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Here's How Long Your HVAC System Should Last

Furnaces, air conditioners and heat pumps might have different lifespans but one thing is certain: Maintenance makes your HVAC system last longer.

Alexandra Jones Contributor
Alexandra Jones is a CNET contributor who writes about food, farming, gardening, and climate change. Her work has been published in USA Today, Forbes Food & Wine, Ambrook Research, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among others.
Expertise Climate adaptation | Agriculture | Home gardening
Alexandra Jones
5 min read
A person reinstalls clean filters into a minisplit heat pump.

Some simple maintenance tasks, like cleaning air filters, can improve HVAC performance and extend the system's life.

Iuliia Burmistrova/Getty Images

If your furnace or air conditioner isn't keeping up with the outdoor temperatures, it might be on its last legs. Even if it's working as it should, you might want to keep an eye on its likely expiration date.

No one wants to be without air conditioning in the middle of a hot summer or without heat when there's snow on the ground. Anticipating your HVAC system's demise lets you approach a pricey home project with enough time to make the best decision for you.

Your HVAC equipment -- furnaces, boilers, air conditioners and heat pumps -- is one of the biggest factors in your household's comfort and utility bills. Here's what you need to know about the lifespan of HVAC equipment, plus tips for how to make it last longer and how to switch systems from one fuel source to another. 

How long does an HVAC system last?

You can expect an HVAC system to last for anywhere from 15 to 20 years, maybe even longer, said Seattle-based designer and home renovation expert Eric Goranson, host of the Around the House podcast and nationally syndicated radio show. 

"It really depends on how well you service and maintain that system," he said. "I've seen heat pumps that are 30 years old and still running."

How long does a furnace last?

Your home's furnace should last an average of 15 to 20 years, though there are some exceptions. Goranson has seen electric furnaces run 40 or 50 years, but at some point, older furnaces are going to give you diminishing returns. 

"They just become so inefficient that it's costing you so much more and wasting a ton of electricity," he said. "You're probably better off getting a financing plan and replacing it with something more efficient."

How long does central air conditioning last?

A central air conditioning unit has a similar lifespan of 15 or 20 years, though some models can last as long as 30 years with diligent maintenance and regular service. However, there may be a point when older models may need parts or refrigerants that are no longer made.

"The problem is obsolescence, where the Freon it uses is no longer made," Goranson said. "At that point, it's actually cheaper to replace because you just can't get that product anymore."

How long does a heat pump last?

A new focus on energy-efficient homes combined with tax incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act has driven recent interest in heat pumps. You can expect a new heat pump to last between 10 and 15 years, though regular maintenance and service can extend that lifespan. 

There are two kinds of heat pumps available: air-source heat pumps and ground-source heat pumps. Air-source heat pumps function by extracting heat from the air and sending it where it needs to go, while ground-source heat pumps extract heat from the ground. While ground-source heat pumps generally last longer and operate more efficiently, air-source heat pumps take up less space, are easier to install and have a lower up-front cost.

"Ground-source can save you money because it's a little more efficient, but you can spend six figures putting in a ground-source heat pump system," Goranson said. "You're doing it because it's greener."

How can you extend the life of your HVAC system?

The best way to extend the life of your home's HVAC equipment is to perform routine maintenance yourself and get it serviced regularly by a qualified professional.

"The number one thing you can do is have somebody come out every year to service that thing," Goranson said. Regular service is important because small issues can cause greater damage to the unit over time if they're not resolved, and fixing those issues can be much more expensive than paying for an annual service call. 

A very dirty air filter from a mini split heat pump.

Don't let air filters get this dirty. Clean or replace them to keep your system operating efficiently.

Songsak Rohprasit/Getty Images

The other big factor in extending the life of your HVAC system is checking your equipment's filters regularly -- ideally once a month -- and replacing or cleaning them every three to six months, depending on their condition. It's also important to keep the areas around outdoor units like AC compressors and heat pumps clear of dirt and debris. Skipping this routine maintenance can result in costlier problems down the line. 

"A dirty filter can get so clogged up, it'll actually bend and fold up, dirt gets into the system and corrosion happens," Goranson said. "All of a sudden, you're putting in a new system."

When should you replace your HVAC system?

Just because your HVAC system has hit that 15- to 20-year mark doesn't mean you've got to rush out and buy a new system. But you'll want to check for issues like higher utility bills and uneven or ineffective heating and cooling, even on days without extreme heat or cold. If your system needs frequent repairs, that could be another sign it's time to replace. 

As you consider whether to upgrade your HVAC system, think about whether your household's conditions or needs have changed. Maybe there are children, elders or people with health conditions that require better climate control in the home, or your area is experiencing more hot days each summer or severe storms in winter. 

"Environmental factors could change things," Goranson said. "Maybe your house was in full shade, and then your neighbor took a bunch of trees down. Now you're in full sun, and that heat pump or AC unit isn't keeping up." 

How do you change HVAC systems?

When you're ready to move forward with a new HVAC system, it's important to understand that this is the job for a seasoned pro and not a DIY project. Start by getting quotes from a few reputable HVAC companies in your area and discuss your needs with them. They'll be able to assess your home, make recommendations and give you a cost estimate for the project. 

Rather than shopping for a specific brand of heat pump or air conditioner, Goranson recommends finding a trustworthy, qualified HVAC contractor and following their recommendations. If you do have a particular brand in mind, Goranson recommends looking on the company's website for a list of licensed HVAC installers in your area. 

"The installer who's putting in your new system is just as important as the brand of equipment," he said. "Deal with people that are licensed in the brand that they're working for, versus the Chuck in the truck who says he'll put in whatever brand you want. Those are the ones you typically have the most problems with." 

If you're hoping to replace your gas furnace with a heat pump, know that the new system may require electrical upgrades before installation. You'll also need to decide whether you'd like to decommission your furnace -- which may be required to take advantage of tax rebates available for installing heat pumps -- or keep it in place as a backup system.

"My advice is to leave your options open, unless it's broken. Then take it out," said Goranson, noting that fluctuations in utility prices could one day mean it's cheaper to run the furnace instead. "If you maintain both systems, that could save you money down the road."