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Annual Central Air Conditioner Maintenance

There are many reasons air conditioners fail the first time they're turned on after a prolonged period of disuse. While it's tempting to call in a contractor and have them deal with any problems, there are also several things a homeowner can do themselves to clear up a problem. Whether a house uses central air, wall units, or window air conditioners, a good cleaning can work wonders. Dirt, leaves, and other debris often get stuck in vents, preventing proper air flow. Filters can have invisible blockages that aren't obvious on inspection but still interfere with cooling.

Blockage from debris is the biggest problem regardless of the type of air conditioner. Make sure all outdoor elements are cleaned yearly. Clean all vents and use a damp cloth to clean the full exterior of window and wall units even if they appear clear of debris. Condenser coils on split system central air conditioners (units that are partially indoors and partially outdoors) are particularly prone to collecting unwanted dirt, leaves, and twigs. Terry Townsend, former president of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, suggests homeowners with such systems "use a garden hose to clear out the coils."

Temperature-controlled central air conditioning units have other common failure points. Many modern thermostats are powered by batteries; replacing the batteries may fix problems with these units. In addition, units with slider controls or switches are very sensitive to positioning; if a homeowner fails to slide such a switch all the way into the cool position, the air conditioning may never turn on.

Window and wall units can also infrequently suffer from loose or dirty fan blades. The blades are generally housed right behind the unit's casing and are easy to locate and clean or tighten. The blades can be vacuumed or, if preferred, cleaned with a soft cloth. The blades are generally held in place with a single screw near the base of the shaft. Tighten the screw with a screwdriver or wrench, then replace the cover of the unit.

Other problems can also be examined using the air conditioner controls. If no air is blowing from your system, try moving the fan switch from automatic to on. If the fan comes on, the unit has power. If it doesn't turn on, check all fuse boxes or circuit breakers and reset tripped breakers or replace blown fuses. Be aware that different portions of a central air conditioner may be on different breakers and make sure to check all appropriate slots.

If the unit doesn't turn on with the fan set to automatic and the desired temperature set very low, it may indicate a problem with the condenser. Go outside and check the temperature of the larger of the two copper lines leading from the condenser. If the line is warm, the system may be out of Freon. If it's frozen or iced over, there may be a clog which has not cleared during the annual cleaning recommended above. Shut down the system, let it thaw completely, and try again. If that doesn't help, it's time to call for professional help.

Typically, the air conditioning professional should provide the following:

  • Coil cleaning . This is especially helpful with older units, helping them perform at more efficient levels. It will also help extend the life of the unit and make it more reliable.
  • Ducts - inspect and/or repair the ductwork, if necessary
  • Air Filters . Many times, the only thing an air filter needs is a good cleaning. However, if they need to be replaced, this will generally be included in the inspection. See our Frequently Asked Questions about filters for more information.
  • Condensation Lines . When these lines become clogged, moisture can backup in your system. When this happens, the water can begin to leak down your walls or the ceiling. A common problem then becomes the growth of algae, which will need to be treated for both safety and to stop build up in the lines.
  • Electrical Components . This is important in that damaged or corroded electrical components pose a fire risk.
  • Power Usage . Finally, the professional will determine if your unit is operating at full efficient power.

Along with what the professional will do, you too can do a few things to help keep your air conditioning system in top order. If you live in a region with high humidity, it would be a good idea to check the drain, making sure excess moisture is draining okay. Finally, be sure your filters are changed about one a month and never run your air conditioning unit without a filter.

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