Sooner or later, everything breaks down. Even the stars in the sky sputter out and die. Nothing is permanent. Office furniture has a lifespan of its own.
A Long-Term Investment
A sound piece of advice that you may or may not have heard before is this: Invest in what’s between you and the ground. Anything that separates you from the dirt is worth investing in. Shoes, mattresses, tires for your vehicles; they’re all critically important for various aspects of your life.
A chair is no different. It separates you from the ground, and thus, it’s worth an investment. It’s a piece of furniture you use every day, you spend hours of your life in it, so you want to make sure you’re getting the best you can out of it.
Indeed, the life span of an office chair depends heavily on the investment you make into it. Some chairs might last 1-2 years. Some chairs might last 5-6. Some chairs can last decades, with proper care and maintenance.
According to Baylor University:
“[…] probably up to 7 or 8 years for a chair with a 5-year warranty and 12-15 years for a chair that offers a warranty of 10-years or more. These life expectancy estimates are not directly related to the warranty period but are based on quality such guarantees imply.”
On average, an office chair should last between 5 and 10 years before it needs replacement. However, there are a lot of different factors that can affect this number, both up and down, so it’s worth considering everything when you’re making a chair purchase.
Factors Affecting a Chair’s Longevity
There are a bunch of different elements that go into how long-lived a chair can be.
Let’s go over them all.
The overall construction, quality, and materials used to make your chair will make a great difference in the longevity of your chair.
1. Construction materials. A chair made out of cheap plastic is going to fall apart faster than one made out of aluminum. One made out of metal or wood will last longer, though they’re much less common. Even in terms of plastics, some kinds of plastic are longer-lived than others.
2. Construction quality. A chair carefully made with a high level of quality control will last a lot longer than a chair mass-produced in a factory in China with no oversight. Small defects in the materials or manufacturing process can make a huge difference in the overall lifespan of the chair.
The construction of your chair isn't everything; how it's being used will also directly affect the lifespan.
1. Duration. A chair that is used for four hours a day, five days a week, is going to last longer than a chair that is used for 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, and that chair is going to last longer than a chair that is used for multiple shifts from multiple people, 20 hours a day around the clock. More usage means more wear and tear, which means more accumulated damage, which means a shorter lifespan.
2. Environment. A chair that is kept in a clean office is going to last longer than a chair that spends most of its time in a dirty warehouse or machine shop. At the very least, dirt and grime can work their way into the fabrics and cushions of a chair, making it much less pleasant to use. Over time, dirt and grime can infuse the mechanisms of the chair, such as the gas spring, the casters, and the adjustment levers, all of which can grow stiff and fail over time. Another environmental factor is the kind of people using the chair. Office workers wearing slacks are going to do less damage to a chair than a construction supervisor who might have dirty, rough jeans, a tool belt with sharp objects in it, or other items that can damage a chair.
3. Fabric resilience. Some fabrics last longer than others. Leather chairs, with proper care, can last for decades or even centuries. Faux-leather chairs do not. Fabric chairs can last a long time, depending on the quality of the fabric. Some mesh compositions are very resilient, while others can tear and run overtime. You may also want to factor in stain and odor resistance.
4. Care and maintenance. The more a chair is cared for, the longer it will last. Replacing casters before they break, replacing a gas spring as it wears out, lubricating mechanisms, keeping the fabric clean; all of this can impact the longevity of a chair.
Signs Your Chair Needs Replacement
Some signs a chair needs to be replaced are obvious. If a leg breaks off, a back mechanism fails, or another major mechanical issue breaks the chair, then you need a new chair. It’s simple.
Other signs are more subtle and might be something you can fix. However, even if your chair has a problem you can fix, it’s still a sign that parts of the chair are wearing out, and other failures may be imminent.
1. The warranty is almost up. One of the biggest reasons to replace a chair is that the warranty is almost up. If the chair has wear and tear from use, and the warranty is almost up, you may want to replace the chair simply to take advantage of the warranty. This, of course, depends on whether or not you can get the chair replaced under warranty. Many chair warranties cover defects and some kinds of damage, but won’t cover a chair that is simply used.
2. There are visible cracks or tears in the chair. Tears in the chair and holes in the fabric of a chair mean, at the very least, that the fabric needs to be replaced. A leather chair can often be repaired, though high-quality leather, once it is damaged, may be difficult or impossible to repair. Mesh, such as the mesh backs of some top office chairs, is often the last fabric to go on a chair, because of its use. However, it can still tear and run. For some chairs, where the mesh is tuned to be supportive, a tear can destroy its ergonomic capacity.
Most often, it is the seat cushion that tears. This is where buttons from pants, sharp items in pockets, and other forms of abrasion can damage the fabric. Tears and runs in the fabric of a seat cushion can be repaired by replacing the upholstery, but in some cases, doing so is just as expensive as getting a new chair. It all depends on how willing you are to spend the money to repair an existing chair.
Other kinds of damage may be harder to notice if you don’t look at your chair. Probably the two biggest points of damage are the back and the legs of the chair, both of which are pressure points where sustained use can lead to damage. Cracks in the plastic of the chair’s frame can lead to catastrophic failure down the line, so it’s best to replace the chair when you see them. Again, you may be able to replace individual elements, but replacement parts can be expensive and occasionally difficult to obtain.
3. Your chair is no longer comfortable to sit in. One of the more common ways to decide that a chair needs replacing is subjective. Is the chair no longer comfortable? Over time, a chair can break down in subtle ways that you might not notice. It can be stiffer or looser than it was when you got it and adjusted it to your liking. It can be loose and creak or squeak. Wheels can squeak. All of this leads to a less comfortable experience and an experience where you’re more likely to be stressed, sit in a less ergonomic posture, and end up with lower productivity and back pain.
Now, you may find yourself no longer comfortable because of external factors that have nothing to do with the chair itself. For example, changing life circumstances can lead to changes in how your body’s posture sits naturally. A chair might need replacing solely because of your own changing life. That’s fine too, it just means the chair is still good and can be repurposed or given to someone else to use instead.
4. The cushion of the chair is compressed. In almost all cases, the “soft” parts of a chair are the first parts to go. The frame of the chair is going to be much longer lived than the cushion of the seat. The foam of the seat can get compressed over time, the same way that a pillow will lose its fluff after it has been used for a while.
This is one element of a chair that can be replaced if you know how to upholster a piece of furniture, though you might be hard-pressed to find the same kind of fabric and the same kind of cushion as the chair you already have.
5. The mechanisms are no longer tight and stable. Any part that moves or adjusts, or needs to be solid to resist movement or adjustment, can loosen up over time. The stiffness of the back when you lean, the locking mechanism that holds the back of the chair or the headrest in place, the bolts holding the armrests in place; all of these can be worn out over time.
In some cases, you don’t need much to fix these problems. It may be as simple as tightening a few bolts or adjusting the spring tension on the chair. In other cases, it might be the plastic of the frame itself wearing out. In these cases, there’s nothing you can do to fix it, you simply need to replace the parts.
Okay, that’s not strictly true. Any damage done to a chair can be replaced with sufficient resources and ingenuity. Often times, though, these are chairs that have been purchased for an office; they aren’t owned by makers with workshops, they’re owned by office workers, or by the company that employs them. Repairs aren’t usually in the cards.
6. The gas spring no longer supports you. Gas springs are a surprisingly common point of failure for chairs, especially for heavier chairs or for chairs used by heavier people. Gas springs can be replaced, but it can be difficult figuring out exactly what kind of spring you need to get and how to replace it, so many people choose to use this as an opportunity to replace their chair. Additionally, if a gas spring is at the point of failure, chances are other parts of the chair are nearing that point as well.
7. The chair’s appearance is failing. While appearance is not tied to function for chairs, in some cases, a shabby looking chair reflects poorly on the company. If your chairs are used for important meetings with clients, for example, you don’t want to present yourself as a company lacking in resources, so using chairs that look like they’re on the verge of falling apart is going to be a strike against you.
Should You Replace Your Chair?
If your chair is running into any of the problems listed above, chances are it’s a fine opportunity to replace your chair. Any time a chair lasts more than five years, the chair has had a good life.
When you decide to replace a chair, you might want to decide what to do with it. If it’s still in reasonably good shape, donating it to a charitable cause might be a good idea. If it’s falling apart, you may consider finding a furniture recycling center in your area. Some organizations will also take donor chairs that they can use for parts to repair other chairs.
If no such resources are available in your area, it might just be fine to throw the chair away. This is why buying from a company that focuses on sustainability is a good idea. You might also want to check with the manufacturer of the company to see if they have a recycling program and if you can send the chair back to them for disposal.
At the end of the day, deciding what to do with an old chair shouldn’t be a common decision. Chairs can last quite a long time, after all.
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