Warm weather brings on the anticipation of fun and free time outside, and then the fun and free time outside make us anticipate the refreshingly cool air-conditioned house. It feels good to walk in and have that cold air hit us.
Humans value comfort, and conditioning the air of your home to be warm for winter and cool for summer is a basic expectation and top priority, as well as a necessity in many places. When either system is not working or is operating inefficiently, the haven we know and love can become a miserable or even an unsafe place.
Especially in the Northeast and Midwest where winters are harsh and summer can deliver brutal heat, everyone has to be conscientious about both systems to be sure their home is comfortable year round. Home doesn’t feel as much like home when the temperature is too cold or hot.
Your family’s well-being and coziness make it important to correctly maintain heating and air-conditioning systems, as well as a budget for scheduling regular service. Spring brings green grass and fresh flowers, as well as the perfect time to prepare your AC for summer.
You may be a do-it-yourselfer who will attack any project and isn’t afraid to take off the AC unit cover and see what’s in there. Or, you might be a person who wants nothing to do with anything mechanical or electrical. Both kinds of people, however, want to stay cool.
How Does AC Work, Basically?
An air conditioner draws in outside air and runs it over super-cooled evaporator coils that contain refrigerant, and those work together to extract heat and humidity from the air. Cool air is then blown in through the vents of your home to keep you comfortable.
As the refrigerant works, it changes from a liquid to a gas. A compressor pump sends the refrigerant back outside to the condenser coil, which condenses it from a gas back to a liquid. An all-important motor runs the compressor to generate the energy that powers the unit and makes the fan turn, coolant travel and air move, among other things.
There are a number of things you can do to prevent sticky-summer scenarios and make sure the air conditioning operates optimally:
1. Service the system regularly
Schedule an inspection, tune-ups and other maintenance or repairs you know of in spring to get ahead of the hot weather and busiest time for breakdowns and emergencies. You’ll save money by doing regular maintenance — rather than potentially having an emergency happen on a weekend, holiday or other time when the service call will probably cost extra.
2. Clean during inspection
Before you slide the switch to the cool position on you AC system, check out the unit and be sure its grates, fins, base, top and other parts are free of leaves, twigs and other debris. Beware of rodents that might have climbed in for winter and visually examine the wires and electrical connections to be sure no creatures have damaged or disturbed them. With the unit off, you can run your hand along the wires and tighten any loose connections you may find.
More basic maintenance for the AC unit might be to remove the grated cover and clean the unit’s fan blades, as well as the copper coils and condensation tube and drain. It is important for the copper coils of an AC unit to be clean and to allow unimpeded air flow since the coils cool the air. The water that the system produces must be able to freely drain, and the fan itself must make many revolutions per day. It and its motor can require oil or bolt tightening to eliminate squeaks or other noises.
3. Assess the duct work
Along with all the other factors that might affect the comfort of your air, the ductwork of your system — the air’s route of travel — is also important. Say there is a seam that’s come loose or a seal that malfunctioned for some reason. That breach in the air system enables heat and humidity to enter where it should not. Ducts usually run through the ceiling and/or floor, in the attic, above the garage and in other configurations.
Some spots can be hard to check — but it’s worthwhile to do it — because a leaky duct can zap 20% to 40% of your AC system's energy. You might be able to find and seal the leaky spots with mastic, but others can be tricky to find and might require professional testing. Any ducts that are not within the conditioned air should be insulated to help your system conserve energy and deliver nice, cool air throughout your home. For example, pieces of duct that run through the garage, attic or crawl space need insulation.
4. Change the filter
Nearly all air conditioning and heating systems have a filter or even two. When that filter gets dirty, it makes the system work harder to force the air where it needs to go. Professional recommendations vary about how often to change the filter, but once a month to every 60 days seems to be the most commonly given advice.
A lot also depends on your household and how much activity it sees — for instance, if there are pets and other factors that send dust into the air, you’ll want to replace the filters more often. The tricky part of this maintenance for most people is first remembering to buy the filters, but once the filters are in the house, it’s as easy as a calendar reminder. The filter is also what catches particles to eliminate them from the air you’re breathing, so not only does it help the AC system operate more easily, but it also makes your household a bit healthier.
5. Cool off with ceiling fans
Reverse the direction of your ceiling fan before summer and winter to get the most out of its capabilities. In the summer, run the fan in a counterclockwise direction so you feel a breeze when standing under or near it. Before winter, change the fan to a clockwise direction, which generates a slight updraft to force warm air that rises to the ceiling back down to the living space. The switch is usually near the motor/head of the fan. This simple step can enable you to bump the thermostat up or down by a few degrees to save money on the power bill during both seasons.
6. Put the thermostat to work
Basically anything you can do to help your air conditioner operate more efficiently will benefit you, decrease your bill and lengthen the life of your system. A lot of people interested in saving energy install a programmable thermostat, which you can set to adjust the temperature automatically. For example, you can set the temperature a few degrees higher while you’re gone during the day. Then, you can set it to cool back down before you get home.
You can potentially save 1% annually on your energy bill for every degree you turn up the thermostat for a duration of eight hours.
7. Don’t discount the dryer
If your dryer vent is clogged even partially, it can force hot air back into your home and make your air-conditioning system less effective. Even worse, lint buildup is a notorious fire starter. To avoid hot air or flames, make a practice of cleaning the lint filter between each load of clothes. When you’re doing regular house cleaning, remove the filter and vacuum the vent cavity.
Plan to clean the entire dryer vent, hose and attachments at least once a year, if not more. The frequency depends on how many loads of laundry you do, but you’ll be able to tell after a few times how often you need to liberate your lint. You can have a trusted service person do it for you, but do-it-yourselfers would be able to unplug the dryer, pull it away from the wall, remove the outside vent cover and vacuum the connection points as well as any hoses or tubing between them.
8. Fill the gaps
Use silicone caulk or sealant to seal out hot air that can reduce the effectiveness of your air conditioning system. Common problem areas include seals around doors and windows, under sinks at plumbing openings and anywhere else there is any kind of connection to the outside, such as a door threshold. You might hear this referred to as “the envelope,” and the idea is to seal it as tightly as possible.
9. Analyze the attic
The attic space of your home is usually a hot place, and any efforts you can make to cool it will benefit your AC system and entire house. The hot air up there basically just sits on the ceiling of your home and can make a difference in how your living spaces feel.
Common approaches to cooling the attic are an attic fan and/or a few different kinds of vents. Once installed, you’ll need to check both periodically to make sure the fan is working right and the vents are clear. Depending on the size and location of your attic vents, it might be wise to cover them with metal mesh to prevent any birds or other critters from accessing the attic. For example, if trees grow nearby and squirrels could get in, mesh on the vents is necessary.
10. Inspect the insulation
Insulation in your home is just as important during the summer as it is in the winter, only the air temperature reverses. Good insulation from the attic to the walls and throughout the doors and windows helps seal cold air in and hot air out during summer and works in the reverse during winter. Any hot air getting in or cold air escaping not only affects your comfort level, but it also drives your bill higher and makes your system work harder.
11. Exhaust humid air
When we shower, it puts moisture and heat into the air, which are the two specific elements your air conditioner works to remove from the indoor environment. Any warm, humid air will make your air conditioner work harder and can cause problems such as mold, mildew and peeling paint or wallpaper. The objective is to suck that warm, moist air out of the home as quickly as possible. To do a thorough job of that, turn on the bathroom exhaust fan before starting to shower and leave it on for 45 minutes after a shower.
It doesn’t hurt to remove the exhaust-fan cover every so often and clean it as well as the opening. You can test your fan by holding a tissue up to the cover while it’s running and see if there is enough suction to hold the tissue in place. If there isn’t, you might consider overhauling, cleaning or replacing the fan and motor. It saves you headache, trouble and possibly dollars to keep heat and humidity out of the home during AC season.
12. Consider different light bulbs
Traditional light bulbs emit more heat than a compact fluorescent light bulb, and any heat you can eliminate from your home aids your AC unit. Many people choose CFLs simply because they use less energy and last longer, but the newer-style bulbs also burn cooler and can help reduce the overall temperature of your home.
13. Shade the system
You can think about adding a shade tree nearby the air-conditioning unit to give it break from the sun. Depending on where your condensing unit is located, you might be able to arrange a canopy or other such feature to create shade. One recommendation states that you should keep at least two feet of clearance around the air conditioning-unit, so keep bushes and any nearby vegetation trimmed to give the system room to work and draw in air.
14. Cover when not in use
While AC units are made to be tough and operate outdoors, they’re still just machines of metal and parts that can be susceptible to weather, dirt and other elements. For added protection, you can think about covering the unit for any significant periods of time it will not be in use.
15. Call for service
A professional HVAC expert is the best choice to check the refrigerant levels in the AC unit because too much or too little affects the efficiency of the air conditioning. A professional is also qualified to deal with any wiring issues or loose connections. Normally a maintenance call for a yearly air conditioning service, inspection or checkup would include a technician doing these things:
- Test the thermostat and resulting air temperature.
- Inspect the heating and/or cooling unit.
- Lubricate moving parts.
- Check the condensation drain.
- Clean evaporator and condensing coils.
- Check refrigerant level and add more if necessary.
- Examine air blower and adjust if necessary.
Your AC prep, maintenance and any needed service can be as easy as a call to Smart Touch Energy. We provide energy solutions that range from air conditioning and heating expertise to help you solve problems or make an upgrade to a range of broader options such as natural-gas systems and heat pumps for air or ground. Smart Touch puts energy at your fingertips and brings a company culture based on innovation, responsiveness and commitment to customers.
Along with prep for summer comes closing up the heat system after winter, and that also involves different points of inspection and maintenance. Though electric-power utilities aren’t as demanding, those with a heating-oil tank, for example, have a few steps to follow:
- Remove soot and other buildup.
- Change the filter.
- Pour in a quality oil additive.
- Fill the tank during summer while prices are lower than when weather is cold.
- Burner Servicing
There is always a lot to do in the transition from cold to hot weather or vice versa, but the more aware you are about maintenance to both systems, the more money you will save. Your system will also last longer, and you’ll enjoy a more comfortable living space.