If you live in or around Las Vegas, your HVAC system gets a workout every summer. Once the comfortable spring temperatures give way to triple-digit scorchers, it goes into overdrive to keep your family comfortable. It’s like your system joined a gym, only you’re the one shouldering the additional expense so you don’t “feel the burn” (or in this case, the heat).
According to Energy Star, HVAC systems account for an estimated 43% of residential energy use. In the Southwest, where the summer heat could have inspired Dante’s Inferno, it can be even higher.
To ensure that your residential HVAC system is up for the challenge, regular maintenance is an absolute must. The good news is that increased maintenance costs don’t have to be part of the deal. Through a combination of strategic planning and smart purchasing, you can keep your system in prime condition and even lower your energy bill in the process.
Let’s show you how!
Keep indoor vents open
Some people close indoor vents to save money, believing that they are causing their HVAC system to work less. The truth is that when you close these vents, you limit air circulation and put additional pressure on your HVAC system’s electronically commutated motor blower, or ECM. Over time, this can wear out the motor and reduce the system’s energy-efficiency. If you have a permanent split capacitor (PSC) blower, closing vents will slow down its performance because it can’t handle the extra pressure.
Other problems include:
- Your home can take longer to cool down or warm up
- Increased duct leakage, which is bad news when the average home loses 20 to 30% of its conditioned air due to duct leaks.
Keep your windows closed
Although you may be tempted to open the windows to let some fresh air in, resist the temptation on days when it’s especially hot out. Otherwise, your HVAC system will have to work harder to compensate for the loss of conditioned air. It’s also a good idea to keep your windows closed on windy days, as the strong breezes can stir up dust, circulate it throughout your home, and gradually build up in your ductwork.
Clean your rugs and floors regularly
This tip is closely tied to the one above. Dust accumulation on your floors and rugs can lead to particle build-up in your ductwork over time. Regular mopping and vacuuming will keep dirt and allergens to a minimum and preserve the efficiency of your HVAC system.
Plug any leaks in your home
When you ‘leak-proof’ your home, it creates an impermeable barrier between indoor and outdoor air. Any gaps can fill the rooms with hot air during the summer, forcing your HVAC system to work harder. To prevent it from wearing down and requiring emergency repairs, you should:
- Check the window sill for any gaps or cracks
- Inspect all doors leading outside
If you find anything, carry out any minor repairs yourself and call a professional for more complicated situations. The money you spend now can translate into bigger savings in operating and maintenance costs later.
Replace dirty air filters
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, you can reduce your air conditioner’s energy consumption by up to 15% by changing its air filters regularly. When the system is working hard to keep you cool during the summer, the filters can get dirty quickly and obstruct airflow. If this happens, the filter can convey dirt right into the evaporator coil and impact its heat-absorbing capacity.
With central air-conditioning systems, filters are located along the length of the return duct. Common locations include ceilings, walls, and furnaces. While some filters are reusable, others must be replaced. A general rule of thumb for replacement is every 90 days, but this schedule can vary depending on:
- How often you use your HVAC system
- Your local climate
- Whether you have fur-bearing pets in the home
Your local HVAC technician can provide you with the right filter replacement schedule for your circumstances.
Insulate your attic
Insulating the attic in your home prevents conditioned air from leaking outside, so your HVAC system doesn’t have to work harder to keep you comfortable. To determine whether your attic has sufficient insulation, Energy Star recommends that you verify whether or not you can easily see the floor joists. If you can, more insulation is recommended.
It’s also a good idea to replace your attic insulation as needed. Standard insulation tends to lose its effectiveness after around 15 years, but water damage from roof leaks, mold outbreaks, and dirt accumulation can all cause it to degrade faster. If your HVAC system starts working harder than normal to keep you comfortable, have your insulation inspected and replaced if necessary.
Protect the HVAC system outdoor components
All components that are exposed to the elements should receive extra care and protection. Steps include:
- Cutting back foliage to clear at least two feet of space around the condenser for adequate airflow
- Removing any debris such as leaves, cut grass, and dirt from nearby dryer vents
- Covering rooftop units with materials that keep out rain and snow while allowing moisture to escape. If you trap moisture inside the unit, rust and corrosion can result.
Any obstructions that reduce proper airflow and cause the outdoor condenser coil to become dirty can make your HVAC system work harder and even cause an eventual breakdown.
Clean your ductwork
HVAC system ducts can get dirty over time, so it’s essential that you inspect them on a regular basis and clean them if:
- There is visible mold growth on the ducts
- They appear to clogged with dust and dirt
- You notice particles being released into your home from the registers
All of these elements can impact airflow and jeopardize the wellbeing of everyone in your home, so clean them as needed to keep your HVAC system and your loved ones healthy.
Clean the condensing unit
Most residential HVAC systems have an exterior condensing unit/heat pump that releases hot air outdoors in the summer. This unit has metal fins that clog easily when exposed to pollen, dirt, and debris. You can reduce maintenance costs by using a water hose to lightly spray away any buildup. Refrain from using pressure washers, as they can damage your unit.
Check the fins
If the fins on your evaporator or condenser coils are bent, it restricts and even blocks airflow. Premature coil failure can even result, so contact your local HVAC technician now to save on maintenance costs later.
Check the condensate drains
Your HVAC system’s drain line should be near the outside unit, leading from the indoor evaporator coil. Most drains are small PVC pipes, although some are made from copper.
When the condensate drain is working normally, you’ll see consistent dripping on a hot day. If it’s clogged, the unit won’t be able to reduce indoor humidity levels and you may even see water come through your ceiling if you have a rooftop unit!
You can use a wet-dry vacuum to suction out any buildup of algae or mold. Even better, pass a stiff wire through the drain channel occasionally to break up minor blockages before they get big enough to cause excess indoor moisture.
Clean the evaporator coil
The evaporator coil, which is located on the indoor unit, functions as a radiator to ensure that the air moving through the ductwork is properly cooled or heated. It can collect dirt over time and with regular use.
While regular air filter changes will prevent it from becoming dirty too quickly, grime can build up gradually, which can reduce airflow and the coil’s ability to absorb heat. To avoid a high repair bill, have your local HVAC technician check and clean the evaporator coil each year.
Check your thermostat batteries
Replace batteries on your thermostat as needed, so that its readings are accurate and the HVAC system can respond accordingly. Most models have a ‘low battery’ alert to remind you, but if yours doesn’t, aim to replace them annually.
Use smart technology
Finding the right balance of cooling and heating can be a challenge when your system has manual control. Smart thermostats and sensors use pre-programmed comfort levels to automatically set temperatures and regulate them. They can create the right indoor climate for your home by factoring in:
- Personal habits (for example, some people like their bedrooms warmer or cooler than others)
- Ambient temperatures
Because they respond to your family’s actual cooling and heating needs, smart thermostats turn on and off as required, reducing your energy bill and preventing your HVAC system from over-exertion. They can even shut off the system when you’re away on vacation and turn it back on in time for your home to be comfortable when you return.
Replace an outdated system
If your residential HVAC system is older or constantly requiring additional maintenance, you can save on both energy and repair costs by installing a modern system with newer and more durable components.
The best HVAC units today use anywhere from 30 to 50% less energy to produce the same level of indoor comfort as units produced during the 1970s. Even systems that are only 10 years old can cost you 20 to 40% more in energy costs compared to a newer, more efficient model. Since new systems use the most up-to-date technology, they will function more efficiently and reduce costs associated with maintenance or repair.
When shopping for a new unit, check the SEER rating (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio), which measures the efficiency of cooling equipment. Before 2006, a 10 SEER rating was considered sufficient: today, federal law mandates a minimum of 13. Modern systems are generally rated between 14 and 21.
You should also purchase a system with an ENERGY STAR label. These units meet the strict efficiency standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and are up to 15% more efficient than other systems. Not only are they less likely to require unexpected maintenance, but they can also save you up to $3 per square foot in energy costs over their lifetime and make you eligible for rebates from your utility company.
Schedule regular maintenance
HVAC maintenance should be ongoing and involve more than the occasional air filter change. Systems that are poorly maintained will always deliver substandard performance, no matter how modern or expensive they are. They can even break down just when you need them the most, resulting in a repair or replacement bill that could put your summer family vacation on hold until next year!
According to the Building Efficiency Initiative, routine system maintenance can save you anywhere from 5% to 40% on HVAC-related energy costs. Your local HVAC technician will be able to identify any coil issues, ductwork leaks, airflow difficulties, and signs of system instability and correct them before they can add extra zeros to a maintenance invoice.
To keep your residential HVAC system at peak performance for a long time to come, schedule professional pre-season maintenance to help you get more out of your investment and save money in the long run.