Whether you are in the heat of summer or the dead of winter, a well-functioning HVAC system is essential for staying comfortable. Unfortunately, too many homeowners take their HVAC systems for granted, only addressing concerns when something goes wrong. That is a backward approach. It is less cost-effective and can have a big impact on things like utility costs. Proper HVAC maintenance can reduce energy use by 10% to 20%, regardless of the climate zone. Further, improper and poor maintenance can increase energy use by 30% to 60%.
This is a big deal, especially for those looking to cut energy budgets while doing their part to make their heating and cooling system go green. But if you are new to heating and cooling system maintenance, it can be tough to know exactly where to start. That’s why we’re putting together this guide on how to maintain an HVAC unit seasonally. We will cover basic HVAC service, furnace repair and A/C repair, so you can make the changes you need to and ensure a long life for your HVAC system.
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Before we break down some regular maintenance steps, we need to talk about safety. There are two specific safety concerns that should be addressed:
1. Safety Concerns Due to Lack of Maintenance
While regular maintenance is a key part of HVAC cost-effectiveness, it also ensures your HVAC system isn’t posing a risk to you, your home and your family. For example, a crack in the furnace may go unseen, and most alarmingly, un-smelled. That’s because a furnace crack can flood your home with odorless yet deadly carbon monoxide. You should have carbon monoxide detectors installed in your home, which will alert you to a problem. Additionally, electrical components can short-circuit if not properly maintained. These can become serious fire hazards. Either way, ignoring maintenance can be costly, and not just financially.
2. Safety Concerns With Do-It-Yourself Maintenance
Throughout this guide, we will indicate which maintenance steps are appropriate for the do-it-yourselfer and which should be left to a professional. Not adhering to this advice can cause serious injury.
Basic Maintenance for Both Heating and Cooling Units
Let’s start with some of the basics that apply to both heating and cooling systems:
1. Change the Air Filters
How often do you change your air filter? Did you know that you should be changing your air filter every one to three months?
This is a step a lot of homeowners forget to complete, but it has a big impact. That air filter is designed to clean air that is being pulled into your forced air system. Clean air is important both for your health and the proper functioning of the heating and cooling system. Too much dust in the air can cause furnaces and air conditioners to work less efficiently.
Not only does a less efficient HVAC system lead to increased energy costs, but it can also sap the life out of your furnace or central air conditioning unit, leading to expensive replacements. Changing your filter is easy and inexpensive. Replacement filters can be bought in bulk at home improvement stores at very affordable prices.
2. Keep Supply Return Vents Clear
There are vents in your house that blow hot or cold air into your rooms, and there are vents that pull air out of those rooms to be heated or cooled. The latter are known as supply return vents. Unfortunately, because many homeowners don’t feel air moving through them, they are much more likely to be blocked by furniture, drapes or other obstructions.
However, an obstructed return vent is especially hard on your HVAC system. Without enough air supply, furnaces and air conditioners can fail, causing pricey repairs and replacements. Ensure nothing is blocking these vents.
3. Have the Thermostat Inspected
This is a job best left to a professional, but it is extremely important if you want to have an efficient HVAC system. Because your thermostat has the last say in whether your system is running or standing by, having a properly calibrated thermostat can make a big impact on your energy bills. Furthermore, programmable thermostats are an awesome cost-saving tool. However, since they are more complicated than a manual thermostat, there are more things that need to be checked.
While a technician inspects the thermostat, they will also take a look at the various electrical systems and connections that allow the thermostat to communicate with the rest of the HVAC system. This is another reason why a professional is essential for this kind of work — they know exactly what they are seeing and how things should be.
This is also a great time to install a smart thermostat, like the industry-leading Nest, which gives you robust smartphone control over your thermostat, whether you are home or half-way around the world. Additionally, Nest learns and adjusts to your lifestyle, meaning you will be getting the kind of programmable energy-efficient savings without constantly making adjustments. While a thermostat check-up and adjustment requires paying for professional, it is still cost-effective, as it guarantees energy savings.
4. Lubricate Moving Parts
Again, this is a job best left to a professional as it involves small, specialty parts. However, it is a small adjustment that can go a long way. Poorly lubricated parts require more energy to move. Considering that you are running your HVAC system for a sizable portion of the year, small amounts of energy waste will start to add up.
5. Inspect and Clean the Condensate Drain
Your air conditioners and some furnaces create condensation. To protect your home, that condensation needs to be properly drained. Unfortunately, sometimes sludge and grime can plug up your condensate drain, which can make the condensation back up and cause water damage. A professional will come and check to see that the drain is working properly, and if it isn’t, clean it out as necessary.
6. Test System Controls
The functionality of your HVAC system is contingent upon proper cycling through start-up and shutdown cycles. If these are not functioning quickly enough or are operating abnormally, you are going to see a sharp increase in energy costs while adding needless wear and tear on your system.
A professional can see even the smallest issues with system controls and address them when the fix is likely to be much cheaper.
7. Adjust and Clean Blowers
While you can do you part by changing the air filter, a professional is needed to clean and adjust the blowers. If you have been keeping up with proper air filter changing, this will be a quick and easy job. However, even if you do change your filters regularly, you will still need to have the blowers cleaned and adjusted often as well.
Basic A/C Maintenance
Now let’s turn our attention to those maintenance tasks that are specific to cooling:
1. Clear Away Debris From the A/C Unit
Because the main part of the central air conditioning unit is placed outside, it is built to stand up to the weather. However, that doesn’t mean you should just install it and forget it. Over the course of the year, leaves, twigs and other debris can build up around the unit. This can make your unit inefficient, as it obstructs air flow. Furthermore, accumulating debris can cause rust and other damage that will sap the life of your unit. Be sure to clear away any debris regularly throughout the year.
2. Use a Hose to Clean the Unit
After you have cleared away any debris, hose down the unit. Dirt and grime can build up, and once again, tax the efficiency of the unit’s operation.
3. Trim Foliage
You want to make sure no branches or foliage is within 18 inches of your unit. Furthermore, as much as possible, try to remove foliage from directly above the unit. This will make sure nothing gets accidentally sucked into the unit while it’s running. Furthermore, by removing anything from around the unit, you will be saving on debris cleaning work down the road.
4. Clean the Evaporator and Condenser Coils
This is another job best left to the pros. As dirt and grime build up on these coils, they become less efficient. That means, to get your home to the desired coolness level, the air conditioner needs to run longer. In fact, cleaning these coils is one of the most effective ways to lower cooling costs. Furthermore, regular cleanings will extend the life of your unit, saving on future replacements.
5. Check the Refrigerant
Your air conditioner is essentially a refrigerator designed for your entire house. That’s why it uses the same chemicals to cool the air that is then cycled through your home. However, while we have made it clear that certain jobs are best left to professionals, it is extra important that this particular air conditioning service issue is done by a certified technician. That’s because refrigerant is an extremely dangerous chemical that can do a lot of damage to the environment. In fact, disposing and handling of refrigerant are strictly enforced by law, meaning if you were to handle it improperly, you could find yourself slapped with a very hefty fine.
Moreover, getting it done right is a big deal. Even a small adjustment can have a profound effect on your energy efficiency. It is common for your refrigerant levels to be overcharged, causing spikes in energy costs. If it is undercharged, your unit is at higher risk of leaks. A proper refrigerant charge, however, can lead to an increase in energy efficiency of between 5% and 11%.
Basic Heating Maintenance
Now let’s move on to heating specific issues:
1. Inspect the Gas Pressure
Because gas is highly combustible and potentially lethal if leaking, you must consult a professional to do this work.
2. Check Burner Combustion
Even if the gas pressure is properly adjusted, there are other issues that could be impeding the burner. Sometimes these are cleanliness issues, especially if you haven’t been keeping up with changing your air filter. In that case, the burner can be cleaned by a professional. Other problems may require either a part or a furnace replacement.
3. Inspect the Heat Exchanger
Finally, you need to have the heat exchanger examined regularly. If it has cracked, not only will your furnace be far less efficient, but you will have a sharply increased risk of a serious accident. Typically, a cracked heat exchanger requires a complete furnace replacement. However, ignoring this problem is incredibly dangerous, so you should have someone regularly inspecting the unit.
Special Ductless System Maintenance
While most of our advice has assumed that you have a standard forced-air system, there are other HVAC options. Ductless systems are becoming increasingly common, and some of their maintenance components are very similar to a forced-air system:
- While ductless systems use different types of filters, it is still important to change them regularly.
- The outdoor portion of the unit should be cleaned in the same fashion as a standard outdoor air conditioning unit.
- Have a professional inspect the unit seasonally, just like a standard system. The condensate drain and electrical connections are somewhat different than standard forced-air systems, however, so make sure you hire a professional who has familiarity with ductless systems.
The Best Times for Service
If you are scheduling heating and furnace service, it is best to do so in the fall, well before you need your heat. That way you will have time to get repairs and part replacements made before turning on your furnace for the first time. The same logic applies to air conditioning, although that obviously means you should schedule service in the spring.
However, you should make sure to schedule both types of service with a single HVAC professional. That’s because there are many overlapping tasks. If you hire the same professional, they will be aware of what needs to be inspected and what was checked just a few months earlier. Jobs like thermostat adjustments and part lubrication doesn’t necessarily need to be done twice a year.
The Best HVAC Partners
If you live in Central Pennsylvania, specifically Harrisburg, Lancaster, Elizabethtown, Hersey, Lititz or Mount Joy, PA, all of us at Home Climates have years of experience with heating and cooling installation and maintenance. We pride ourselves in service at a fair price, meaning you are getting the kind of partner that will make sure your system is working in peak condition season in and season out. By signing up for annual heating/cooling repairs, you will be saving money in the long run. It can extend the life of your HVAC system, and it also comes with parts discounts on future repairs.