Ah summer. The picnics, the lemonade, the barbeques—and the high energy bills. It may seem idyllic now, but in just a few short weeks, you’ll be peeling yourself off car seats and working the dial on your thermostat so hard it’s a wonder you don’t give yourself carpal tunnel syndrome.
Electricity consumption spikes during the summer and winter—the Energy Information Association says peak use for these parts of the year sometimes reaches 67 billion kilowatt hours a month! If you have an older, inefficient or poorly maintained air conditioner, it’s not helping matters. A unit rated at 10 SEER could cost you 20 to 40 percent more to operate than today’s higher performance models. Meanwhile, lapses in maintenance—even something as small as forgetting to change the filters—can cause noticeable fluctuations inside your HVAC unit and ducts, or even a total system failure.
The good news is that with a little upkeep, most units will be quietly humming away all summer. Follow these tips for no-sweat air conditioner maintenance.
No, Really—Change Your Filters
It’s not just a scam perpetrated by AC manufacturers. Dirty filters really do lower AC performance. Here’s what happens when you don’t change them: the blocked filter leads to a system pressure drop, and then, as a consequence, you can compromise the unit’s airflow so your air conditioner doesn’t work as well. That sets off a chain reaction. Your system will work harder to reach the settings on the thermostat, at the expense of its internal components. That means parts will wear out faster—and consume more energy to cool your home—and you’ll feel the effects your pocketbook. Plan on changing the filters once every 90 days, or more frequently if you have pets in your home. Because who wants to go without air conditioning in the summer?
Cleaning Condenser Coils Keeps Systems Blowing Clear
But filters aren’t the only ones doing the dirty work in your unit. Your AC’s condenser coils, generally located in the system’s outdoor unit, can become coated over time with dust, fallen leaves, pet hair, cut grass, and any other particles floating around in the air. This causes performance to drop off, since the coil’s job is to transfer heat from indoors, allowing the refrigerant to function properly. In fact, dirty coils could cause inefficiencies of up to 30 percent, which is quite a lot for a little bit of dust. Most homeowners find that they can easily clean coils themselves with a little education. A soft-bristled brush, hose or pressure washer are generally enough to get the job done. Additionally, you may also want to trim branches or brush near the outdoor unit to keep debris from collecting inside.
And So Does Clearing the Condensate Drain Line
Your AC actually has two functions: the first, obviously, is to push cooled air into your home. The second is to wring moisture out of the interiors, since high humidity makes you feel a lot warmer than it really is. When everything’s working like it should, that moisture travels from your unit to the condensate drain line. But over time, without maintenance, drain lines may become clogged, which forces the collected water back inside the unit. Leaks may then form around the system, which can lead to considerable water damage throughout your home. To prevent these kinds of drain backups, flush the drain line with a little bit of bleach—it will also kill off mold that’s beginning to grow.
The Professional Maintenance Package: Good Deal or Total Scam?
If you don’t feel like getting your hands dirty, a professional service agreement may be right up your alley. Under these contracts, an HVAC technician agrees to visit your home once or twice a year to perform an AC tune-up. Professionals inspect your filters, refrigerant levels, and air pressure, among other checks. The idea is to spot problems before they turn into full-blown failures. However, the HVAC industry doesn’t exactly agree on just how valuable these kinds of service contracts really are. Typically, they run homeowners somewhere between $150 to $500 a year, which is pretty steep considering that the average AC replacement costs roughly $5,000. Some service people will tell you that the most common issues, like a capacitor failure, are difficult to diagnose ahead of time. On the other hand, many companies offer priority repairs for customers who purchase service agreements, which can be worth its weight in gold during an AC failure. The manufacturer’s warranty may require this kind of maintenance before it will cover repairs to your unit, so it’s worth weighing the pros and cons.
Opt for a High Efficiency Unit
If your air conditioner is on its last legs, it may be a good idea to have it switched out for a more efficient unit. AC technology has evolved a lot in the past 20 years, which means today’s units use a lot less energy than their predecessors. The very most efficient units on the market right now have efficiency ratings of up to 25 SEER—compare that to the old 10 SEER
units you might have seen in homes in the 90s. An HVAC replacement ensures that your home stays cool and comfortable all year. Some modern models have sensors that shut systems down when a repair is needed so that you don’t blow out your whole unit. Plus, you’ll definitely breathe a sigh of relief when you’re paying the bills. With a new, well-maintained unit, summer cooling will be easy-breezy!