Summer days are here, and you don't want to be caught without a properly working air conditioning unit, especially when outside temperatures climb to the 90s or above. That's why the Air-Conditioning & Refrigeration Institute (ARI) recommends all homeowners take the time to periodically review and maintain their air conditioning units to keep them in tip-top shape.
Regular checkups are not only the best way to ensure your unit will keep working when you need it most, they are the least expensive kind and will save on energy and reduce operating costs. However, if your air-conditioning unit gives you problems that seem too expensive to fix, consider replacing it. ARI reports that, on average, newer equipment is about 45 percent more energy efficient than equipment manufactured only 20 years ago.
Tom Wojo of Wojo's Heating and Air Conditioning, says that the most important thing you can do to keep your air conditioning working efficiently is to keep the outside condenser coil clean.
“You can do it with a garden hose, on most units,” he says. “My best advice is to call a professional and have the unit serviced every spring before the heat arrives.”
For people who have purchased a home with an existing air conditioning unit, Mr. Wojo recommends that they have it professionally cleaned before their first use.
“If you bought the home with that compressor, you don't know when it's been cleaned,” he says. “We chemically clean it, but then it can be maintained, usually, with a garden hose on most units. Our guys, when they go out on calls, explain that to the customer, to show them what they can do to get the most out of their unit.”
Many companies offer a service contract that provides routine maintenance, including lubrication of motors, tightening of belts and checking of refrigerant level. There are also some maintenance checks you can make yourself. Look to your owner's manual to find maintenance tips and ways to operate your system most efficiently.
In addition to manufacturers' recommendations, ARI has developed some basic guidelines you can follow to help you get the most comfort from your system at the least cost.
Clean and replace filters frequently.
“Dirty filters restrict air flow, causing the unit to run longer. It can also damage the compressor, which is a very expensive repair,” Mr. Wojo says.
Air-conditioning systems do more than just cool the air. They lower humidity and remove dust and dirt by moving the air through their filters. When these filters are clogged with dirt, the system has to work harder to do its job, which wastes energy. Depending on the amount of dust in the air, filters can become clogged in just a month or two of operation. Most residential systems have disposable filters that should be checked every two months (once a month during peak use) and replaced when necessary. Permanent filters should be cleaned in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions. A system should always operate with a filter. Otherwise, it will need more frequent cleanings.
Schedule yearly inspections. Air conditioners should have annual equipment inspections by a trained technician who will check refrigerant fluid and mechanical operations.
Keep windows and doors closed when air conditioner is on. Air leaks are costly. Some people like to "help" their air conditioner by opening doors and windows on warm days. But doing so just lets out all of the cool, dehumidified air and replaces it with hot, humid air. The more your home seals out heat, humidity and dust, the more efficiently your system will do its job.
Caulk and install weather stripping around windows and doors. Weather stripping, which plugs holes and gaps around doors and windows, blocks out drafts in colder weather and helps lock in cool air on warm days and nights. Closing these air leaks will help maintain your comfort and reduce energy use.
Use shades, blinds, curtains and other devices to keep out sunlight. Sunlight that streams in windows during the winter can provide a great deal of heat inside a home. But that same sunlight during summer or in warmer parts of the country can make an air-conditioning system work harder than it should. Insulated or thermal windows can help.
Draperies and shades pulled over windows when the sun is hitting them directly will reduce the cooling load significantly. Some people install awnings over windows and doors to provide shade. Trees and shrubs strategically planted can also provide welcome shade and protection from direct sunlight.
Don't block vents or ducts inside the house. Pay attention to the ductwork system that distributes cool air throughout your home. For proper air flow, have a qualified person check your ductwork periodically to ensure that appropriate sections are insulated and that the joints and seams are not leaking.
Avoid using household appliances during the hottest part of the day. Operating washers, dryers, ovens and ranges can generate heat and humidity inside your home. Using them during the warmest times of the day, when your cooling system is working its hardest, just adds to the burden. An exhaust fan near an oven or range can help remove some of the excess heat as well as the uncomfortable humidity from cooking. Similarly, make sure your clothes dryer is vented outside.
Leave your thermostat at one setting. Raise the thermostat setting as much as you can without sacrificing comfort. For every degree you raise the setting, you can expect to cut your energy consumption by up to 3 to 5 percent. Consider using a programmable thermostat to automatically increase or decrease temperatures during the day or night to suit your family's lifestyle and reduce energy costs.
Replace your old unit. When all else fails and your unit is still not running up to par, it may be time to replace it. The shelf life of an air conditioner can vary greatly. Factors such as climate, maintenance care, and quality and capacity of the original equipment can increase or decrease the service a system will give by months or even years.
On average, a residential central air conditioner will last from 10 to 15 years. When a unit begins to show its age, it usually starts with a wearing out of its major components, such as the motors or compressor.