Air conditioner units: how to get the most out of them

Air conditioner units can be fickle, but failure to keep them up and running properly just costs you money.

Air conditioner units: Leave the repair and replacement to the professionals. Photo by lisafx on iStockphoto.Air conditioner units can be fickle, but failure to keep them in proper running order is never a good idea. Being aware of how your air conditioning unit is performing, and following just a few basic maintenance routines, will secure you a long and productive relationship with your central air conditioning. If you ignore odd sounds or blow off maintenance steps, sooner than you hope, you’ll be calling a contractor to come expensively overhaul central air conditioner Unit No. 1, or offer to sell and install Unit No. 2.

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Know your unit

While it’s a good bet you relied on a contractor to install your central air conditioning, you should still familiarize yourself with its primary working components. Familiarity with your system will make trouble-shooting easier, and maintenance practices a more comfortable routine for you.

air conditioner units1Central air conditioners are (generally) made up of two components: the condenser and the evap­orator. The condenser unit is usually based outside the house on a stable, level surface (like a concrete slab.) The evaporator coil is mounted in the plenum or main duct junction in your house (typically located just above the furnace.)

Your central air conditioner unit is likely connected to your home's forced-air distribution system. The same motor, blower, and ductwork used for heating your home are being used to distribute cool air from the air conditioning system. When a central air conditioner is operating, hot air inside the house flows to the furnace through the return-air duct. The hot air is moved by the blower across the cooled evaporator coil in the plenum and is then delivered through ducts to cool the house. (When your air conditioner is working but your house doesn't cool down, the problem is most likely in your distribution system.)

In nearly all modern central air conditioners, the evaporator and the condenser should be sealed. Because of this, any maintenance other than routine cleaning should be conducted by a professional service person. Your central air conditioners should be professionally inspected and adjusted to set some performance benchmarks, before any specific maintenance procedures are established.

Basic cleaning and maintenance

Your central air conditioner will work better over its lifetime if you set and keep to some basic cleaning and maintenance routines. Regularly cleaning and checking certain parts of your system will also allow you to discover if there are any odd noises or the first signs of larger maintenance or repair issues that may be headed your way. In nearly all cases, preventative measures are going to be less expensive than costly repairs. Sticking to a routine of cleaning and maintaining your system will also help preserve the warranty you have for your system.

Here are some primary components of your system and an over view of maintenance issue you can address:

  • Evaporators – the evaporator for the central air s­ystem is located directly above the furnace in the plenum. The evaporator may not be accessible, but if it is, you should clean it ­once a year. (If the plenum has foil-wrapped insulation at its front, you can clean the evaporator; if the plenum is a sealed sheet metal box, do not attempt to open it.) In any cases, just conducting a regular vacuuming of the evaporator coils is enough to keep it in fine working order.
  • Condensers – in most central air-conditioning systems, the condenser is located outside. This makes it prone to attract dirt and debris. The condenser has a fan that moves air across the condenser coil. Clean the coil on the intake side (you can use a vacuum or even brush I off regularly.) During late fall and winter months, outside condenser units should be protected from the elements to prevent leaf blockage and ice damage. Cover the condenser unit with a commercial condenser cover made to fit the shape of the unit or use heavy plastic sheeting secured with sturdy cord.
  • Thermostats – your should regularly check the accuracy and consistency of your thermostat settings to ensure your air conditioner is keeping you comfortable when you’re home.
  • Drains – routinely inspect the condensate drain in your central air conditioning unit. Plugged drains cause overflows and water damage, affecting indoor humidity levels and adding stress to your system’s workload.
  • Controls – be sure that your controls are safe and in proper working order. Check to be sure that your system cycles properly (starting, running, and shutting off as set and scheduled.)
  • Refrigerant – this one maybe harder for you to do as many systems require professional servicing should the refrigerant levels dip, but you can make yourself a note to stay aware of how “cool” your system is and if you do have a gauge that measures refrigerant levels, keep an eye on it to be sure you don’t find yourself with too little (or even too much) refrigerant. (Too much or too little refrigerant is another sign that the system is not running efficiently, is using too much energy.)
  • Blowers – be sure you routinely clean and adjust your blowers as this provides proper airflow for greater comfort.
  • Filters – new air filters should be a part of your pre-season servicing but you should also routinely change those filters (especially if you live in a particularly dusty setting.) When your contractor installs your system s/he should show you how to do this (and might even leave you with a few filters.)

Consider a maintenance agreement…and check that warranty!

air conditioner units2Unless you are an HVAC professional, a contractor helped you with the selection and installation of your central air conditioner. That same contractor should be able to help you gather all the information you're going to need to know to properly maintain your system. Using a properly licensed and registered contractor also assured that your central air conditioner’s warranty is properly registered and remains valid. Along with the warranty, you may have been offered a service agreement for your central air conditioning system (if not, contact your contractors and ask about one.) It may be worth it to have a professional set you up on a routine schedule of maintenance and cleaning.

Even if you do have a service agreement in place, it’s never a bad idea to familiarize yourself with how your central air conditioning systems works and to know even a few basics when it comes to maintenance and trouble-shooting.

If you’ve inherited a central air conditioning system, or if the contractor that installed yours is no longer around, it would e a good idea to find a local HVAC contractor you can rely on for repairs and even more sophisticated maintenance measures. You can use Reply! To help you connect with local HVAC contractors and other professionals in the home improvement sector dedicated to keeping all of your home’s systems working smoothly and efficiently.

Photo credit: lisafx on iStockphoto.

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