobody can say one way or the other if you actually are low on R22. First things first is to clean evap and condenser coils and verify all ducts are flowing freely.

You can have a perfectly working furnace and AC system that will give you these exact problems if everything's plugged up. The 'Fan On' mode should give you full flow, and work from there.

Mostly this. First step is getting the fan, evaporator coils, and (potentially) ducts cleaned. Then just install a filter yourself. Seriously, most units already have a place to put the filter(s), and if they don't, it's not difficult to replace the air return grate in the house for a grate that you can place an air filter in yourself for around $30. Cleaning the coils and fan alone will go a long way toward restoring airflow. That's a cheap job, even if you pay someone else to do it.

When the furnace was installed improperly, they removed the place where the filter should have been and placed the unit directly on the floor, apparently because the ceiling is too low.  In order to place an air filter, the air return duct has to be re-routed to make space.  That's why the job is more expensive than it 'should' be.  Beyond that, my understanding is that the fan is damaged from the years of gunk flowing into it, so even after the filter is installed, that will not equate to full air flow through the system.  He didn't think that even a cleaning would fully solve the problem.

Quote
It also probably wouldn't hurt to replace the capacitor on the fan. It's a $10 fix that you can do yourself if you know how to get to the fan and have the knowledge to safely play with electricity.

I don't currently have the knowledge and experience to do electrical work.  I'd like to learn eventually, but right now I wouldn't trust myself.

Quote
However, a tech can tell if the AC unit is running low on coolant through a pressure check. If it is running low, it's quite possible and likely that the leak is from the old evaporator coils itself, which can be hard to fix. This said, if it's a really slow leak, you're positive where it is, and you have nothing to lose at worst, it'll cost about equal to pay someone to recapture the remaining R-22 and refill the entire unit with NU-22B (R-422B) or R-22D (which runs under $50/lb) along with a sealant (only if it actually has a small leak - sealants can be a risky gambit, but can sometimes pay off if the leak is small, there's no moisture in the coolant and you run the compressor for a good hour after putting it in to buy you a couple extra years) than just what it would cost to put a couple pounds of the old R-22 in at around $200/lb. And even if the thing still leaks after that point, topping back off becomes substantially cheaper and less environmentally awful. Pay to recapture now, or recapture later when you replace. Either way, the old R-22 will have to be recaptured if it doesn't entirely leak out on its own, which usually costs more to do than with the newer stuff due to disposal. Just be sure that if you do get an R-22 alternative put in, they put the sticker on the system that says so.

This said, given the age of the old AC unit, it's probably a SEER 10 or worse. An upgrade to SEER 14 or higher would probably be a significant bump in efficiency and lowering your cooling bill enough over a few years to pay for itself... but if money is tight now and you need to save up, there are obviously ways to kick the can and set yourself up better for when you do replace.

And when you do replace? Price multiple shops. Know the size of AC unit and heater you're using, and the fan capacity. Ask for a quote on an (X) ton AC and (X) btu (type) furnace with a scroll or roller compressor approved, but no reciprocating compressor units, and no manufacturers that start with the letter L. Ask for the cost on a 10 year non pro-rated warranty on that install, too, and make sure the cost includes disposal of the old unit. Ask for references from other clients, check for their license, and do some research online about the places you're contacting. It's also worth noting that frequently AC shops that are about 20 minutes out of town will run a bit cheaper than the in-city shops with big ad budgets.

So it sounds like there are ways to put off a replacement, but it might be worth going ahead anyway if we can swing the payment, for the efficiency gains and environmental benefits.  Did I interpret that right?  Money is tight, but only if we want to keep our 50% savings rate.  We can easily lower our savings rate for a year or two until the house is up to scratch, it just hurts my saver's heart to lower my automatic transfers to Vanguard :P  But then, I guess this stuff is what we're saving for in the first place.

@Papa bear  we do plan to get other quotes, but I've talked to several coworkers who recently had similar work done, and the numbers they reported were all around or higher than the quote we have in hand.  I guess labor is expensive here, or there's additional taxes, or who knows.

@Cadman Thanks for the note, I'll ask my husband.  I wasn't present when the tech came, so I'm not sure exactly how he came to his conclusion.

Daley

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Re: Furnace+AC Replacement - what to do?
« Reply #9 on: July 07, 2019, 08:31:17 PM »

However, a tech can tell if the AC unit is running low on coolant through a pressure check.

Just so the OP is aware, a pressure check is meaningless without the correct airflow across the evap and condenser. If the tech hooked up a gauge set with the current issues and based his prognosis on that, he's more interested in pushing new than fixing the problem.

Good point. Apologies.



$3k for filter and R22 top-off? That's insane. Any sheet metal shop can fab up a filter housing to your specs for <$100 (or ~$50) assuming there isn't a place for a filter. You can install it yourself with a few sheet metal screws. But until you have proper airflow through the system, nobody can say one way or the other if you actually are low on R22. First things first is to clean evap and condenser coils and verify all ducts are flowing freely.

You can have a perfectly working furnace and AC system that will give you these exact problems if everything's plugged up. The 'Fan On' mode should give you full flow, and work from there.

Mostly this. First step is getting the fan, evaporator coils, and (potentially) ducts cleaned. Then just install a filter yourself. Seriously, most units already have a place to put the filter(s), and if they don't, it's not difficult to replace the air return grate in the house for a grate that you can place an air filter in yourself for around $30. Cleaning the coils and fan alone will go a long way toward restoring airflow. That's a cheap job, even if you pay someone else to do it.

When the furnace was installed improperly, they removed the place where the filter should have been and placed the unit directly on the floor, apparently because the ceiling is too low.  In order to place an air filter, the air return duct has to be re-routed to make space.  That's why the job is more expensive than it 'should' be.  Beyond that, my understanding is that the fan is damaged from the years of gunk flowing into it, so even after the filter is installed, that will not equate to full air flow through the system.  He didn't think that even a cleaning would fully solve the problem.

Quote
It also probably wouldn't hurt to replace the capacitor on the fan. It's a $10 fix that you can do yourself if you know how to get to the fan and have the knowledge to safely play with electricity.

I don't currently have the knowledge and experience to do electrical work.  I'd like to learn eventually, but right now I wouldn't trust myself.

Fan motors are still cheaper than an all new system, but much like Cadman's observation? Granted, it's third hand info through the internet, but it still sounds like the tech was more interested in selling than fixing.

As for replacing a fan capacitor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozOhWeIk_Hs

A case can be made for replacement, but so can repair. Demystifying the system and how it works helps you maintain any system you have better, and keeps you from getting fleeced. As it stands, it sounds like the system is just dirty. Dirty is something you could potentially fix on your own, or have cleaned up for a couple hundred. If you can get the current system working better really cheap, that gives you breathing room to better research and plan out the replacement.
« Last Edit: July 07, 2019, 08:34:23 PM by Daley »

affordablehousing

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Re: Furnace+AC Replacement - what to do?
« Reply #10 on: July 08, 2019, 09:53:35 AM »
I've been there too, the issues seem overwhelming. But, it sounds like an old house, and that means it's lasted a long time already with all these problems in place. It won't fall down tomorrow. You also, sorry to say, don't sound handy. Many people are on this forum many aren't. Just admit the level you're at. I think what's most important is to learn how these systems work and find reasonable cost unlicensed handy people you can rely on. Those quotes sound cheap to me, if you're having a big company give a quote. But talk to your neighbors, get good referrals on local folks that do weekend or after hours work. You want people doing "top of license" work. It will all get done, over time, and with a lot of your work to oversee but not actually do things.

#1 goal, find less expensive, reliable labor.

Jon Bon

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Re: Furnace+AC Replacement - what to do?
« Reply #11 on: July 08, 2019, 11:36:12 AM »
13k for a furnace and HVAC replacement is outrageous. Ask your friends/neighbors etc who they use. Better yet ask your old landlord who they used! Yes replace the entire AC system, furnace you could probably have them fix for <500 bucks and get another 5-10 years out of it.

Sounds like that HVAC tech wants you to send his kids to college on a single job. All those quotes are bogus (A,B,C). Find someone else.




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Re: Furnace+AC Replacement - what to do?
« Reply #12 on: July 08, 2019, 01:41:40 PM »
For the "when do you replace?" question, Residential units last around 15 years average according to ASHRAE Life Expectancy Chart. This is both out of the range (don't get me wrong, many units last longer) and not working correctly. It is -likely- a replacement job. I'd not suggest to go too efficient, as they often have a price jump that does not ever pay off in the efficiency of the unit. If I recall, SEER 14 is the usual code requirements. Also if they offer to upsize the unit in tonnage (cooling capacity is rated in tons), do not, as it will short cycle and possibly cause you humidity problems, if you live in that part of the world with humidity issues.

In general, after the 15 year mark, I repair everything myself as I can, and if the compressor fails/can't fix it, I replace the unit as a guideline.

Note: 13k seems high, but I'm in Florida with cheap labor, and I don't know if routing through something specific to your house/area is driving cost up.

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Re: Furnace+AC Replacement - what to do?
« Reply #13 on: July 09, 2019, 11:27:03 AM »
Regarding the friends and family pressure to "decorate" - tell them to shove off. Level of politeness is up to you, but you don't have to remain polite if they don't back off.