Very few homeowners are vigilant in regards to their central air conditioning system – what that means is basically, “as long as it runs and is cooling it’s probably working correctly.” The truth is that a malfunctioning air-conditioner is essentially a ticking time bomb and letting problems continue to manifest could end up costing $1,000s on what was once a $20-$30 fix. Not only are air-conditioning problems potentially costly, they could be dehumidifying the air improperly which could lead to water / mold damage and they aren’t cooling as efficiently as advertised, a huge energy drain.
So the question arises, how does one be vigilant in regards to their A/C? While any number of issues could appear out of the blue, there are some common problems that can be inspected, watched, and proactively fixed to help avoid any serious complications down the line. Here are things to look out for:
Leaking A/C Refrigerant
A properly functioning HVAC unit should feature a closed system and thus should never ‘be low’ on refrigerant. The gas mixture that makes up the refrigerant that flows through an air-conditioner is not a traditional fuel that gets used up. Thus, if an air-conditioner does run low on Freon, it should be repaired by a trained HVAC technician instead of just adding more and creating a toxic refrigerant delivery system.
Being low on refrigerant not only causes the house to be uncomfortable from both cooling and humidity, it is a huge drain on the unit itself because the evaporator coil freezes up. Five ways to determine if a system is low on refrigerant include:
• House taking long to cool down – If you notice the A/C is taking longer to deliver a regular flow of cool air it could be a sign of a system leak. Since refrigerant is the material that absorbs the heat, if you notice a warmer house it’s because less of the hotter air is being absorbed.
• Vents blow warm air – when a system is extremely low on refrigerant it will seem like the furnace is on instead of the A/C.
• Higher utility bills – the air-conditioner will run longer when it’s low on refrigerant, which results in higher electricity bills.
• Ice buildup – if ice is building up on the line from the outdoor unit into the house it could be a sign that the evaporator coil is freezing up and backing up the refrigerant, which could also cause compressor damage.
• Noises from line – the refrigerant gas leaking will make a bubbling sound as it escapes the line.
It should be noted that most refrigerant issues should be repaired by a certified technician. That being said, the underlying problems need to be consistently monitored by the homeowner.
Malfunctions with the Air-Conditioner Electrical Controls
The electrical controls on an A/C power important features such as the evaporator fan, condenser, compressor, and other components. Many times when these things go bad it shuts power down on the system altogether – a nuisance to comfort but not necessarily an energy drain. That being said, when the controls run improperly instead of shutting down, they may cause the air-conditioner to run repeatedly or power down and start back up on a regular basis which has a huge effect on utility bills.
Some things that cause electrical control failure include having an oversized unit, the corrosion of connections, damage to wiring, and just general old age. Once again an experienced technician should handle all electrical issues pertaining to the HVAC unit.
A/C Not Draining Properly
The condensation line coming from your air-conditioner is an important part of making sure the system runs efficiently. The evaporator coil on the air handler unit (indoors) creates condensation which needs to be taken away by the drain. If the line is dirty, algae and mold (in addition to the debris) will plug the drain causing higher humidity, a musty odor, and potentially water damage from the backed up fluids.
One positive thing about an air-conditioner not draining properly is that it is usually a DIY fix. The biggest indicator of a backed up line is a full drain pan under the air handler unit. If this is the case use a Shop-Vac outside of the home at the drains exit point to try and suck out the blockage. A long thin object inserted into the drain can help break apart the buildup as well. Once the blockage is removed run a solution of vinegar through the pipe to help prevent future mold growth and monitor the area consistently to make sure an underlying problem isn’t causing the blockage.
Thermostat and Sensor Problems
Air conditioners feature a thermostat sensor which measures the temperature of air as it enters into the evaporator coil. Sometimes these sensors can get knocked around or adjusted which might cause the air—conditioner to cycle on and off or run repeatedly. Likewise if the thermostat itself has gone bad, the A/C will also cycle and may run more intensely compared to the desired settings (set at 68° but cooling to 58° for example).
Thermostat issues can be caused by anything from a blown fuse, tripped circuit breaker, dead battery, dust buildup on the sensor, or even a poor home location. Many of these issues can be easily fixed with a minimal investment but it’s important to be vigilant towards sensor problems. A faulty thermostat can cost a multiple amount in higher utility bills compared to the $20-$40 of most common repairs.
Problems From Lack of Maintenance
The two main areas of maintenance that should be regularly performed include the changing of the air filter and the cleaning of the coils and moveable parts. Allowing the HVAC system to run with a dirty filter seriously impedes the air flow and drives up energy bills while causing the unit to work much harder than it should. Likewise, dirt and debris that build up on coils, motors, etc. cause the system to fail prematurely and not work as efficiently as it should.
The warranty of most central air-conditioning system units are 10-15 years and typical life expectancy can reach 20+ years with proper maintenance. Conversely, there are A/C units that are ‘lemons’ or improperly installed and only last 1-2 years. While the unexpected can always happen, it is possible to eliminate most surprises with a watchful eye on the HVAC system.
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