It seems like it always happens at the worst possible time. The air conditioner breaks in the middle of July or the furnace quits as a major snowstorm blows in. What can you do to ensure your system will be there when you need it most? Here are a few tried-and-true tips for homeowners.
Keep it clean. Change your filter monthly. If your system uses the bigger, box-type filter, change those every few months. Allowing the filter to get clogged with dust makes the system work harder. This can lead to premature problems. An air conditioner should last 10 to 15 years; a furnace should last 15 to 20 years; and a heat pump about 15.
Annual inspections. A technician from a reputable heating and air conditioning company should inspect your systems twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. The tech will clean the unit and look for leaks, faulty valves and other items that can lead to more expensive breakdowns. As always, get references and check online reviews before hiring a company to do work in your home.
Service agreements. Most companies offer an annual service contract providing a spring and fall inspection, and a discount on any needed parts and service. Are these contracts worth the money? Do the math and read the fine print to see what is covered. If the price is lower than two individual inspections, it’s likely a good deal.
Heating tips. Most home heating systems in the United States use either natural gas or propane. A few times per year, check for the scent of gas. If you do detect an odor, call a heating technician immediately and if possible, leave windows and doors open to ventilate the area.
Also check the vent pipe, which is a four- to six-inch diameter pipe leading from the heater to the roof or an exterior wall. This is the vent that carries unburned fuel and other gases, including carbon monoxide, to the outside. Make sure this pipe is free from cracks or holes.
Turn the system on, set the thermostat at a temperature that will start the heater running, and listen. It should sound smooth and untroubled. Any squeals, rattles or other odd noises could mean loose or worn parts. If the system cycles on and off in a short sequence, it needs professional attention.
Air conditioning tips. The outside components of the air conditioner are the easiest to inspect and service. Using the switch mounted on the side of the house near the unit, turn off the power. Gently vacuum the outside of the condenser fins, which are fragile. After vacuuming, gently hose them down to clean any remaining dust and debris. This will help the air conditioner run at top efficiency. Make sure nearby shrubs do not interfere with airflow to the condenser.
Inside the house, the evaporator has coils that become chilled in the cooling process and a fan nearby blows across them, carrying the cooled air through the ducts into the house. If you regularly change your filters, the evaporator should stay relatively clean. If the filters are neglected, you may need to open the housing and use a soft bristle brush to dust the evaporator on the side facing the fan. Be sure to turn off the power to the unit before starting. There should be a nearby switch that looks similar to a light switch.
None of these do-it-yourself steps is a replacement for fall and spring inspections by a trained professional. If you don’t feel comfortable doing the work, leave it to the pros.
*Life expectancies taken as a average of figures cited on several websites, primarily “This Old House”.