Have you ever woken up in the middle of a winter night, shivering under the blankets and able
to see your breath? Or have you ever watched the thermostat creep into the
upper 80s during a record-setting heat wave, realizing you haven’t heard the
air conditioner kick on? If so, your heating or cooling system was on the
fritz—and (of course), it happened at the worst possible time.
These systems not only fail when you need them the most, but also during the hardest time of
the year to get a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) contractor
to come by for repairs. Naturally, technicians are at their busiest when these systems
are busiest. So, unless you have a relative in the business, the best way to
ensure your heating and cooling systems keep working is to maintain them properly.
To guard against a future breakdown, have a professional perform periodic maintenance on
the systems before the peak seasons begin. Have the heating system serviced in
late summer or early fall, and keep in mind that priority scheduling for repeat
customers may begin mid-summer. For a central air-conditioning system, arrange
to have a pro check it out in the early spring, after temperatures have reached
65° F, depending on when it starts getting hot in your region.
A typical maintenance call will involve tightening electrical connections, checking the
condition of hoses and belts, lubricating all moving parts, and making sure the
controls work properly.
For cooling components, the contractor will clean the evaporator coils that remove the heat
from the air in your home, as well as the condenser coils that release the collected
heat to the outside air. Your tech will also check the fan components, make
sure the refrigerant level in the system is correct, inspect ductwork and gas
lines, and check for leaks.
For heating systems, technicians typically check fuel connections, change the filters, and inspect
the system’s combustion and heat exchangers.
What You Can Do
Here are a few maintenance tasks you can perform yourself:
- For ongoing maintenance, change the filters every three months for a forced-air
system that includes both heating and cooling. If the systems are separate,
change the filters every three months during the heating or cooling season. The
type of filter to use and directions for changing it can be found in the manual
that comes with installation. Instructions may also come with the filter, or on
a label affixed to the HVAC unit. You an
also ask an HVAC contractor for advice, or visit the manufacturer’s website to
see if information is available online.
- Check around the house to make sure all heating and cooling vents, baseboard heaters,
and radiators are not blocked by furniture.
If they are blocked, the system has to work harder to provide you with
the comfort you want, placing a strain on the system.
- Air-conditioning systems often have an outdoor component that houses the compressor and condenser.
This part of the system dumps hot air from your house to the outside as part of
the cooling cycle. Remove leaves and other debris off of the top of the unit, and
maintain a clearance of 2 to 3 feet around it.
Repair vs. Replace
If your HVAC system does break down, you will be faced with the decision of whether to
repair or replace it. Repairs are less expensive, but there are a number of
reasons to consider replacing the entire unit.
- The system is eight to 15 years old. While a
properly maintained system can last longer than 15 years, some older equipment
is not as efficient as those available today. And with the average
household spending almost half its energy budget on heating and cooling
costs, it makes sense to install an energy-efficient system. For example,
the annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) rating measures how much
fuel a furnace or boiler converts to heat and how much is wasted. It is
not unusual to find old furnaces with an AFUE below 70%, which means that
over 30% of the fuel is wasted. High-efficiency furnaces available today
can achieve AFUE ratings above 98%.
That could mean a reduction in heating bills of 20 to 30%.
Likewise, the seasonal energy-efficiency ratio (SEER) can be as low as 8
to 10 SEER in older units, while newer units often boast up to 25 SEER,
translating to a reduction of up to 50% of cooling costs.
- The system needs to be repaired frequently. Even if
the repairs are minor, having an HVAC contractor on speed dial does not
bode well for the future. If you are faced with a major repair—such as a
compressor for an air conditioner, or a blower motor for a furnace—and you
have had to pay for a similar repair recently, it is time to replace the
- Energy bills keep going up and the house is too hot
or too cold. There could be a number of reasons for this, such as leaky
ducts, or a lack of insulation and weather sealing in the walls and
ceiling. However, it could also mean that the current system is not the
right size for the house. A properly sized system would solve that problem
When faced with a large repair, discuss your options with a qualified HVAC contractor. If
you choose a replacement, make sure you hire a reputable, licensed and insured contractor
associated with a company you can trust, and confirm that you have a sufficient
warranty to insure you against installation and mechanical errors. And after the repair or replacement, keep it