Summer is officially here. And the warm weather we've had over the past couple of weekends has given homeowners the chance to make sure their air conditioners are working properly. I've recently heard from numerous friends and family members about air conditioners that weren't working properly. So if your air conditioner isn't cooling your home the way you expect, check off these simple maintenance items before calling a professional to service your equipment.
Oh, and even if your system is working properly, check these things anyway. This is important stuff.
The Air Filter
The single most important thing for homeowners to maintain is the air filter. And by "maintain" I mean "change religiously." On most Minnesota homes, the air filter is also known as the furnace filter. If it's one of those super-cheap single-ply 1-inch filters, it should be changed at least once per month. Better yet, just use a better filter. According to Bruce Strandberg at BWS Heating & Air, cheap filters let a lot of small particulates through. These small particulates can accumulate on the underside of the evaporator coil, and even on the underside of secondary heat exchangers in high-efficiency furnaces, where they restrict airflow, reducing system efficiency.
Mid-grade pleated 1-inch filters have more surface area. They don't need to be changed as frequently, but most heating contractors still recommend changing them monthly. That's not bad advice, but it's probably more often than necessary. These pleated filters are designed to be changed at least once every 90 days. My advice is to buy a big box of them, keep them by your furnace and set a calendar alert for every 60 to 90 days. If your filter is nasty when you change it, simply do it more often.
High-grade super-duper ultra-filtration-smation filters are fine to use if they're changed religiously, but they're not as forgiving as other filters. They get clogged more quickly, which causes problems with equipment much faster. Use these filters at your own risk.
For filters thicker than 1-inch, take the filter manufacturer's recommendation for changing and cut the number in half to be safe. It might cost a little more in filters, but this is nothing compared to repair costs.
The Condensing Coil
This is the one most people forget. The compressor and condensing coil are the parts that sit outside the home, preferably on the side of your yard where the noise isn't too obnoxious. To help dissipate the heat that gets removed from the home, a big fan pulls outdoor air over the condensing coils.
For the condensing coil to work properly, it needs plenty of airflow. The condensing coil should not be obstructed by other nearby units, house walls, plants, weeds, flowers, decorative shrouds, decks, etc. All of these things will hamper airflow.
Condensing coils also need to be cleaned regularly. When they operate, the fans suck air on all open sides. This tends to pull in debris such as dirt, grass clippings, dryer lint, cottonwood seeds and everything else in the air ... except for love. Inspect all sides of your outdoor unit and clean the coils off annually, or as needed.
If, after checking these things, your air conditioner still isn't working properly, check out my blog post from last year: How to Inspect Your Own House, Part 9: The Air Conditioner. This post gets a little bit more detailed and involves some troubleshooting steps that homeowners can try.
If you notice ice on your unit either inside or outside the house, and you've already checked everything listed in the link above, it's time to call a professional. Just be sure to contact someone you know and trust. If you don't have someone, get a referral from a friend or neighbor. If you don't have that, check reviews online before hiring. Also, beware of cheap AC tune-ups.
Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections