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 Chicago’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 some money.

Finite Lives

The longevity of any building system depends upon many 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 effects of inclement 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. “There are old Cleveland boilers in Chicago which are approaching 100 years of service. Many have been partially or nearly completely rebuilt, piece-by-piece. Efficient pre-packaged boilers are the more common choice and require minimal maintenance and have a useful life of 20 to 30 years,” says Phillip Mahan, president of Structural Technologies in Chicago.

Elevators typically last for 30 to 40 years, with proper maintenance, says Mark A. Waldman, SE, PE, LEED AP, principal structural engineer at Waldman Engineering Consultants in Chicago. “If it’s a hydraulic lift elevator, six stories or less, or in the primary range in Chicago, buildings that are 50 or 60 years old. We had a program in Chicago where they were required to replace those main seals and bearings, and they’ve since kind of phased it out. Usually people will refurbish the interior of the car in 35 or 30 years, and some folks let it go longer than that,” he says. That 30-year mark is also when controls need to be replaced as well.


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