When the months turn cooler and frost begins to appear, you need to fortify your home to withstand the potentially bad weather ahead. Your HVAC system, or outdoor central air conditioning unit, needs as much attention as any other part of your home. While you’re swapping out screens for storm windows, you should also give some attention to your condenser — both to deter critters from nesting in its mechanical parts and to prevent damage from ice and snow.
The best time to prep your HVAC system, especially the outdoor component, is in the early fall. The process only takes a couple of minutes and can make a world of difference when you start the unit up the following summer. Taking the time to prep your HVAC for severe temperatures and weather will save you time and headaches in the future. Here are the steps to this quick and easy process, but first, you’ll need to gather your tools.
You only need a couple of things to protect your unit from inclement weather. To create a firm protection, gather these necessary items or some appropriate alternatives:
- Regular garden hose
- A clean rag
- Self-sealing pipe tees and elbows
- Tubular foam or rubber pipe insulation
- An outdoor air-conditioning unit cover
Once you’ve gathered the essentials, you’re ready to winterize … or are you? Your next step is to make sure that the unit you’re attempting to winterize is not a heat pump. For this clarification, you can easily check the model number and find more information on the internet, if you need it.
Heat Pump or Central Air Conditioning Unit?
It’s an excellent idea to protect the outdoor element of the HVAC system, but you need to make sure it isn’t an integral part of your heating system first. If you do have a heat pump, you definitely do not want to cover it up as it will malfunction during the first cold snap.
Read the model number (M/N) on the unit. You can usually find it on a manufacturer’s label somewhere on the appliance. If the model number contains the letters “HP,” then you have a heat pump and should not attempt to cover it up. If, however, you don’t have a heat pump and indeed have a central air conditioning unit, you can continue with the following steps to make sure that your condenser will survive to keep you cool in the next heat wave.
Turn It Off
The most essential step is one of the first: Turn off the circuit. Before cleaning, washing, or otherwise winterizing your HVAC unit, turn off power at the source to make sure no accidents occur. You also want to shut it off so that you can save money throughout the winter months.
You can turn the unit off in one of two ways, using either the dedicated circuit or the disconnect panel. Either way, turning off the unit is a cinch. When you return in the spring to turn it on, give the central air conditioning unit 24 hours before you put it to use. In other words, just turn on the power, but don’t run the unit.
Clear It Off and Clean It Up
Before you start, you should know that these units were built to exist outside in the elements; they are hardy enough to withstand the harshest of elements. Even so, you should make sure that you leave the condenser as protected as possible when cold weather hits.
Sweep off lawn clippings, twigs, branches, discarded birds’ nests or anything else laying on or around your outdoor unit. Rinse off the condenser with a hose, getting rid of bird droppings, spider webs and dried-on mud, but use only a gentle spray as anything too powerful can bend your condenser fins.
Let the unit dry completely before you winterize it. If you’re feeling really enthusiastic about protecting your outdoor unit, you can even spray it down with an anti-corrosive, anti-rust spray. Another easy do-it-yourself technique is to cover your condenser with car wax, which will help to protect it from hail, sleet, snow and freezing rain.
Clean Air Filters Matter
You should always keep a steady rotation of clean air filters in your HVAC unit, as a dirty filter means your unit is working harder, not more efficiently. The filter is located in the vent and is easy to replace. You should not need a technician, and you can probably change filters on your own.
Before you start working, make sure that the condenser is off, as you don’t want dust suddenly blowing up in your face as you’re working. When you’ve finished, ensure that the airflow arrows on the new filters are pointed in the direction of the HVAC unit.
Protect Your Pipes
Once your air conditioning unit is dry from spraying it down, protect the pipes running to and from the unit from freezing temperatures with the pipe tees and elbows — corner-shaped foam fittings — and the tubular foam or rubber pipe insulation.
First, cut the foam or rubber tubing the length and diameter of the pipes that run from your condenser to the house. After cutting these pieces to size, fit the tees and elbows first as it’s much easier than doing them later. Follow by putting on the pipe coverings.
While you’re working around the outdoor unit, take a moment to look at the gutters above it. Leaks above your unit aren’t just harmful to your home’s structure; they can also damage the HVAC unit. If you’re unsure about any leak situation in your gutters or roof, look for ice dams this winter. Ice dams — an accumulation of ice in the gutters or at the roof’s edges — are a sure sign that you have a leak to repair come spring.
Consider a Cover
Many manufacturers make custom covers for your AC unit, but you don’t want one that covers the appliance completely. A cover that totally envelops your HVAC unit can promote moisture and mold growth underneath it and provide an inviting, dry atmosphere for critters to nest.
You can buy a cover from the manufacturer, but many homeowners choose to go the DIY route by using bungee cords, tarps, plywood, and tie-downs. If you decide to use materials found in your garage or basement, be sure not to swaddle your appliance thoroughly. The waterproof material is a must if you’re going to use a cover for your HVAC unit, so opt for a plastic tarp or slice up some thick garbage bags or contractor’s bags.
If you’re very skillful, you can erect an awning above your HVAC unit with a two-foot clearance overhead for year-round protection against the hot sun or chilly storms. As a rule, when landscaping, prune a three-foot cleared area around your HVAC unit to prevent it from overheating or clogging when it’s working in the summer, and to protect it from falling frozen branches in the winter.
Prepare for Winter
Once you have your HVAC unit covered and the pipes protected, you should complete your transition to a winterized heating system by removing window units and getting a furnace tune-up.
Window units will create major drafts if you leave them in, raising your heating bill and keeping your thermostat at a suboptimal level. Make sure to take out each air conditioning unit from your windows and store them in an easy-to-reach place like a nearby closet.
Before you turn on your thermostat on a chilly evening for the reassuring blast of heat from your vents, you should call your heating technician to make sure that everything is running smoothly. Even if you have carbon monoxide detectors, you should still schedule a professional assessment. A technician can ensure that you don’t have a heating emergency during the first cold snap.
Test Run the Thermostats
All the heat in the world won’t help you keep warm in the winter if you accidentally leave your thermostat on air conditioning mode. As you’re winterizing your HVAC unit, check the main thermostat to make sure that it’s set to heat. You can also flip on the heater early, before the first cold snap, to make sure all is working correctly.
If you choose a relatively warm day, say in September or early October, the musty smell most heaters expel on their first run of the season can be mostly expelled through an open window. If you do a test run, you can also make sure that there are no strange noises coming from the furnace.
The same holds true for your air conditioner: Before you put it to rest for the season, run it one last time to see if it makes any strange noises. The best time to repair an air conditioning unit is when you don’t need it too much.
Throughout the winter, keep your condenser free from snow and ice. This doesn’t mean you have to be out there with a broom in every snow, but you should try and clear it at least every few weeks.
When you need a seasonal HVAC system tune-up, At Home Pros can help you find a trusted local service provider that fits your needs. So, when Jack Frost makes his annual entrance, you can be sure that your HVAC unit is safe, protected and effective.