A little AC maintenance can save a lot of money

It’s easy to think of your home’s air conditioner as “set it and forget it.”

Not true.

Even though they are generally sturdy devices built for long use, regular AC maintenance is the key to efficient operation and long life. Just as a car tune up maintains top gas mileage, so it is with your AC. Give it some love and attention BEFORE each cooling season begins, and it will reward you with peak operating efficiency and increased comfort over many years of service.

The penalties for letting maintenance slide? In addition to a loss of cooling efficiency that results in higher electricity bills, you’re looking at possible higher repair costs and even early replacement. In terms of cooling efficiency:

For each year of routine maintenance you skip, your air conditioner loses about 5% of its efficiency.

So, the self effort or professional cost of an annual tune-up can be recovered very quickly in savings on electric bills, repairs and replacement costs. Franklin’s “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” rings true again.

Even if you’ve put off it for years, a tune-up can bring back efficiency to optimum levels. Here’s how:

Routine DIY maintenance for central AC

  1. Turn off power to the air conditioner.
  2. Outside, inspect the outdoor condenser (it resembles a car’s radiator) and remove obstructions and debris to let your air conditioner breather properly — trimming back any vegetation and removing debris and objects such as leaves, newspapers, toys and tools.
  3. Clean the unit’s coils with a garden hose using a light spray pattern and spraying downward to wash out any dirt or debris – alternately, you can clean the coils with a vacuum cleaner with a soft brush attachment or clean it by hand with a soft brush and soapy water (be sure to rinse well).
  4. If any stubborn dirt/debris remains, use a toothbrush to gently remove debris from the coils.
  5. Check for bent cooling fins, and straighten any that are bent with a coil fin comb (available at some hardware stores or HVAC supply stores). This tool’s teeth per inch should match the AC’s fins per inch. Similar to using a hair comb, straighten any bent fins by gently dragging the comb lengthwise. (Wear work gloves because the fins are sharp!)
  6. Check the condenser unit for level, which ensures proper refrigerant flow.
  7. Oil the fan motor (Remove the plastic oil port plugs in the motor housing to apply).
  8. Clean out the unit’s drip pan.
  9. Inside your home, inspect the filters – replace disposable fiberglass filters and gently wash permanent-type filters. Clean or replace filters monthly to allow proper air flow!
  10. Inspect the condensate drain line and remove any obstructions and clean the drain line with a damp cloth if it is dusty/dirty.
  11. Ensure that water from the drain line can flow freely to a drain or condensate pump.
  12. Ensure that your home’s air supply outlets are open.
  13. Inspect ducts for air leaks and tape any leaks using duct tape.
  14. When done, turn the power back on.

Note:  If the power has been shut off more than three hours, turn off the thermostat inside your house, turn the power on at the AC’s electrical box and then turn your home’s thermostat back on.

Routine DIY maintenance for window or through-the-wall AC

  1. Unplug the power cord.
  2. Remove any outside cover if your air conditioner is so protected.
  3. If the unit is relatively small and manageable, you may want to remove it from the window or wall sleeve for easier cleaning – you may have to remove the front access cover to do this.
  4. Use a vacuum with a soft brush attachment to clean out the condenser coils.
  5. Alternately, you take the unit outside and use a garden hose to spray off any dust and dirt from the coils – just be very careful not to get the electronics or motor wet.
  6. As with a central AC unit, check for bent cooling fins, and straighten bent fins with a coil fin comb.
  7. Next, examine the unit’s foam air filter for dirt or damage. Simply wash a dirty filter with soapy water. Let it dry before replacing. Replace physically damaged filters.
  8. All set? Put the AC back into the window or sleeve, seal any gaps around the unit with foam weather seal, pop the front cover back on and plug in the cord.

Professional service

If you don’t feel comfortable maintaining your air conditioner yourself, many HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) firms offer the service – often at special prices – during the pre-cooling season. In fact, you may want to consider an annual service program, the benefits of which include ensuring the job gets done (big if you’re prone to forget or procrastinate), AC efficiency and a regular “look under the hood” to resolve any repair issues. If you are in Southern California you contact us for our San Diego air conditioning services and get more information.

In additional to the chores outlined in the preceding DIY sections, service from a professional HVAC company often includes:

  • A check of the Freon coolant levels (low levels mean higher operating costs)
  • A check for any Freon leaks (law requires that a leaky system be fixed before adding Freon)
  • A check of compress amp draw
  • Belt adjustments
  • A check of operating pressures and temperatures
  • A check for AC drain blockages

Note that Freon is a chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) and environmentally harmful if released, so any leaks must be fixed – good not only for the environment, but for your electric bills.

Don’t wait for warm weather

Take care of maintenance before you really need the AC. (In particular, it’s best to call an HVAC contractor early before things get too busy.) A well maintained air conditioner is the best strategy for long-term savings, operational reliability and comfort.