An air conditioner requires many moving parts to function correctly, and these filters, fins and coils require regular maintenance. You can perform some AC upkeep on your own with tools you already have at home, while other tasks require professional attention.
Neglected air conditioners will have shorter lifespans, break down more frequently and cost more money to operate, which is why savvy homeowners take time to learn the basics of how their air conditioners work and how often to perform maintenance. This guide will walk you through the types of AC systems and how to keep each one running longer.
Why You Should Maintain Your AC
A well-maintained AC will operate more efficiently, reducing your home’s carbon footprint and slashing your cooling bills. Regularly cleaning or replacing your air filter is the quickest way to save money and energy, and it’s a simple task you can do without any specialized equipment or tools.
Many other components of your air conditioning system also require attention, such as the condenser and evaporator coils, condensate drains and ductwork (if applicable). If you’re relatively handy around the house, you may want to tackle some of these responsibilities yourself. For example, if you have an AC unit located outside your home, keeping the area around it clean and clear of dirt and fallen leaves or branches is a straightforward chore that you can quickly complete with a broom or leaf blower.
However, specific aspects of HVAC maintenance can be dangerous when performed by an untrained or inexperienced person, so you may want to call a licensed professional. Some tasks an HVAC technician can perform during preventive maintenance include:
- Checking the refrigerant and testing for any leaks
- Inspecting the wiring and tightening it if necessary
- Sealing duct leakage in central air systems
- Measuring airflow through the evaporator coil
- Checking belts for any signs of wear and tear
- Verifying the electrical control sequence
- Replacing or straightening bent coil fins
- Ensuring the thermostat has an accurate temperature reading
Having indoor climate control is incredibly convenient, but most people don’t stop to consider air conditioning’s environmental impact. As an AC unit ages, it loses efficiency. As a result, an older unit can use up to twice as much energy to produce the same amount of cooling as a newer one.
The oldest air conditioners still in use today use a refrigerant called Freon, which the U.S. government banned in all newly manufactured AC units starting in 2010. Continual changes in refrigerant and improvements in energy efficiency have revolutionized the air conditioner manufacturing industry and allowed HVAC techs to help their customers save money while benefiting Mother Nature.
Improved Air Quality
We all want our families to be healthy and happy, but in setting goals for your family’s well-being, you may be forgetting about the impact of indoor air quality. Many people don’t realize their “constant cold” or other nagging symptoms may result from merely breathing in the air in their homes.
Poor indoor air quality in your home can disrupt your sleep, magnify allergy and asthma symptoms and cause headaches, congestion, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, irritability and forgetfulness. Common indoor pollutants can contribute to these issues and make the air in your home dangerous to breathe, especially if you already have respiratory problems. Maintaining your HVAC system is one simple way to make your household healthier.
Reduced Fire Risk
Did you know your HVAC system could represent a fire hazard? While this phenomenon is rare, some air conditioners might catch fire. Several factors can pose a risk to your household’s safety, including:
- Loose wiring or bad electrical connections
- Fuel leaks
- Faulty gas connections
- Flammable materials too close to your furnace
Though the chances of your AC unit starting a fire are low, HVAC experts encourage regular maintenance as the best way to prevent damage, leakage or electrical problems. If you suspect there might be an issue with your HVAC system, or you smell smoke or a fuel leak, call for emergency maintenance as soon as possible.
Different Types of Systems
Air conditioners are among the most prevalent appliances in American homes. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, nearly three-quarters of households nationwide have an air conditioner installed. Further, air conditioner usage accounts for an estimated 6% of total electricity produced from coast to coast. If you’re building a new home or starting to consider replacing your older AC with a newer, more environmentally responsible unit, what choices can you consider?
Central Air Conditioner
Of all the styles of air conditioning systems available, you’re probably most familiar with central air conditioners. These units remove heat from the indoor air using refrigerant, then redirect warm air outdoors and push chilled air into your home through a system of ducts and vents. Central air is an excellent choice if you value overall comfort and efficiency, especially if you live in an area that experiences hot summers. Using central air will reduce the humidity throughout your indoor living space, making the environment feel more comfortable overall.
- Consistent temperature control: A central air conditioning unit can keep your home comfortable, even during a sweltering, humid summer. Pairing your central AC unit with a set-it-and-forget-it programmable thermostat is a smart decision that can save you money on your energy bills.
- Filtered air: Central air conditioning units rely on filters to trap dust and allergens and keep the indoor air clean. However, these only work well if you are diligent about replacing or washing them regularly.
- Requires ductwork throughout the home: If your house already has ductwork installed, this might not be a factor to consider. However, homes that lack ductwork will need to get it installed to use a central AC system, which is an extensive renovation project that can add a significant cost to your final price tag.
- Can be more expensive to use: Cooling your home with a central air conditioner requires a lot of energy. These models also lose efficiency as they age, leading to the need for frequent upkeep and inspections. Even with a programmable thermostat installed, you might find your energy bills skyrocketing in the summer if you experience a series of hot, humid days.
A ductless mini-split is an alternative type of air conditioner that does not rely on air ducts or vents to circulate cooled air throughout your home. With a ductless system, you will have compact air handlers mounted in each room or temperature zone of your home. This low-maintenance, affordable option might be a good choice for you if you are building an add-on to your house and you don’t want to deal with the hassle or expense of having your ductwork reconfigured. They are also ideal for people who want to cool or heat each room individually.
- Ease of installation: Instead of tearing out walls to access the ductwork, installing a ductless mini-split system requires drilling a single hole. Experienced HVAC technicians can often complete a same-day ductless system installation.
- Flexibility: If you and your family members tend to have different opinions about how to set the thermostat, ask your installer about using a mini-split system to set up various temperature zones with separate remote controls.
- Less maintenance: Ductless systems do not require upkeep like duct cleanings or inspections.
- Higher upfront costs: Ductless mini-splits might be significantly more expensive to install than traditional central AC units. However, if you can afford the pricier initial cost, you might be eligible for government tax incentives or rebates because ductless systems are so energy-efficient.
- Filter requirements: If you want to keep your mini-split’s air exchangers in peak condition, you’ll need to clean your air filters monthly – more often if you have pets or if there’s a smoker in your household. Failing to do so will cause your mini-split system’s efficiency to decline, and the wear and tear might lead to expensive repair bills.
Window Air Conditioner
Window-mounted air conditioners are another AC option that might be familiar to you, particularly if you’ve ever lived in an older house that lacks central air. Many people enjoy window air conditioners because they are inexpensive and relatively simple to install. If you only have a small space to cool, such as a bedroom, you might want to consider a window air conditioner.
- Versatility: You can add a window AC to many styles of windows, making them an excellent fit for your house. However, remember that you can’t install them in any window because the frame must be sturdy enough to support the unit’s weight.
- Affordability: Window air conditioners are also budget-friendly. Depending on where you shop and what features you want, you might be able to find one for around $150 to $300.
- Only capable of cooling smaller spaces: If your living space is any larger than a small studio apartment, don’t expect one window air conditioner to keep up with your whole family’s cooling needs. When you have multiple rooms to keep comfortable, you’ll need to buy several window air conditioning units, which is not very energy- or cost-efficient.
- Take up the entire window: Window air conditioner units block whichever window you choose to install them in, which means a loss of natural light. Once you have installed a window air conditioner, you also won’t have the freedom of being able to open the window to let in fresh air on sunny, mild days.
- Possible security risk: Some homeowners learn the hard way that window air conditioners can be a tempting target for thieves. Would-be burglars can gain access to your home by tearing out the window unit and letting themselves in.
Geothermal Air Conditioning System
Geothermal air conditioning is becoming an increasingly popular solution among environmentally minded homeowners searching for all-natural ways to reduce their carbon footprint and decrease their reliance on harmful fossil fuels. These units rely on the earth’s temperature for climate control. By choosing to install a geothermal AC system, you will enjoy consistent, comfortable indoor temperatures year-round.
Even during extreme weather fluctuations, the temperature a few feet underground reliably stays between 55 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s why harnessing geothermal energy will provide you with an unlimited, clean fuel supply for cooling and heating your house.
- Energy efficiency: If you want to save money on your utility bills, geothermal AC is the way to go. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, geothermal heat pumps can be 300 to 600% more efficient than conventional HVAC systems in the winter.
- Low maintenance: Geothermal HVAC systems have a long lifespan and require minimal upkeep compared to traditional HVAC units. A correctly installed and designed geothermal system can last up to 50 years.
- More expensive to install: Geothermal systems tend to come with a higher upfront cost for installation, including digging and drilling to set up the system underground. However, they pay for themselves over time by operating so efficiently and reliably. You might be eligible for local, state and federal incentives for switching to renewable energy.
- Requires skilled design and installation: In contrast with other home improvement projects you might have undertaken in the past, you must hire an experienced professional to design and install your geothermal system. An incorrect or slipshod job won’t perform to the typical high standards of a geothermal HVAC system.
How to Maintain Each AC System
Air conditioning upkeep is an essential part of property ownership. No matter which AC system you use, keeping it well-maintained will save you money on your energy bills, extend the system’s lifespan, keep your home at a comfortable temperature and improve your indoor air quality, making every member of your household healthier. You will also have the peace of mind that comes with knowing you will not have to worry about expensive emergency repair bills or a sudden surprise breakdown on a hot, humid summer day.
Central AC Systems
A central AC unit is a considerable investment, and one you rely on for your family’s overall well-being. By following a consistent maintenance schedule, you can save money, prevent premature equipment breakdowns and ensure your unit lasts many years before you need to replace it. Fortunately, you don’t need to bring in a professional technician to do some of these tasks. Here’s your DIY central AC maintenance checklist.
Trim Any Surrounding Vegetation
Your initial impulse might have been to plant hedges or ornamental plants around your air conditioner’s outdoor component to hide it. However, to ensure adequate airflow around the unit, you should keep the area clear. Rake away leaves and debris outside the condenser, and cut back branches and vegetation at least two feet in all directions.
During winter months when the condenser is not in use, you may wish to cover the top of the unit with a piece of plywood or plastic to keep debris from falling in. However, do not fully enclose the entire outdoor AC unit, since doing so can allow moisture to accumulate and corrode the metal. Also, a completely covered unit encourages small animals to build their nests inside. When the unit is operating, remove the top cover.
Clean the Condenser Unit Regularly
With the power to the air conditioner shut off at the circuit breaker and the unit itself switched off, open the evaporator coil door. To do so, you might need to remove some fasteners such as screws or bolts.
Use a soft brush to dust off the coil, then spray it with a coil cleaner (which you can find at your local hardware store). The spray will foam up, then drip into the drain pan. Clean the drain pan with soap, hot water and a little bleach. Then, pour a solution of 50% bleach/50% water down the drain. To keep the drain clear longer-term and inhibit future algae growth, put a commercially available drain pan tablet in the pan.
Never Fully Close All Registers
If you have rarely used rooms in your home, such as a guest suite or an upstairs bonus room, you might assume you can save energy by closing the registers. However, fully closing registers will reduce airflow and force your AC to cycle on and off more frequently to keep up. That’s because closing even one air vent reduces the number of channels available for moving air through your home.
Opening all the registers will reduce pressure buildup, heat buildup and an imbalanced air circulation, allowing your air conditioner to work with the duct system according to its design.
Change Your Filter Regularly
The air filter plays a pivotal role in your HVAC system by trapping airborne dust and allergens. When you allow these particles to accumulate on your filter, it becomes clogged, significantly blocking airflow and reducing your system’s efficiency. Regular filter changes are essential, especially if any members of your household have respiratory issues like allergies or asthma.
Some HVAC systems have reusable air filters, while others use disposable ones that require periodic replacement. During peak cooling season, you’ll need to clean or replace your air filter more often. You may also wish to do more frequent filter changes if your family includes pets. Set reminders on your calendar so you’ll never forget when your filter is due for cleaning or replacing.
While ductless AC units are some of the most practical and versatile home climate control options available, you will still need to take good care of them to prolong their lifespan, keep them in peak condition and maintain their efficiency — especially if you have air handlers mounted in several rooms in your house. Here are our top tips for simple chores you can do yourself to maximize your investment in a ductless mini-split system and ensure it stays in like-new condition.
Dust It Thoroughly
Ductless air conditioning units are prone to accumulating dust. A buildup of dust can adversely affect your mini-split’s ability to work as designed because it can enter the system’s interior and inhibit its ability to function efficiently. Make a weekly habit out of wiping the exterior down with a damp cleaning cloth and checking to ensure the vents aren’t clogged. If you see dust accumulating around the vents, use the hose attachment on your vacuum to remove it.
Make Sure the Operating Area Isn’t Congested
While ductless air conditioners are small and compact, you should still leave room around them to limit the chances of foreign objects entering the system. Having curtains or furniture too close to the indoor unit will encourage dust to build up. Keep a distance of at least four feet in every direction between the unit and other furniture.
By the same token, take care to keep the area around the outdoor heat pump clean and free of debris. Leaves, twigs, dirt and other items can inhibit airflow and decrease the system’s efficiency.
Change Your Filter Regularly
Due to your mini-split’s unique functionality, the air filter requires regular cleaning. Most manufacturers recommend a biweekly cleaning schedule, though you might not need to clean yours as regularly if you use it less often or if you don’t have pets. To inspect your filter, turn off the unit and open the filter housing panel on the front.
If it looks dirty, gently remove it and clean it using the sprayer on your kitchen faucet or your vacuum cleaner’s brush attachment. To avoid damaging your filter, be careful not to use too much force. Then, return the clean, dry filter to its original position inside the mini-split and turn the unit back on.
Clean the Coils
A mini-split’s coils play a pivotal role in its overall ability to operate correctly. Since dirt and other debris and outdoor dirt can collect on and in the coils, you must keep them clean. Use a standard garden hose to spray the unit, being cautious not to bend the filters. Dust off any remaining debris by hand, and ensure everything is completely dry before powering it back on.
Don’t Forget the Pipes
You will also need to clean your ductless AC’s pipes to keep your unit functioning correctly. Various pollutants can build up inside them and inhibit airflow. You will also want to conduct a visual inspection for cracks and leaks, which will further impede the ductless mini-split’s function. If you see signs of a problem, call a professional HVAC tech to replace the pipes.
While window-mounted air conditioners are the most straightforward option for cooling your home, you will still need to be diligent about maintaining your window AC to ensure it continues to work correctly. Since these smaller air conditioning units can quickly lose efficiency, do-it-yourself maintenance will help you save money on your energy bills, while being more environmentally responsible.
Wash the Filter
If your window AC has a reusable filter, don’t forget to clean it every month to remove any accumulated debris. First, shut off power to the unit, then carefully remove the filter. After soaking it in warm, soapy water for a few minutes, thoroughly rinse it and make sure it’s 100% dry before re-inserting it. Be careful to put it back in the same position.
Clean the Fins
Window air conditioners have fins on their coils to aid in capturing and transferring heat. Keeping the fins clean of mold and dirt is essential. To perform this task, turn off the air conditioner, unplug it and take it out of the window. Unscrew the housing to access the fins, then spray them with a solution of water mixed with a few drops of regular dish detergent. After letting the solution sit on the fins for a few minutes, gently scrub it off with a soft-bristled brush. Rinse the fins with a hose, then allow everything to dry before reassembling the housing and putting the unit back in place.
Straighten Bent Fins
Air conditioner fins are delicate, and can easily get bent out of shape, which makes them less efficient. If you notice any bent fins while cleaning them, you can straighten them with a tool called a fin comb, which you’ll find at your local hardware store. Insert the comb into a gap where the fins are straight, then carefully guide it through the bent section. It may take patience to restore the bent fins to their original position, but you’ll be glad you took the time when you notice your window unit running more smoothly.
Wash the Fans and the Pan
Clean your AC’s fans with the same water/detergent mixture you used to wash the fins, then rinse them with a hose and let them dry.
Finish the interior clean of your window AC unit by emptying the drip pan. To remove debris or dirty water from this tray, pull it out and rinse it, then leave it to dry before reassembling. Check the drain to ensure it’s not clogged or blocked. Wipe around the opening with a clean cloth, and ensure there is a clear pathway for water to exit your unit.
Store It in the Off-Season
Unless you expect to use your window AC year-round, you’ll need to remove it from the window and keep it somewhere warm and dry at the first sign of a cold snap in the forecast or whenever you know you will not need it for long periods. Be sure to cover it with a tarp or dropcloth to keep out any dust or dirt while you have it in storage.
We’ve already described geothermal systems as being highly reliable, low-maintenance options, but any mechanical system can break down over time if you don’t take good care of it. Though most of the system operates underground, you should still take precautions to keep your geothermal HVAC in peak operating condition. Here are the steps we recommend.
Change the Air Filters
As with all other air conditioner options explained in this guide, a geothermal HVAC system relies on filters to keep the air quality in your home clean by preventing the buildup of dust and other environmental pollutants. Read your owner’s manual to learn how often the manufacturer suggests changing the filter. Most recommend every one to three months, but you might want to adopt a more frequent schedule if you have pets.
Clean the Condensation Pan
Excess water can create an ideal environment for mold and mildew to thrive, which could become a health hazard. Check the condensation pans for standing water, and clear the drain of any blockage. Once per year, rinse the drain with a solution of two tablespoons of bleach and a half-cup of hot water to keep it flowing freely. Repeat this step if necessary.
Manage Refrigerant/Antifreeze Levels
When you schedule seasonal maintenance for your geothermal HVAC system, be sure your professional HVAC technician has it on their checklist to inspect the antifreeze and refrigerant levels and top them off as needed. Antifreeze and refrigerant are essential to the heat transfer process. If there aren’t adequate supplies of these two substances circulating inside your system’s ground loops, it will struggle to transfer heat successfully.
Manage Loop Pipe Integrity
With a correctly designed and installed geothermal HVAC system, problems with the underground loop pipes are rare. However, leaks might occur, and in this case, you’ll need to have them repaired as soon as possible. Inspecting the loop pipes is another item that should always be on your HVAC technician’s checklist.
As a Trane Comfort Specialist, Top-Rated Home Advisor Pro and member of the Air Conditioning Contractors Association of America, Pileiro Heating and Cooling always prioritizes our customers’ comfort and satisfaction. We provide property owners in Cape May and Atlantic counties with high-quality HVAC service, regardless of your project’s size and scope.
When you contact us for a free estimate on air conditioner maintenance or installation, be sure to ask us about our budget-friendly financing options and flexible payment plans. Even if you have an HVAC emergency on the weekend or in the middle of the night, you can reach out to our experienced, customer-centric team anytime. We are always here to serve you.