Commercial Insights  

Aging Buildings: HVAC Systems

Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are integral to achieving thermal comfort and acceptable indoor air quality in buildings. As a building ages, its HVAC system must be maintained and updated to remain operational. While HVAC systems typically only require updating on an as-needed basis, HVAC failures can lead to bigger and costlier issues if not tended to swiftly.

Why Failures Can Happen

There are several reasons HVAC systems may fail, including:

  • Limited lifespan—Commercial HVAC systems typically last between 15 and 20 years, and boilers last between 15 and 30 years. As components wear and fail, it may cost more to continue repairing an older unit than replacing it with a newer, more efficient unit.
  • Exposed units—HVAC units installed outside of a building are at risk of external threats that come from nature and the elements, such as:
    • Flooding—Heavy rain can produce ground pooling that inundates outdoor ground units.
    • Falling objects—Outdoor units are subject to damage from fallen objects, like large tree limbs.
    • Wildlife—Birds, squirrels and other critters may use loose or missing vent caps to build their nests within the HVAC unit’s pipes.

Air conditioning systems are the primary loss driver of HVAC claims. Exposed rooftop units are used to cool nearly half of all commercial floor space in the United States and can be especially expensive to repair. Since they are more prone to damage caused by dust, debris and hail, they need special care and maintenance. Ground units can also incur damage from lawnmower discharge and weed whackers.


An aging or failing HVAC system can cause more harm to the building and the people inside it than just undesirable temperatures. The risks include:

  • Poor air quality—HVAC systems maintain acceptable indoor air quality. Sick building syndrome can cause building inhabitants to develop headaches, eye, nose or throat irritation, dry cough, dizziness and nausea.
  • Inefficiency—When an HVAC system is not operating to its total capacity due to age or other issues, it can increase utility costs. While repairs may correct the problem, complete replacement of the unit may save more money in the long run.
  • Burst pipes—When the furnace or heating system fails in cold weather, pipes can burst due to the freezing temperatures. Burst pipes can lead to massive structural damage, including water leaking into walls, ceilings and floors.
  • Fires—There are many ways HVAC system can cause fires:
    • Air conditioning units—If air conditioning units aren’t properly cleaned, the accumulation of dirt and dust in the air vents, filters, coils and fins can spark.
    • Gas leaks—A leaky fuel line can cause a fire due to oil, gas or petroleum coming into contact with hot elements inside the HVAC unit.
    • Boiler explosions—Boiler explosions can occur due to excessive pressure or a fuel leak.
    • Space heaters—A poorly functioning HVAC system may force building inhabitants to utilize space heaters, creating a fire hazard.

Recognizing Issues

Facilities managers should look for the following signs that it’s time for maintenance or updates:

  • Visible water—If water is visible near an HVAC unit, it may mean that the line or pan is too full, clogged or frozen. This can lead to heating and cooling systems shutting down.
  • Damaged fins—Heavily bent or damaged fins on air conditioning condenser units restrict airflow and affect the unit’s efficiency.
  • Noise—While boilers do make noise, loud bangs and clanging are not normal. Loud noises are usually an indication that there is a blockage or pressure issue.
  • Leaks—HVAC systems can leak gas, oil and water. While a small amount of leakage is typical, large-scale leaks are usually a symptom of a bigger problem.
  • Inconsistent temperature—A boiler in need of repair or replacement may heat areas unevenly. If there are hot and cold spots throughout the day, it may be time to update.
  • Rising heating and cooling costs—Old or damaged HVAC systems tend to be inefficient. Rising operational costs are a good indication that it’s time to replace.

Risk Management Actions

Having a proper maintenance program in place can help facilities managers ensure that their building remains operational. Proactive maintenance should include:

  • System inspections—HVAC systems should be checked by a professional at least once a year.
  • Hail guards—Rooftop units can be protected by hail guards to limit the amount of damage done by the outside elements.
  • Budgeting—Since HVAC systems are known for having a limited lifespan, facilities managers should set aside money knowing that replacing a unit before it fails will save money in the long run.

HVAC systems are bound to fail at some point. However, by proactively planning to replace units before that happens, buildings can remain fully functional and safe.

For more risk management guidance, contact us today.