Premier Air Care
Facilities managers should be making well-educated decisions as to repairing or replacing an existing HVAC unit.
By Rebecca Lubecki
Facilities managers (FMs), know that HVAC systems are vital to maintaining a comfortable environment in their multi-site facilities. While customer comfort is of critical importance, the comfort of their in-store teammates cannot be overlooked, and everyone dreads the worst-case-scenario of losing cooling on a hot summer day, resulting in unhappy in-store personnel, and a potential loss of revenue.
Ronald Prager, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Brinco Mechanical Management Services Inc., emphasized the importance of prioritizing HVAC maintenance and repair, as “most consumers will not continue shopping in an uncomfortable environment,” resulting in a potential loss of sales and/or patronage of a facility such as a chain walk-in medical clinic. He further noted that “there is a potential for life-safety risks as it pertains to HVAC systems that are not properly maintained and monitored.” Additionally, “a significant portion of an FM’s budget is represented by HVAC repair, maintenance, and replacement,” and such work should therefore be carefully planned and vetted by a strong supplier partner.
We all know that preventive maintenance and unit replacement programs, whether proactive or reactive, are complex processes that require careful consideration, budgeting and oversight. Furthermore, the availability of OEM Parts and equipment as well as the labor force as a whole have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 Pandemic, leading to frustration within the industry for FMs and vendors alike.
“If you place an order for a new piece of equipment today, you could be looking at a 40-week lead time,” Prager said. “Multi-site companies are forced to repair equipment that should be replaced due to the lack of availability, and we see FMs opting to repeatedly repair units that are 25–30 years old. While this is not the budget-friendly option, sometimes there is no other choice to ensure that the facilities remain comfortable while waiting for parts and equipment to become more readily available.”
Ken Pantin, Vice President of Blue Northern Air Conditioning, Inc., noted that he has customers who have been waiting on units for eight months. “The customer at that point is forced to make repairs when they’d ordinarily change the equipment out. The problem with those repairs is that warranties [on older repaired units] are not nearly as good as on brand-new units.”
Making the Decision
There are many considerations in deciding whether to repair or replace existing equipment, and which equipment type and options to order. Critical factors include the age and overall condition of the equipment, the size of the space and the historical repair cost.
Prager recommended retaining a licensed Professional Structural Engineer to evaluate the structure based on the loads and current building code. It is also imperative to consult the building’s landlord prior to proceeding with any major work such as a unit replacement.
An additional consideration is whether your existing equipment complies with the most recent building codes and federal and state government regulations. For example, while certain types of equipment might be available for purchase, they may not meet the current energy efficiency standards, as these requirements recently changed as of Jan. 1, 2023. Furthermore, R-410A, an HFC refrigerant, is currently being phased out, and the replacement equipment serving multi-site facilities will be required to use new “slightly flammable” refrigerants as of Jan. 2025. Prager anticipates that the building codes will likely change based on the utilization of flammable refrigerants, so be sure to be on the lookout!
When to Repair
Regular preventive maintenance of your equipment shows its value, as it keeps your system running efficiently throughout its lifespan and reduces the number of catastrophic breakdowns.
“Certain repairs can be avoided or reduced in frequency with a good proactive, preventive maintenance program. You shouldn’t see equipment icing up due to clogged filters if filters are replaced quarterly. If drive belts are replaced annually, you should not have demand calls placed due to broken belts. Frequency of condensate leaks can be reduced by cleaning condensate drainage components on a regular basis,” Prager noted.
Common repairs include compressor, heat exchanger, and blower motor failures; replacing condenser fan motors and condenser and refrigerant leaks are frequently seen as well. As equipment ages, all of these repairs become more frequent.
Pantin added that keeping the unit clean, especially the evaporator and condenser coils, will keep your system running longer. “Think of it as your car,” he said. “If you don’t maintain it, and you didn’t change the oil in it, you’re going to be replacing an engine a lot quicker than the person that does on a regular basis.”
When to Replace
When repairing an HVAC system would cost more than purchasing new equipment, it is time for replacement. No matter how well units are maintained, if it is between 10 and 15 years old and requires extensive repairs, depending on lease life and lease options, replacement should be considered. Part of asset management should be planning for equipment replacement to avoid the high costs of keeping an outdated unit running while awaiting new equipment.
“We strongly recommend implementing a proactive replacement program. Work with your teams to develop a budget; work with your supplier partner to evaluate your asset list and determine what equipment should be replaced and when,” Prager said. “It is a good idea to develop a 5-year replacement program so that FMs can request necessary funding well in advance. Not only are you demonstrating proactiveness, but your real estate team might be able to use some of the asset information such as equipment condition and anticipated lifespan in their negotiations with landlords for new spaces, and for lease extensions.”
Finding the Right Supplier
When it is time to select your HVAC equipment supplier, Prager advised to pay strong attention to reputation and product support. “You’ll find that many service contractors prefer certain brands and are reluctant to use others; this is especially true with respect to variable refrigerant flow systems (VRF systems), which are becoming increasingly popular,” he said. “Consult with those who service and maintain these systems. Also consider the cost and availability of replacement parts, as these can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.”
Pantin noted that it is not necessarily about the brand, but rather finding a unit that fits correctly to avoid added costs. For example, if the current equipment is a rooftop unit with a curb, match the same brand unit so that it will fit on the same curb. “If not, we would need a domain to adapt that curb. That is more costly because we would probably have to extend the electric, gas piping, etc.”
Maintaining Partnerships Pays Off
Pantin advised against waiting to contact an HVAC supplier until it is time for a new part or replacement equipment, and instead focusing on building a long-term partnership with them.
“While FMs are undoubtedly smart and capable of the task at hand, there is a need for more hands-on training in the mechanical field,” he noted. “They should not be afraid to ask questions. That is part of building trust and partnering. If you do not have trust in the contractor, it is not a real relationship.”
Building a strong partnership with your vendor-partner not only benefits FMs by helping them better understand the mechanics of their equipment, but also by keeping them apprised of the constant changes in government regulations.
“HVAC/R is a highly technical area, irrespective of the particular FM’s experience level. It is therefore imperative that they partner with a strong supplier in the industry with extensive technical knowledge and expertise,” Prager agreed. “Also, the industry is rapidly changing — everyone needs to continually be educated on and reminded of these changes.”