The joys of installing a new HVAC system


A short while ago, I noted:

We recently got paid a useful sum of money that’s been owed to us for some time.  If we put it in the bank, the inflation rate would reduce its buying power by double digit percentages every year; so we’re going to put it to work instead, by investing in major domestic improvements while we can afford them.

We’re investing part of that money in replacing our old HVAC system.  It was installed when the house was built, 30-odd years ago, and was on its last legs.  (The last time something broke, two years ago, the local HVAC service company couldn’t get new parts to fix it, and had to pay an exorbitant price for a used part [which was passed on to us, of course].  They warned us at the time that the next time it broke, they probably couldn’t fix it, and advised us to save up for a replacement system.)  The old geothermal system was also too small, a 2-ton-capacity unit instead of the recommended 3-ton unit for our size of house.  In high summer it ran non-stop for 18 hours a day trying to keep the place cool, and in mid-winter it ran non-stop trying to keep the house warm.  Electricity bills reflected that.

We got several quotes to replace it, and were astonished at the prices currently being charged.  Two years ago, we could have bought a geothermal system for approximately $10K.  Today, geothermal would have set us back more than double that price – far beyond our budget;  so we went for a conventional heat pump system instead, which still cost us almost $12K with the addition of two extra vents and the duct work to reach them.  At the recommendation of the installer, we increased system capacity from 2 to 3½ tons.  The new system also has a much higher SEER rating than the old one.

The installation team showed up bright and early on Wednesday morning.  The first order of business was to remove the old geothermal system, which had been installed in the attic.  It was very heavy indeed, so much so that they had to break it down into component parts and remove them one at a time.  Once that had been done, they tried to lift the new unit into the attic, only to find that it was too big to fit through the narrow hatchway leading up there;  so they had to unscrew the frame surrounding the hatch and take down the folding ladder giving access to it, then use conventional step-ladders to hoist the new A/C unit up there.  A great deal of sweat and sotto voce bad language later, they managed to complete the exchange, with yours truly and our cats as interested observers (and listeners!).

Over the rest of Wednesday and yesterday, heavy footsteps and loud mutterings were heard from the attic as wider ducts were installed to replace the old, narrower ones.  Our two cats did not approve of such continued interruptions from above, and showed their disdain by vanishing under beds and staying there until work ended each day – after which, of course, they demanded treats and extra attention to compensate them for the trauma they’d had to endure.  My wife calls them “furry little socialists”, and I think she’s not far wrong!

The new system “went live” late yesterday afternoon.  It’s humming right along, and is already proving to be very much more efficient than the old one, keeping the house at the right temperature for much less run-time than we saw in the past.

Now comes the added financial pain of getting an electrician to give us a quote to install a larger electrical panel.  We don’t need more power to the house, but we need more room for expansion, given that we want to install a generator switch and run a power line to a garden shed in future.  The new HVAC system took up two of our open slots, so there are no longer enough free spaces on the existing panel to accommodate that expansion.  Oh, well . . . our debt repayment windfall won’t last long at this rate, but as they say in the classics, it’s only money!



  1. 30 Years? That's incredibly long-lived!

    Our house is just over 40 years old and we're on our fourth central A/C system. Had it put in two years ago this month. Replaced the ducts and brought it all up to modern standards by adding a return from every room rather than just one very near the unit, but inside the house.

    It made a dramatic difference in lowering our bills. Which is now going to be wiped out by the electricity prices as Brandon's policy of making everyone miserable proceeds.

  2. Look into an electrical panel with a generator interlock as a cost-effective way to add a transfer switch while upgrading.

    The one gotcha is that you should float the neutral on a generator used with an interlock.

  3. @SiGraybeard: It's not so long – bits and pieces have been replaced from time to time, so that I doubt there's a single original part left. It's like "grandfather's axe – my dad replaced the shaft, and I put on another shaft and a new head, but it's still granddad's axe!"

  4. I think we are not too far from you IIRC… If you have recommendations for electricians and HVAC folks would be most interested in hearing as we are new to the area. Bought an older house and some of the things are "odd", I would like to make them "less odd" and more functional as my wife has plans for expansion… Thanks!

  5. Updating the panel may require updating the service. Most newer homes have a minimum of a 200 amp service, with some even higher. Older homes may be 100 amps, or less, and some don't even have a neutral in the wiring, which is required by newer electrical codes. A good electrical contractor can tell you what's required, and hopefully, it's not an expensive upgrade.

  6. It is usually the ground that is missing (the 'earth' to non-Americans).

    The neutral is kind of hard to leave out…

  7. If your panel uses modern breakers, you may be able to to stretch it by using halfsize breakers for some circuits instead of full size breakers.
    If you can afford it, upgrading your service and putting in a transfer switch would be good to do.

    With the cost of central systems, I know several people who use several window units instead of a central system.

  8. We had to have the heat pump system for the west end of the house replaced last year – it was as old as the house, that being scarce more'n a decade, but it was made in the transition year between two refrigerants and it turned out not to be properly designed for the new refrigerant. Many leaks in both ends of the system, so replacement was in order.
    We'll likely get the east-end system replaced this spring, in between heating and cooling seasons, given that it's the same model and vintage as the one that failed. I'm hoping we can get one size larger, and run some climate control to the garage.

  9. h, well . . . our debt repayment windfall won't last long at this rate, but as they say in the classics, it's only money!


    And at this rate, I'd rather buy real goods/services now, and do minimum on the debt repayment and pay it off with inflated dollars.

  10. Jonathon H is correct in saying to look into half size breakers. We could give better advice if you post a pic of your panel.

  11. Not sure if you're aware, but most power companies give rebates on installing new "more efficient" A/C and heat pumps. It can be a considerable amount. Either the power company website will have info or the HVAC installers should be able to point you in the right direction.

    Also i agree with the above commenter, you're almost certainly going to want to upgrade the power service to your house. (150amps is pretty minimum nowadays). Sometimes the local power company will hit you for a fee if they have to update the transformer in your area, but you should look into. Also moving it to a better location if you want/need to. it's going to have to be shut down anyway.

  12. Also, depending on what you're looking to do, a sub panel is often much cheaper and much easier to do, and allows you to set it up with the essentials. Mine's set up with well & septic pumps, boiler, refrigerator, and lights. My smaller generator will run those, so I can switch everything else off and run it to 'sip' the gasoline, or I can use the big one to run the rest of the house. My wife insisted on an electric stove, so that requires the big generator, unfortunately.

  13. As others have said, Half breakers and a sub panel can get you far. I'm an electrical contractor, not in your area so I can't speak to local codes, but for stuff on national code and recommendations on what to do feel free to reach out

  14. I had to have the original HVAC system installed in the house ten years ago, and oh, what a difference it made, instantly. Had to replace the coil last year – my, the time did fly! I was so glad to have had it all done, and to have put in the new windows and replaced the siding all the way around, just before everything went to heck last year.

  15. Just FYI, a decent conventional unit built today has a much higher SEER than your I assume GSHP from 30 years ago. The money you should save, especially if you take the opportunity to get your insulation up to current code, will pay for the unit and the insulation in less than 3 years…or quicker than that if electricity gets as high as I expect it to.

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