Preventive maintenance - a scam or a good idea?

Like cars, central air conditioning systems require maintenance to ensure the equipment operates as efficiently as possible. Preventive maintenance also decreases the chance that your system will break down on the hottest day of the summer.

Clogged or dirty air filters can block air flow and reduce the effectiveness of your cooling significantly - and cause undue stress on your outdoor unit. Replacing a dirty, clogged filter with a clean one can increase your air conditioning's efficiency by about 10%. Filters are usually located inside the return ductwork near the indoor equipment or inside a return air grill that is fastened to the wall or ceiling.

Homes with pets should check their filters more frequently, and consider higher efficiency filters, as pet dander and hair can easily clog a filter within a couple of weeks. When dirt and debris are pulled through filters, it clings to the indoor coil and can lead to more frequent clogs in condensate lines.

Without regular maintenance an air conditioning system loses about 5% of its original efficiency for each year of operation. This means that the 13 SEER unit that you bought a few years ago may be functioning like a 10 SEER unit today. Studies show that with regular tune-ups a unit will maintain up to 95% of its original efficiency.

As part of the routine maintenance of your equipment, your evaporator coil should be checked and your outdoor condenser should be cleared from debris, long grass, brush and shrubs. Foliage and shrubs should be trimmed back at least 2 feet from the condenser to allow for adequate airflow.

During the summer create a routine - when replacing your indoor air filter, go outside and check the outdoor unit to ensure pollen and other light weight debris isn’t blocking air flow. Also check the coil fins, as they can easily bend and can block air flow. Air conditioning wholesalers sell a tool called a fin comb that can help comb the fins back to their original position. If you notice that your coils are beyond repair, or missing, consult with a professional air conditioning contractor to assess whether your system is repairable.

You may not know until it's too late, but a byproduct of your air conditioning system is condensation. As mentioned previously, any dust or dander that may get by your filter can stick to your indoor coil and will drip down with the condensation into your coil pan and drain line. This dirt can create a blockage and cause water to back up and leak all around the indoor equipment.

A condensate leak can be catastrophic, especially if your air handler is located in your attic. A restriction in your condensate line could cause severe damage, including damage to your ceilings and lighting fixtures.

When your air conditioning system needs more than regular maintenance, or it hasn't been serviced in a while, hire a professional. A well-trained technician can properly service your equipment, address any concerns you may have, check if the system is operating safely and efficiently, and identify any issues.

The technician will make sure that your coils are clean, and replace or clean your air filters, and clear your condensate drain line and condensate pump, if you have one. In addition, the technician will inspect electrical terminals, clean and tighten connections, and check the accuracy of your thermostat.

The technician will also check to see if your system is correctly charged with refrigerant. A system that is only 10% low on refrigerant can cost you about 20% more to operate.

If your unit is low on coolant, and more must be added, there are new laws governing the use of certain types of refrigerant found in older systems. Freon in particular, also known as R-22 refrigerant, is a chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) that will damage the Earth's protective ozone layer if released into the atmosphere. The laws governing CFC's do not allow your air conditioning contractor to add Freon to a leaking system. If your system is low, speak with the technician about your options and try to find the best solution for your budget.

Preventive maintenance of your air conditioning equipment is not a scam – it is an investment in the safe and effective operation of your cooling system. Preventive maintenance will also provide you the comfort of knowing that when you are ready to turn your air conditioning system on, it will be ready for uninterrupted use.

Repairs due to lack of preventive maintenance can be a big inconvenience, and can lead to costly emergency repairs during the summer months. Repairs like condensate leaks that cause water to leak from the indoor coil or no cooling because of a dirty condenser coil, can be avoided by just having some simple maintenance provided early in the season.

All air conditioning equipment, even new systems, require routine maintenance. It will increase the life span of the equipment, increase your comfort and provide energy savings, requiring you to spend less money on your electric bill.

Jim Hall, President – Jim Hall HVAC

(718) 948-2456 www.jimhallhvac.com