With about 50 percent of their energy costs going to heating and cooling, most homeowners are eager to maximize their HVAC system’s efficiency. Fortunately, it’s easy to improve HVAC performance with a regimen of simple (but vital) maintenance tasks, most of which focus on keeping your units clean.

Over time, household dust and yard debris—don’t forget that air conditioners and heat pumps include outdoor units—can hinder fan blades and interfere with heat exchangers, requiring more electricity to move air and maintain comfortable temperatures. That’s why energy efficiency-minded organizations like the EPA and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory agree that periodic maintenance, especially cleanings, are crucial to improving HVAC efficiency and, ultimately, saving money. Use the best practices listed below to ensure your HVAC system is as clean and efficient as possible.

Change or clean your air filter regularly. You don’t just change the air filter for the sake of your own lungs. You also want to avoid taxing your HVAC system’s fans, which will strain to draw air through a clogged filter. A relatively fresh air filter will also be more effective at keeping dust from infiltrating your HVAC system and fouling the evaporator coils—the heat exchanger inside an air conditioner’s indoor unit. Dust buildup not only reduces airflow through the coils of the heat exchanger but also makes heat transference much less efficient.

The EPA’s ENERGY STAR program recommends changing or cleaning the filter at least every three months. However, the buildup on an air filter varies from house to house and season to season, so homeowners should inspect the filter once a month and be prepared to change it if it seems dirty.

Clean the indoor evaporator coil and HVAC cabinet. Changing the air filter more frequently will slow the accumulation of particulates inside your indoor unit, but dust is ubiquitous and insidious—eventually, you’ll notice some buildup. The coil can be cleaned by thoroughly spraying it with coil cleaner, a strongly basic solution. (Depending on the type of coil cleaner, you may also need to rinse it off afterward.) After cleaning the coil, the entire cabinet housing the unit should be vacuumed.

Clean the outdoor condenser coils and maintain the unit. If maximum energy efficiency is your goal, maintaining a clean coil is even more crucial for the outdoor compressor unit; the US Department of Energy cites a study showing that a dirty condenser coil can increase energy consumption by 30 percent—with an accompanying increase in energy costs. After brushing or blowing away the debris, the procedure for cleaning outdoor coils is the same as for indoor coils: thoroughly spray the coils with a cleanser, and then rinse it away with a hose (never a power washer, which can damage the unit).

Besides cleaning, there are additional maintenance projects that can improve your outdoor unit’s efficiency. The fins that surround the compressor coil are thin and delicate, which allows them to transfer heat easily but leaves them vulnerable to the elements. Fins that have become bent or crumpled hinder heat transference; luckily, they can be easily straightened with a fine-tooth fin comb.

One final way to help the compressor work more efficiently is to keep the entire unit cooler by shading it with an adjacent bush, wall, or fence. Inside the compressor coil is where refrigerant condenses and releases heat, so it stands to reason that this process will be more efficient if the coil is as cool as possible. A manmade shelter could provide shade as well as a dry, convenient place to store yard tools; just make sure the shelter clears the top of the compressor by at least five feet so it won’t interfere with the unit’s powerful fan.

Find a trustworthy, capable HVAC technician. A biannual professional tune-up will have the greatest impact in terms of maintaining the effectiveness and efficiency of your HVAC system. An HVAC pro will be able to perform more technical tasks intended to increase efficiency, like examining indoor ductwork for kinks or breaks, lubricating the compressor’s fan blade, or using wooden shims to ensure the unit is level. In order to pick a company that offers quality workmanship and attentive customer service, use EBSCO Research’s guide to finding a qualified contractor.

Make inspecting your HVAC system part of your monthly to-do list, and be prepared with a fresh air filter or a quick touch-up from the vacuum cleaner as necessary. Don’t forget to enlist the help of a professional technician as well. Diligent maintenance, especially regular cleanings, won’t just provide cosmetic benefits; it will also improve the performance, longevity, and efficiency of your HVAC system. In the long run, that will add up to more than enough savings to make the chores worth it.

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Sources: Air Conditioning Contractors of America; The Baltimore Sun; ENERGY STAR; EPA; Federal Energy Management Program; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study; National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

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