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Best Practices for Maintaining Your Air Conditioning

Your home's HVAC system is one of its most expensive components. It is charged with keeping your family comfortable throughout the year, and going without it is not an option. It's much easier to get through the hot, humid summer months with a reliable and efficient air conditioner. Even if you have a top-of-the-line unit, you can't expect it to remain in excellent shape on its own.

Routine Air Conditioning Maintenance - Why it Matters

Air conditioners are given SEER ratings, or Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio ratings, which refer to their cooling output versus the amount of energy they consume. The higher the SEER rating, the more efficient an AC unit is. SEER ratings aren't static. Without maintaining your air conditioner, its efficiency will drop by about 5 percent per year, and its SEER rating will drop along with it. It's important to maintain your air conditioner for the following reasons:

  • Efficiency - Routine maintenance keeps your AC unit running efficiently, which results in lower energy bills.
  • Effectiveness - AC maintenance includes cleaning coils and other components. Such measures help an air conditioner to operate effectively. If it gets too dirty, your air conditioner will be less able to adequately cool your home. It may also be less able to pull moisture from the air, which reduces overall comfort and creates an unpleasantly clammy environment.
  • Longevity - Maintenance increases the likelihood that you will be able to squeeze every last drop of use out of your air conditioner, which will save you money over time.

DIY AC Tips

You should plan on having a heating and cooling contractor perform an annual tune-up on your air conditioner. In the meantime, there is a lot you can do to keep your unit running effectively and efficiently. From being diligent about changing  air filters to periodically cleaning components, your efforts will further enhance your air conditioner's ability to keep your family cool and comfortable.

AC Filters

All air conditioners have air filters, and changing them regularly is one of the most important steps you can take. These filters are typically located on the furnace in the basement, where they are out of sight and out of mind. As a result, people often forget to change them on a regular basis.

An air filter is designed to do two main things. It keeps dirt and other debris from working their way into the unit. It also filters the air before forcing it through the vents, which improves indoor air quality. A clogged filter impedes airflow in an air conditioner. Reduced airflow leads to reduced efficiency, which results in higher energy bills. When a filter gets dirty enough, a phenomenon known as "filter bypass" may occur. This means that dirty air is able to bypass the filter. It then collects in the evaporator coil, which reduces the coil's ability to absorb heat. In turn, the effectiveness of the unit is compromised.

Where is the AC Filter Located?

You can't change the air filter on your air conditioning system without knowing where it is. It's often found on the furnace. It may also be located on the return duct, in walls, on ceilings or inside the AC unit itself. Refer to your owner's manual or check with an HVAC contractor for assistance.

How Often should Filters be Replaced?

There's a lot of debate out there about how frequently AC filters should be replaced. It's generally best to replace the filter every one or two months. Under certain circumstances, it may make sense to change it more frequently. These circumstances include:

  • Dusty Environments - If your home is located in a really dusty area, you will probably need to replace the air filter more frequently.
  • Pets - Hair and dander from pets put additional strain on a home's HVAC system. Filters clog more quickly, so they should be replaced more often.
  • Large Homes - Heating and cooling systems in large homes have to move larger volumes of air. This causes air filters to get dirty more quickly.
  • Constant Use - In hot, humid areas, air conditioners tend to run consistently for several months. Not surprisingly, constant use causes filters to get clogged with dust, dirt and other debris more quickly.

Filter Size

Make sure that the replacement filter you use is the right size. The easiest way to figure out the correct size is by checking out the filter that's currently installed. The measurements should be printed right on it. Installing an improperly sized filter increases the odds of filter bypass.

MERV Ratings

Air filters for HVAC systems have MERV ratings, or Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value ratings that range from one to 20. Higher ratings reflect more efficient filters. Such filters are capable of pulling exceptionally fine particles from the air. Always consider the MERV rating of a filter before purchasing it.

Types of AC Filters

When it comes to AC maintenance, it is well worth it to buy high-quality air filters. A few of the most common options include:

  • Disposable Fiberglass Filters - These are the most basic and affordable filters on the market. The spun fiberglass out of which they are made can only pull very large particles from the air. These filters typically have MERV ratings of two or three.
  • Disposable Pleated Filters - With an average MERV rating of six, this type of filter is a big improvement over basic fiberglass options. Disposable pleated AC filters are usually made out of cotton or polyester. The main drawback is that they need to be changed frequently to prevent reduced airflow and efficiency.
  • Disposable Electrostatic Filters - These self-charging filters are made out of paper or cotton and work by attracting and trapping fine particles. The average MERV rating is 10, and they tend to be fairly pricey.
  • Permanent Electrostatic Filters - Because they are machine-washable, these filters can be used again and again. They typically last six to eight years, and the average MERV rating is eight.
  • High-Efficiency Pleated Filters - You can only use this filter with a special housing that can accommodate its thick design. Synthetic cotton and deep pleats pull many ultrafine particles from the air. These filters cost upwards of $100 and have MERV ratings of 14 to 16.

Clean and Protect Your Air Conditioner

In addition to changing the air filter on your AC unit regularly, you should take steps to clean and protect it too. A few simple things you can do to keep it running efficiently and effectively include:

  • Maintain Coil Fins - Because they are made out of aluminum, the coil fins on your AC unit can bend and warp easily. This can lead to blocked airflow and reduced efficiency. Purchase a fin comb and use it periodically to reshape the fins.
  • Clean Indoor and Outdoor Coils - The evaporator coil is located on the indoor AC unit. Even if you change the air filter regularly, it will get dirty over time. This causes impeded airflow and reduces the coil's ability to absorb heat. Take a peek at the coil from time to time and clean it as necessary. As for the condenser coil in the outdoor unit, leaves, grass clippings, dust, dirt, particles from dryer vents and other debris can create clogs. Make sure the area around the unit is clear and clean the coil from time to time.
  • Condensate Drain - If this drain becomes clogged, the air conditioner will struggle to pull moisture from the air. You can clean the drain pan with a solution of half water, half bleach and 4 teaspoons of distilled white vinegar. If the drain is clogged, you may need to call in the experts.
  • Protect the Outdoor Unit during the Winter season - When you're done using your air conditioner for the season, cover the outdoor unit with a tarp. This will keep it from becoming dirty during the winter months.

Annual AC Maintenance

Even if you are diligent about taking care of these items, you should still hire an HVAC company to perform yearly maintenance on your air conditioner. The technician will inspect and clean the unit, but he will also look for signs of wear and damage. If he spots any issues, he will take steps to correct them proactively. This will help to ward off unexpected repairs in the future. You will also enjoy more reliable and efficient operation.

Many HVAC companies offer annual service programs like service agreements and maintenance contracts. These are convenient because you will be reminded when service is due. Your unit will be serviced and maintained regularly, which should keep it functioning efficiently for a long time. Contact one of our local Air Conditioning Southeast dealers for more information about maintaining your AC equipment.

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