HVAC Tune-Ups You Can Totally Do Yourself

When you look at the monthly expenses of running a house, apartment or condo, the cost of heating and cooling is near the top.  HVAC,  which is contractor-speak for Heating, Cooling & Air Conditioning,  is expensive to run and requires regular heating service and is vital for comfort and even health.  Having heat or air conditioning fail is not just a hassle,  a properly running system uses less electricity and gas,  and prevents a whole host of dangerous conditions that can develop f the system is ignored.

This said, not all heating and cooling maintenance needs to be done by a pro. Here’s what you can get done on your own, and what is best left to a pro.

DIY Cooling & Heating Service

While a thorough inspection can only be done by a pro, there are a few easy things for do-it-yourselfers to check for to keep HVAC systems cranking.  Check exposed ductwork for peeling tape on exposed ductwork, dirt streaks, or collapsed sections of flex ducts. If you do find a duct leak, do not use duct tape (despite the name) to repair it – instead use UL 181 tape, which looks like silver foil. It lasts longer and does not lose its bond with heat.  Also, if you heat with natural gas or propane, keep an eye on the color of the burner’s flame  flame – it should be a steady blue.  Orange or flickering flames mean the fuel is not being fully combusted and can lead to dangerous conditions, including an increased risk of exposure to carbon monoxide, that only an expert in heating service should address.  Also look for blocked vents, which can happen if furniture is pressed to close to the vent.  Check that you have good air flow at all the supply registers, and take time to remove dirt or pet hair obstructing registers.

changing hvac filter

Change Filters Regularly 

Filters are installed on the return side of your heating systems air flow.  How after they need to be replaced is based on the quality of the filter you use.  Simple fiberglass filters have to be changed every month, but pleated more efficient filters might last up to 3 months or more as part of your cooling and heating service routine.  If you have pets or allergies, then you should change your filter more often, and be on the lookout for better filters that are designed ot stop even the smallest dust or pollen particles. Be particularly careful with filters in the spring if you have pets – especially long-haired pets. Dogs with double coats are the worst culprit for abruptly dropping large quantities of fur in your home, and can quickly clog filters forcing your system to run under a strain that can increase the risk of a breakdown.

Keep Air Conditioning Compressor Clear

Keep the space around your outside compressor free of debris and vegetation. The compressor needs at least a foot of clear space around it and four feet above. If the visible coils become clogged, you can clean them with a wet-dry shop vac.  Also, check the foam insulation on the refrigerant lines ot make sure its not become a victim of your landscapers string trimmer of lawn mower and replace it if its torn or just beat up.

duct cleaning

Skip Duct Cleaning

Duct cleaners will say you should do this regularly – but the fact is that duct cleaning does not appear to prevent health problems, increase dirt levels in the home or reduce efficiency.  Duct cleaning is not a typical cooling or heating service step, and  should only have your ducts cleaned if there is mold in the ducts, vermin living in the ducts or the ducts are actually clogged. Anything more than that is likely a total waste of money.  As a DIY’r, vacuuming duct registers and staying on top of filter replacement is the best way to keep the air clean.

Keep Humidifier Clean

In late spring, turn water off to the furnace humidifier (the exact date depends on where you are). Then in fall, turn it back on and replace the humidifier filter. This way you are not running the humidifier when not using the furnace. Also, clean the humidifier filters regularly, as they easily become clogged. White vinegar is good, but rinse well afterwards or your house may start to smell like a salad!

5 Signs of Heating & Cooling Trouble

Following these DIY tips can help  make sure HVAC system should is in good shape – but what if it isn’t?  Here are some things to watch for that indicate you may have a problem.

1. Flame color.  A furnace flame that is yellow or orange rather than blue and/or flickering rather than steady. This, as mentioned above, indicates a combustion problem. The orange flame is a sign that the gas is not being completely burned, which can generate very high levels if carbon monoxide, This, combined with a blocked chimney vent or crack in the furnace heat exchanger, can lead to a very dangerous condition.  Be safe and call in a pro for a service.

2. Odors! Be on the lookout for any kind of unpleasant or unexpected odor. An sweet, acrid odor indicates the fuel is not being consumed, whhc as described above, can be dangerous.  If you smell a strong odor of gas (actually an additive called mercaptan to allow you to smell natural gas leaks),  leave the building first, and THEN call 911 – natural gas can explode at the drop of a hat.

3. Black soot around the heat system vent.  Soot around a vent can indicates that the combustion gas produced by your furnace or boiler is not venting outside, and could even be backing up into the bild, which could be very dangerous.

4. A/C is not cooling well. If you feel warm or the AC is running constantly, test with a refrigeration thermometer. The difference between the supply and return ducts should be 12 to 20 degrees. If it is not, then you probably need service.

When to go with a HVAC pro

Whether you spot trouble signs like these or not,  it’s also very important to have your system profesional serviced twice a year, with a heating service in the fall and cooling service in the spring.  An HVAC pro will evalue, clean and tune a wide variety of components to ensure your HVAC system is efficient and operating safely.   This includes professionally cleaning combustion deposits that are left on the burner and in the heat exchanger, which affect the furnace’s efficiency (wasting fuel) and can result in toxic deposits entering the air of the house.

Finally, if you are running an old furnace, consider replacing it with a new, Energy Star rated model. Fifteen to twenty years is a good cut off point. A new furnace will rapidly pay for itself in reduced energy bills and heating costs.

Keeping your HVAC system in prime condition is important for keeping utility bills down, staying healthy, and remaining comfortable in your home – so be sure to follow proper maintenance and keep your eye (and nose) out for problems!


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