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Annual Central Air Conditioner Maintenance

Updated: Oct 26, 2017
By: Luke Muench

Air conditioners can be costly pieces of equipment. Even after purchasing them, the maintenance required to care for your unit can feel overwhelming. Before deciding to hire someone else to do the work, consider whether it is worth it for you to make the effort to care for your central air conditioner yourself.

The Purpose of Annual Air Conditioner Maintenance

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Much like a car, computer, or any other machine, air conditioners won't perform optimally, or even functionally, without the proper care. Each year you do not make the effort to maintain your air conditioner, it loses 5 percent of its overall efficiency, resulting in you having more expensive electricity bills and reducing the overall lifespan of the unit.

While experts are trained and capable of doing the work, there is no reason why you can't take on the task yourself. That being said, if you feel more comfortable having someone else do it for you, reach out to an expert to ensure your central air conditioner continues to function properly.

It is recommended that your annual maintenance occurs during the spring, and around the same time each year. Spring is considered to be the best time to clean out your air handler, and maintaining the same general time period each year will help act as a reminder to have it done. Additionally, this means you never wait too long between your yearly cleanings, ideally allowing your AC to be cared for consistently.

Cleaning a Central Air Conditioner

Cleaning an air conditioner is the bulk of the overall maintenance, a process that will likely last between 30 to 45 minutes. To do this yourself, you will need the following tools:

  • A hex head nut driver
  • A towel
  • A hose hooked up to running water
  • 1 cup of any all-purpose cleaning product
  • An air filter (the size will vary, depending on the unit)

Before starting, be sure the power is disconnected from your air conditioner, either via a service disconnect or, if there is none, via the breaker in your electrical panel. This step is imperative to your safety, so absolutely do not skip it.

Use your hex head nut driver to unscrew and remove the top of your air conditioner, with the fan and motor still attached to it. Set it aside so no stress is put on the wires connecting the lid to the rest of the machine.

After removing any visual debris (leaves, dirt clods, etc.), lay down your towel over the service panel, covering as much as possible. Then, spray the inside of the air conditioner down with your hose, ensuring the water pressure isn't so high that it will damage any of the parts within. Try to avoid spraying the service panel as best you can, though if a little water gets on it, it's no cause for concern.

Lastly, it is recommended that you change the air filter and clear the AC drain when you clean your air conditioner. This is an optional step, but will help your machine last that much longer.

Maintaining the Air Handler

In order to prevent unwanted odors from spreading throughout your home, cleaning the air handler once a year is a healthy and proactive choice. While this can be done yourself, the process is a bit more complex, and will require a better understanding of your central air conditioner.

As you did when you cleaned your air conditioner, disconnect the power from the unit and remove the lid from your air conditioner. Next, remove the fan system, refrigerant lines, and condensation drain, then the air handler itself.

Using either a vacuum or an antibacterial solution, clean out the insides of the air handler, then the fan system. Use your hose to clean off both pieces of equipment afterwards.

After cutting a new insulated duct board for the air handler, secured by aluminum tape and plastic ribbing, replace and reattach the various pieces of your AC.

The Cost of Professional Central Air Conditioner Maintenance

On average, a one-time visit will cost most customers between $70 and $100. An annual maintenance contract will likely cost around $150 per year. Whether this cost is worth it for you comes down to how much work you want done on your AC and whether or not you feel confident and comfortable doing it yourself.

What kind of air conditioner you have may also contribute to this decision. A split-system central air conditioner may have issues within the ducts of your house, resulting in steeper repairs and prices overall, whereas a mini-split won't have these extra details to worry about.

Central Air Conditioner Maintenance Steps

Before commencing any basic maintenance, flip the condenser switch off on the AC. Then, turn off the breaker in your home's breaker box that delivers power to the unit.

DIY maintenance can often be done with common household tools: a hex head nut driver, a towel, a hose, a suitable cleansing product and, when needed, a new air filter.

To begin, remove the top of the air conditioning unit, clearing any accumulated debris. Clean the fins with a garden hose, spraying through the fins to remove any dirt. Damaged fins can be repaired with a specialist fin-straightening tool (if you don't have this tool on-hand, a dining knife will work). Once complete, daylight should now be visible between the fins.

The unit can then be cleaned on the inside. Clean out the evaporator coil, any drain blockages and change a dusty, clogged up air filter, if required. See our Frequently Asked Questions about filters for more information. Once these steps are completed, the unit can be reconnected to the power supply.

While technically-savvy homeowners can undertake these simple steps, Energy Star recommends an annual pre-season check-up from an HVAC contractor.

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