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Pre-Summer Checkup – Springtime Tips

March 31, 2015

After a long, cold winter, spring’s bright sun and warm temperatures are more than welcomed in Middle Tennessee.  But the hot summer weather is just a few weeks away and you can bet by then air conditioning repair technicians will be plenty busy!  It seems if your air conditioner is going to go out, it will do so when you need it most on one of the hottest days of the year!  Want to save money and all the hassle of an outage?  Have a pre-season check-up!  That means getting your spring maintenance visit scheduled in March or April, and getting your Fall Maintenance visit in Sept. or Oct.  To remember to schedule your pre-season check-ups, plan them around the time changes in the spring and fall.

Of course, there is really no substitute for a professional HVAC inspection, as some things a homeowner just cannot do for themselves when it involves air conditioning.  For example, refrigerants can be sold and installed only by certified technicians. Testing voltages and pressures within the equipment requires special gauges, etc.  But there are a number of very important things a homeowner CAN do for themselves.

5 Springtime Tips

1.  Check and replace your air filters.

There are several types from which to choose, depending on your needs.  We recommend buying the highest MERV rated filters to cut down on spring allergy symptoms. Turn off the power to the unit before pulling out the filter so the blower doesn’t come on and blow dust throughout the system. Vacuum up any dust in the air duct.  Orient the filter according to the instructions printed on it.  Replace the filter at least every 90 days, but check it monthly and if it looks dark or clogged, change it.  If you have pets, you may need to change your filters more frequently. Not replacing filters is one of the main reasons HVAC equipment begins to fail.

2.  Check and inspect the condensate drain.

The condensate drain line carries water condensation away from the evaporator coil, and if this becomes clogged or improperly connected to the rest of the drain system, your AC system can become flooded and you could have a very bad mess on your hands!  A plugged drain can cause water damage in the house (see real story below) and will cause your system to stop working. Check the condensate tube to make sure it isn’t clogged by sludge and algae, especially at the drain port. If it’s a flexible tube, it should be easy to pull off and clean.  Clean it with a 50% bleach solution.  Then, periodically throughout the season, pour a cup of bleach solution down the air-conditioner condensate drain to prevent buildup of mold and algae, which can cause a clog.  Watch our video on condensate drain maintenance here.

Real story:  We had one customer who had an air conditioning unit in the attic.  One day she walked into the bedroom to find it “raining” from the ceiling!  The condensate drain got plugged up and water overflowed, causing ceiling damage and requiring replacement of all the wet insulation in the attic.

If that customer had installed a float value and checked it periodically, they could have prevented the damage. If the condensate tube becomes plugged the pan will fill with water.  Lift up the float valve and it should shut off the unit and prevent an overflow.

3.  Clear vegetation around your AC compressor outside.

To work efficiently, the compressor needs good airflow. Prune any plant growth that could block it. Check to make sure there is at least two feet (24 36″) of clearance all around it.  Weekly during spring, summer, and fall remove debris such as leaves, pollen, and twigs from the top and sides of the outdoor unit. Don’t allow the lawn mower to discharge grass clippings onto the unit. If the outdoor unit is crowded by a fence or shrubs, or if the bottom few inches of the coil is buried under mulch, air-flow will be restricted, which decreases efficiency, reduces the life span, and damages the unit.

Tip:  When doing your spring planting, allow room for long-term growth, 5 to 10 years down the line. If building a fence, make sure it can be easily opened or removed. The unit needs to be serviced regularly, and the technician may need access to all sides of the unit.

4.  Check the outdoor unit’s foundation.

Ensure that the outdoor air-conditioning unit is on firm and level ground.  This is typically a concrete pad, but could also be plastic or rubber. Settling, erosion, flooding, or ice damage may occur throughout the year, causing the pad to crack, sink, or become unleveled.  This puts strain on coolant lines, and could bend or break copper or electrical lines, or cause water to puddle in the unit.  Before trying to level the unit yourself, contact a technician to properly disconnect the unit. Make sure the pad raises the unit out of the dirt and that there is adequate drainage around it, so that water does not pool near it during a hard rain.

5. Clean the condenser fins, coils and fan (the outside unit).

Dirty coils reduce the system’s ability to cool your home and cause the system to run longer, increasing energy costs and reducing the life of the equipment. The fan inside the condenser coil sucks air through the fins, and as a result, pulls dirt and debris with it. Fins are the fine metallic blades that surround the unit.  Clean the outdoor unit when the temperature is 60 degrees F or higher. Before cleaning it, be sure the power is turned off.  There may be a 240-volt power box near the unit which can be unplugged or turned off, or you may need to turn the power off at the circuit breaker. Using a garden hose, spray water on and through the unit, washing the dirt and grime off the fan and coils, cleaning the fins, and removing any debris like leaves or cut grass that may have become lodged in the unit.  If desired, you could also use a foaming coil cleaner (sold at most hardware stores), following the directions on the can.

Compressors can be fragile and so require special start-up procedures. First, make sure your inside thermostat is set to “off” (not in the “cool” setting).  Restore the power to the outdoor unit, either by plugging it in again or flipping the circuit breaker back on.  Wait 10-30 minutes before turning the thermostat into the “Cool” position. Listen for odd noises.

Tip:  If you switch off the air conditioner (at the thermostat) at any time, wait at least five minutes before switching it back on. Once off, the compressor needs time to “decompress.” If you restart it too soon, you’ll stress the motor. Many thermostats have automatic time delays built into the circuitry to protect the compressor from this problem.

The Payoff

Few routine chores will pay off more handsomely, both in comfort and in dollars saved, than a simple air-conditioner cleaning. The payoff: Summertime comfort and lower cooling bills. You’ll also prolong the life of your air conditioner.  Having a pre-season check-up is the best way to ensure your HVAC equipment is operating at peak performance, and the best way to prevent future problems and unwanted costs.