07 Jul 2020

How to Keep Your HVAC System Going Strong

Williams Arena being cooled by Aggreko

Whatever line of business you’re in or premises you operate in, you will need some kind of climate control in place. Globally, there are around 151 million HVAC units in use - and the market is worth a whopping $209 billion. 

That reflects just how important these are in the running of any business. From maintaining a comfortable temperature for your workforce, to making sure fragile stock doesn’t spoil, to creating the right environmental conditions for business-critical processes and quality control, a few degrees in the wrong direction can be disastrous. 

That means you need to have a highly reliable HVAC system in place - and you need to keep it in tip-top condition. The longer it’s installed, the more work you need to do to make sure it doesn’t break down on you, dragging down productivity and undermining profits in the process.

What Is An HVAC System and What Does it Do? 

HVAC stands for Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning (HVAC). It refers to a broad range of heating and cooling systems, from small air conditioning units right through to industrial-sized units for offices, manufacturing facilities, schools, hospitals, and other buildings. 

Common uses include cool equipment or data centers, to clear out dead air and bring in fresh air, and to provide comfort heating and cooling. HVAC systems control the temperature by applying the principles of thermodynamics, heat transfer and fluid mechanics.

In some scenarios, HVAC systems really are a matter of life and death. In a clinical environment, for example, life-saving equipment and medicines may need to be kept cool to work safely. Some pharmaceutical products must be created and stored at an incredibly precise temperature, or they will be ruined. It only takes an aging HVAC system to break down for a few minutes and these sensitive substances may need to be discarded, or an entire hospital ward could need to be closed down.

How Do HVAC Systems Work?

HVAC systems aren’t new, although they have changed dramatically over the years. They’ve been around for over a century, since an inventor called Willis Carrier designed a cooling system that would circulate cold water through heater coils, causing air to cool down as it moved over the coils, reducing damage to books in production at a printing plant.

Later versions switched out the cool water for refrigerant and used smaller and smaller pipework, venting and air conditioner units overall. These adaptations allowed HVAC systems to use less energy and to gradually become less harmful to the environment.
Today, the best HVAC systems are more compact, cheaper to run and increasingly IoT-connected, allowing you to control them remotely or set them up to respond automatically to their surroundings. This also means you can monitor performance and improve energy use. 

Large, commercial HVAC systems contain a compressor that raises the refrigerant temperature, bringing in hot air and pulling it over the refrigerant to turn it into a liquid. An expansion valve helps lower the pressure of the refrigerant. From here, an evaporator transforms this cool liquid into gas so that this can be circulated.
This is a simplified view, of course. There are a few different ways an HVAC system might be constructed. The heating elements could be fueled by gas or electricity. It may use air ducts or a water system to distribute cooling and heating. There may or may not be a dedicated ventilation system. What’s more, the broader system and design of the building might involve radiators, boilers, heat pumps, chillers, rooftop units or even cooling towers.

This may be one complete system of air handling units, each of which is connected to ductwork in order to move cool and warm air around the facility. Or, it could be made up of lots of individual systems that each do a different job, for example, radiators, mechanically-operated ventilators, and comfort cooling units, which together form your complete HVAC capacity.

What Can Go Wrong?

Nothing lasts forever. The average HVAC system lasts from 15 to 25 years, maybe up to 30 years if you’re really lucky. As you creep up past the 10-year mark, though, the system will inevitably become less reliable. That’s true of all kinds of HVAC units, AHUs, and chillers.  
As we’ve seen, these problems can cause havoc or even serious threats to health. It’s absolutely essential that you keep on top of emergency repairs or, even better, proactive maintenance, to ensure you aren’t hit with damaging downtime.

That said, you need to think carefully about whether it’s worth continually fixing a system that keeps breaking, or whether you should just opt for a new one. From an economical perspective, as soon as the cost of your repairs and maintenance rises above 5% of the unit price, it probably makes sense to invest in a new one (or to rent one, but we’ll come back to that later). You need to weigh up not only the direct cost of repairs but also the financial impact of having your HVAC system underperform or break down on you without warning.

For example, you may be using far more energy than you should be, increasing your day to day costs. You may need to schedule regular downtime for maintenance, affecting your output. If things break down without warning, this can really throw a spanner in the works, causing costs to spiral and revenues to plummet. 

It’s not always easy to replace a very old or embedded unit, however. Sometimes these are awkwardly placed on rooftops, are buried underground, or lodged in a basement that’s hard to get to. They may be entangled in ancient wires and pipes. If you have any concerns, check the situation out long before it actually breaks down so you can come up with a plan.

It’s not just the main HVAC system that can run into problems. The underlying plumbing system or electrical system can also fail, which will bring down your HVAC with it. Keep an eye on your wiring and pipework to make sure that doesn’t happen.

How To Stay One Step Ahead

Don’t let things get to breaking point! Maintenance is crucial - and that means taking the time to run the preventative, not just reactive, kinds. Make sure you check the whole system on a regular basis to pick up on any emerging problems and to replace any components that mail fail.

In particular:

  • Create a schedule for maintenance and equipment inspection
  • Inspect water pumps, drains, and compressors
  • Keep notes on when each component was installed and when you’ll need to replace it
  • Also make sure you have records of the model and serial numbers of every component, where you can source replacements, plus specifications for airflow, air balancing reports and so on.

Final Thoughts: Do You Really Need to Upgrade?

Replacing or upgrading all your HVAC equipment at once is potentially very expensive and disruptive. You may find it far more cost-effective (not to mention less stressful) to rent additional utilities as and when you need it rather than making such a large capital investment in one go.

Think carefully about what makes more financial sense, both in terms of upfront costs and in terms of the downtime you’ll avoid. One of the great things about rental equipment is that you don’t need to worry about paying for maintenance or tweaking performance because the company should do that for you. It’s worth factoring into your calculations.

Whatever you decide, the key is to keep a close eye on your HVAC equipment and nip any problems in the bud - or make the call for backup equipment. When you realize how much money and hassle you’ll save, you’ll be very glad you did.