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Question DetailsAsked on 10/19/2016

I have a leaking air/water handler in my attic. To be charged $6,500 or repair, which I'm told requires replacement

This is a gas fired water home heating system that pipes water into air/water handlers for each floor of the house. The handler for upstairs is in the attic. Recently the attic handler (about 10 years old) began to leak, and dripped through the ceiling. HVAC guys told me it must be replaced ($3,500), but then discovered that a new unit cannot fit through hatch to the attic. They propose installing handler in the bedroom closet, and running ducts etc. up through ceiling. Now the price has risen to $6,500. Before I do this, I'd like some advice. Is it common to replace a unit that's 10 years old? Would it be better to change to an entirely different heating system, at least upstairs? Thanks!!

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Answered 4 years ago by Member Services


You don't say if the heat exchanger coil was leaking or just the piping leading to it - generally not fixable unless you get a real old-school HVAC contractor who can repair it - but only if due to a point failure (like a bad joint) rather than overall corrosion. And of course, you have no way of knowing how many other joints are ready to start leaking, so most people just go with the new unit. However, if just leaking in the piping to/from the exchanger, this would normally be a couple hundred $ repair by a plumber or HVAC contractor.

If the heat exchanger itself is leaking, usually under about $500 for a residential-sized unit and typically in same range or less for the labor to do the replacement, depending on working room - so $1000 plus or minus would be the amount I would expect to replace the air handler heat exchanger coil only - more like $1000-1800 range if entire handler with fan too is being replaced (if this is a stand-alone unit not combined with an A/C air handler providing the airflow) because the unit cost goes up to the $500-1200 range then.

1) No, not "normal" to replace a 10 year old unit but not uncommon either - quality control and materials on modern evaporator and heat exchanger units are the pits these days - the days of counting on 20-25+ years (except in corrosive water environments) are gone unless you buy a stainless steel coil unit.

2) For $6500, that is in the range of replacing a total HVAC system - boiler and heat exchanger/air handler and everything except ducting, possibly including A/C or water chiller (whatever you have) as well for that price - so I would definitely be looking at getting bids from several other well-rated and reviewed Heating and A/C contractors - including opinions on whether the leak is from the coil or from the service piping.

3) Getting the hatch enlarged in the dimension parallel to the ceiling joists (assuming the small dimension of the new unit is not more than about 21-22 inches, which most residential units are specifically kept to for attic hatch access) would probably cost about $250-400 by a Handyman - so that option is a lot cheaper than their proposed fix and losing a closet, which in many areas would also mean that bedroom could no longer be counted as a "legal bedroom" when you go to sell - plus a real negative to buyers to have a bedroom without a fully usable closet. But this fix and one below are certainly a LOT cheaper than the $3000 to use a closet to do it. Also - $3000 to put the unit in the closet, run the piping and wiring there from the attic, and connect ducting to the ducting in the attic - that sounds more like a $1000 range additional cost job, not $3000 - so again, I would be getting several proposals.

4) Another option if space for enlarging the hatch is not reasonably available - cutting a new access hatch in the upstairs hall ceiling (similar cost to above), or cutting a hatch in the gable (end) wall of the house (assuming single-direction or T-shaped gabled roof so you have a high A-shaped end to the attic on one or two or more walls. Easy to take a skil saw and cut an opening (again, typically about 21-22 inch max width without taking out any studs, though that too is not real tough usually on a gable end because the roof load is low - just like putting a window opening in) and making the cut-out piece of siding into a hatch with proper insect seal around the opening and such. Or just enlarging a gable vent and making the vent/screen into a hinged door to provide occasional access. Easier with sheet siding than lap or shingle, but doable for probably around $400-800 in most cases depending on siding type - with something like T-111 this is REAL simple and about a 1-2 hour job complete and might be done for just a bit over a couple hundred $.

5) Another alternative - go with a smaller double-pass heat exchanger air handler - less choice about exact rating, but they are made for compact industrial and ship-board spaces - have two heat exchangers in one unit, so it smaller in cross-section but longer - sometimes ships as two units (one with standard fan and heat exchanger, second one that attaches with second heat exchanger - so the air flows over two units in succession.

6) Another option sometimes done when the owner wants to get the upstairs air handler out of the attic or an upstairs closet or such - building a bump-out "utility chase" on the outside of the house (commonly next to a chimney goes well, generally done on end or back of house), put the air handler next to / near to the boiler, run larger well-insulated ducting to the chase, up the chase to upstairs, and connect into the existing ducting there. Also commonly done on concrete or brick houses converting to forced air, to get the ducting to the upstairs without tearing the heck out of the walls or floors. Obviously a very long run needs VERY well-sealed and insulated metal ducting, but commonly only adds 10-15 feet or so in each direction which with properly sized ducts causes no problem - or using same size ducts and higher pressure fan works too. This is commonly $1500-2500 ballpark cost for the framing and siding and insulation and ducting (assuming there is room for the air handler unit near the boiler), so could also be cheaper than the closet idea, and you don't lose the closet. "Concealing" the chase is commonly done with lattice or trellis and climbing vines (though they are terrible for siding) or roses or cleamatis or such on it.

7) if a new handler is put in, for attic installations I always recommend that a drip/drain pan be put under it, with 1 inch drain pipe leading outside the house (and clear enough of the siding to prevent dripping on the siding if there is a leak). With remote sensor water alarm with inside (commonly ceiling) alarm location, to let you know if there is a leak into the pan. Additional cost (assuming done during installation of new handler) probably $150-250 range depending on size of pan needed. Will trap dripping water - but not a sideways spray so a decent but not surefire security measure, because spraying pipe or a leak in the piping leading to/from the boiler or water chiller will NOT be trapped.

I would get several well-rated HVAC contractors to look at your situation, both with respect to whether the heat exchanger is what is leaking, and is it needs replacement, with respect to the best way (and place) to get a new one installed. I really think that unless the $6500 price included a new high-efficiency boiler (and the existing one is old or on last legs), you can probably solve this issue for half or less what was quoted.

Answered 4 years ago by LCD


Thanks, LCD, for that thoughtful and complete analysis of my problem. I'm going to get a second opinion, as you suggested.

Do you have a recommended HVAC company in my area (21663, Easton/St. Michaels, MD)?

When I shared your reply with my current HVAC, they responded with:

Definitely the coil is leaking, not the lead-in piping.

Unit may be 15+ yrs old, not 10 as originally thought.

Pitch of roof makes access for new unit very difficult. Original probably went in with roof construction.

The closet alternative premised on idea that it is better than attic anyway because of the easy access it allows. Dismissed "losing a closet" drawback as unrealistic and counter to current practice in many existing home refits.

Justified the extra $3000 over original $3,500 estimate by claim that closet work (including new electrical lines, new ducting, etc) would be in this $ range.


Answered 4 years ago by trevelyan


OK, I just joined on the silver plan. Could you please respond to my last note on the thread? Thanks!

Answered 4 years ago by trevelyan


Another bid or two would certainly address what the reasonable cost is for your project/area issue - I would expect a low bid something in the ballpark of half that or a bit more may come through with other bids.

The bedroom thing an HVAC guy is no expert on - I would check with your local building department about rules about using a closet for utility room, leaving the bedroom with no closet - in many areas that is illegal. Also, talk to your favorite realtor (probably one you bought the house through) about listing issues - in MANY areas a room may not be listed on MLS as a "bedroom" without a full separate built-in closet - so come sale time this could change your 3-bedroom house to 2-bedroom or such - a MAJOR impact on resale value if that is the case.

If a large room, of course one possibility would be taking up a corner (using a vertically-oriented airhandler so maybe 2x3 feet footprint roughly) and enclose it in a finished "closet" built to look like a stand-alone dresser or closet for appearance's sake.

You did not say if they talked with you about the possibility of relocating the air handler and runing a duct chase to it - or even possibly doing a bumpout closet on an upstairs room with good existing upstairs duct access, as a separate utility closet. (A bumpout closet literally "hangs" off the outside of the house

About them thinking the air handler may have gone in before the roof - you still have the other option I mentioned about putting an another access hatch to the attic more under the high-point of the attic (assuming a peaked roof) - the air handler does not weigh that much so a 3/4" plywood base spanning several attic floor joists or truss bottom chords could hold it up wherever needed, and put a new hatch in typically a hallway to access the attic - sealing off the old hatch to prevent excess air infiltration.

Answered 4 years ago by LCD

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