Live Long and Prosper Life Spans of Building Systems

Nothing lasts forever, and though you can’t predict the moment a piece of building equipment will break down, you can prepare for it. Even the toughest boiler, HVAC unit, or elevator will eventually tucker out and need major repairs, or just give up the ghost and have to be replaced. And with New England’s penchant for hot summers and cold winters, parts of a building sometimes must be replaced more frequently than might usually be expected elsewhere in the nation.

That’s why working estimates of usable life spans of various building systems can be very helpful to management when planning short- and long-term budgets and capital improvement projects. For some communities, these estimates are a part of a regular evaluation of the facilities. Whether or not this evaluation is a part of your community’s management process, knowing about the life spans and maintenance needs of your building’s systems should be a part of your understanding of your community. Having such knowledge can help you prepare for the worst and in doing so, also help you save her money.

Finite Lives

The longevity of any building system depends upon factors including the type of system, be it the roof or the windows or the elevators or the plumbing, how often it is used, how old it is, how well it’s been cared for, and even the effect of weather. It’s axiomatic that the best-run buildings will have every pump on every system labeled, and a record kept of each servicing and replacement of every part on each piece of equipment or building system.

Generally speaking, hot water heaters in multi-family buildings will last for just a decade or so. The life spans of HVAC components vary depending upon the type of system, but usually they will last for 15 to 30 years. Trash compactors get some of the worst resident abuse, being used for things they shouldn’t be, and often last for only 8 to 10 years. Major plumbing components can last 50 to 60 years, but when they are close to the end of their life, management should plan for the fact that the equipment will need to be replaced.

In New England, the housing stock in condominium communities varies enough to affect the conversation around HVAC systems. “In general, there are any different kinds of HVACs. There are some that are suitable for a standalone residential unit. There’s obviously a totally different system for a high-rise. When you’re talking about residential units, usually the bylaws are written up so that the unit owners are responsible for their own heating systems or air conditioning systems,” says Jack Carr, senior vice president at Criterium Engineers in Portland, Maine.


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