Heating and cooling account for about 48 percent of your utility bill, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Proper maintenance, particularly of the eight air conditioner parts that follow, is key to keeping that percentage as low as possible.
Inadequate maintenance is a common problem with air conditioners, the DOE states, and it can lead to otherwise avoidable expenses.
Most experts agree that proper maintenance includes getting a tuneup for your A/C once a year, but they differ on whether tuneups should be handled by pros, homeowners or both.
The DOE is among those that say homeowners can handle simpler tasks like changing or cleaning filters, while Consumer Reports suggests leaving all tasks to a pro. (Opting for a pro generally costs about $70 to $100, according to Angie’s List.)
Confused? Do whatever makes you comfortable. As with car maintenance, some people prefer to do it all themselves, others want a mechanic to handle it all, and still others do a mix of both.
If you opt to handle anything in-house, just be sure to shut off your power before servicing your system.
The DOE calls routine filter replacement or cleaning “the most important maintenance task that will ensure the efficiency of your air conditioner”:
Clogged, dirty filters block normal airflow and reduce a system’s efficiency significantly. With normal airflow obstructed, air that bypasses the filter may carry dirt directly into the evaporator coil and impair the coil’s heat-absorbing capacity.
The DOE adds that replacing or cleaning a dirty, clogged filter can reduce an air conditioner’s energy consumption by 5 percent to 15 percent.
This should be done every one to two months during the cooling season. A filter change may be needed more frequently in some situations, such as when the A/C is used constantly or shedding pets live in the home.
Both central A/C systems and window- and wall-mounted units have filters. Some filters are meant to be cleaned and reused while others are meant to be replaced once dirty.
Dave Moody, spokesperson for Service Experts Heating & Air Conditioning, tells the DIY Network that a replacement filter should have the same airflow rating as the filter you are replacing:
“Be careful with ‘air purifying’ or HEPA filters because they can dramatically reduce airflow in your system. That can cause the indoor coil to freeze because of the reduced airflow.”
Dirty coils reduce the system’s ability to cool your home. They cause the system to run longer, increasing energy costs and reducing the life of the equipment.
Evaporator coils (located in the interior unit of a central A/C system) and condenser coils (located in the exterior unit) should be checked for accumulated dirt and cleaned as necessary. (Window A/C units also have coils.)
According to the DOE, dirty coils reduce an air conditioner’s efficiency, which increases energy costs and decreases the life of the A/C system.
Consumer Reports recommends using a soft brush or can of condensed air to clean coils when possible.
3. Coil fins
Evaporator and condenser coils are protected by soft-metal fins, which can become dirty or bent.
The DOE states that bent fins can block airflow through the coils.
Fins can be cleaned using a vacuum, soft brush or can of compressed air, according to Consumer Reports. Bent fins can be straightened using a tool called a fin comb, which costs $8 to $20. The nonprofit magazine recommends models with several sets of different-sized teeth.
4. Evaporator drain
This drain should be checked for plugs, which can be caused by the buildup of algae and mold. Unplug the buildup as needed.
If the evaporator drain plugs, the DIY Network states, it can lead to flooding onto to the floor, or cause the A/C system to stop working.
5. Condensate drain
The DOE recommends occasionally passing a stiff wire through a central A/C system’s condensate drain channel to prevent it from clogging.
If a condensate drain clogs, it can create excess humidity in your home. That excess moisture can discolor walls or carpet, or cause water damage.
6. Blower components
Blower parts should be cleaned and adjusted to ensure optimal airflow, the DOE recommends.
Airflow problems can reduce an air conditioning system’s efficiency by up to 15 percent.
An A/C’s refrigerant level should be checked and adjusted as needed. The DOE states:
Too much or too little refrigerant will make your system less efficient, increasing energy costs and reducing the life of the equipment.
The DIY Network notes, however, that checking refrigerant levels is one task for which homeowners don’t have the necessary tools or skills.
8. Exterior unit
The exterior portion of a central A/C system should be checked for debris periodically during the cooling season.
The DIY Network suggests removing debris by hand or with a wet/dry vacuum after the fan cage has been removed.
For more money-saving A/C tips, check out “19 Ways to Beat the High Cost of Air Conditioning.”
Does your A/C get a tuneup every year? Do you DIY or hire a pro? Let us know by leaving a comment below or on our Facebook page.