Getting your AC ready for summer

Summer is starting to heat up, and that means your energy bills may soon pay the price. About six percent of a household’s annual expenses come from cooling costs, resulting in a net $29 billion in utility spending each year across the country. That’s a lot of green!

But that doesn’t mean you have to surrender helplessly to rising cooling costs.

Regular maintenance on your unit stands to reduce the energy consumption of your central air unit by anywhere from five to 15 percent. To get those benefits, you could enroll in a service program from your HVAC repair technician—but it will cost you. About $150 to $500 a year, to be exact. However, with a few AC smarts, you can do much of the work on your own and save the rest for your summer vacation.

Here’s your checklist for home air conditioning maintenance to keep you cool well before summer highs drive you indoors.

Inside your home

An air conditioner is only as good as the sum of its parts, and for central AC units, that means that both the indoor and outdoor components need to be running like a well-oiled machine. Specifically, here’s what to look for inside your house.

  • Change your filters. Dirty filters are a big drain on energy. Changing your filters every four to six weeks makes your unit more energy-efficient and improves its longevity to boot. Clogged filters create extra resistance inside your system, meaning your unit has to work overtime to carry cooled air to you. That extra effort eats up energy—and it can wear down your components over time, shortening the life of your system. Fifteen dollar filter or $500 compressor replacement? You see where we’re going here.
  • Check your thermostat. Even your thermostat plays a part in energy performance. For instance, you’ll want to make sure your thermostat settings reflect the correct temperatures. Also, turn your thermostat to the “auto” setting, rather than “on” or “fan.” Keeping the thermostat set to “on” means the AC’s fan is running continuously, rather than cycling on and off, and that can tack on an extra $50 a month or so to your energy expenses. If you have programmable settings on your thermostat, find out how to use those, too. Turning the AC off while you’re out for the day could save up to 10 percent on your electricity bills!
  • Clean your condensate drain line and pan. Your AC doesn’t just cool your home, it reduces the humidity, too. This collects as condensation, which is funneled through the condensate drain line to the condensation pan below. Over time, these pipes can become grimy, bacteria-ridden, and clogged. This reduces the effectiveness of your unit, and can potentially cause water damage, too! To clean the unit, shut off your system, disconnect the drain line, and run a solution of water and vinegar in a 1:1 ratio through the pipe until it runs clean. For really clogged lines, you can allow it to sit in the solution for about 30 minutes. Next, clean out the pan with liquid dish soap and hot water and put everything back. A clean system is a more energy efficient system!

Outside your home

Meanwhile, most AC systems have an external unit as well. Positioned outside your home, these units frequently bear the brunt of pollen, dust, grass clippings, and other contaminants that can clog up your components, impacting overall efficiency. Here’s how to keep yours running smooth.

  • Cut back brush around your outdoor unit. Over the winter, grass and weeds can grow around the side of your outdoor unit, restricting airflow to your unit, which—you guessed it!—makes it work harder and consume more energy. Trim weeds and bushes surrounding the unit and move plants and garden beds away to prevent obstruction.
  • Clean your condenser coils. The inside of the unit needs to be clean, too, though. Dust, pollen, grass clippings and other debris from outside the unit can collect on the coils, and that can massively affect unit performance—it may drop as much as 30 percent, by some estimates. Your system relies on those coils to condense the refrigerant to a liquid and remove heat from your system. In essence, it’s where some of the real cooling happens. To clean your coils, turn off the power to your unit, and give them a once over with a soft-bristled brush and some liquid dish soap and water. Then spray them clean with a hose—squeaky-clean energy performance!

Is it time for a new AC?

All of that aside, there’s no fixing a truly outdated unit. Many older ACs have very low seasonal energy efficiency ratings, or SEERs. In the 90s, for instance, it wasn’t uncommon for units to be rated with a SEER of around 10, whereas now, that rating doesn’t even clear the minimum standards.

If your unit is fairly old, or you’ve noticed a steady drop off in cooling performance—even after a little tune up—it may be time for a replacement air conditioner. A high efficiency air conditioner can reduce energy consumption by 20 to 50 percent—and you’ll feel the effect on your utility bills. If you do choose to upgrade to a more efficient unit, make sure to go with a system that’s sized correctly for your home. Don’t just get the same size as your last unit—that won’t fix your energy woes if your unit was too large or too small in the first place. No matter how you slice it, taking some preventative steps to improve your AC’s performance means you’ll have one very cool summer!


This guest post was written by Erin Vaughan, a blogger, gardener and aspiring homeowner. She currently resides in Austin, TX where she writes full time for Modernize, with the goal of empowering homeowners with the expert guidance and educational tools they need to take on big home projects with confidence.

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