Ask an Expert: How to Perform HVAC Maintenance

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Homeowners can save themselves a lot of time, energy, and money by performing some basic regular maintenance on their HVAC systems. To get a feel for what that entails, we enlisted James Richmond, of Richmond’s Air in Houston. He runs us through the basics of HVAC upkeep, plus some information on how to choose a contractor and what to expect when it comes to repairs and replacements. Here’s what he had to say.

Check air conditioner heat or room temperature

What are the most important steps a homeowner can take to maintain their HVAC system, especially to maximize energy efficiency?

It’s important to regularly change filters, and also to have routine maintenance performed on it by an HVAC professional.

How often should they have that maintenance performed?

Once a season. For the air conditioner, once a year. One of the most common mistakes a homeowner can make on their HVAC system is not do keep up with this maintenance—and it ends up requiring professional service.

Is there anything else besides changing the filters that a homeowner can do to keep their system running smoothly?

The outdoor units should be kept clean, especially the coils.

Do you recommend that homeowners ever clean the condenser coils themselves?

If they feel confident doing that, then yes—as long as they do it more regularly. If they wait until it gets really dirty, then they might need a professional to take it apart have it cleaned.

I wouldn’t recommend that homeowners do it with chemical coil cleaners, because they could ruin the system by using chemicals that are too strong, or if they don’t flush it out all the way or if they don’t use the right pressure. I’ve seen homeowners try to take a pressure washer to their outdoor system to wash the coil, and all they do is destroy it.

But I’ve had plenty of homeowners who I’ve shown how to clean their units. If they’re going to do it regularly, then yes.

Young Man Repairing Air Conditioner Standing On Stepladder

What about cleaning out the drain line?

They should regularly put some bleach down the drain line to keep it from getting clogged up. But if it is already clogged, then they should have someone come out and take a look at it.

Say they do have to hire a contractor. How do you recommend that a homeowner find the right person for the job?

One thing would be referrals. Another thing would be looking at the company’s reviews.

How can a homeowner tell that an HVAC contractor really knows what they’re talking about? Is there any way to differentiate?

If it seems like they don’t know what they’re talking about, they should probably get another opinion.

But one thing is looking at the accreditations of the company—and not just on their website alone, because that’s very easy to manipulate. I own my own website, and I don’t have to let [certain customers] post a review there. But you look at Yelp, Google, Angie’s List, and all that, I have no choice there. So if a contractor gets a bad review there, it’s going up there.

I’ve seen some companies that have hundreds of great reviews on their website, but then you look at all the other places and they have two or two-and-a-half star ratings.

What are the most frequent repairs that you have?

That would be broken capacitors and leaky coils.

Dirty air conditioner make bad health

What does the repair process look like?

It depends on what it is. But generally, we come out and diagnose the problem and then give the homeowners a solution. If they decide to proceed, then we either do it right on site or it’s scheduled, depending on how it suits the homeowner’s timeframe. Most repairs are done right on the spot.

How can a homeowner know that it’s time to replace their system?

That would be up to a professional to evaluate. If the system is over twelve [years old], then they should at least be thinking about it. But if it’s not broken, then there’s probably not a reason to replace it. Unless the electric bills are getting out of hand, or something like that. But generally, if that’s the case it’s also not cooling very well either.

How long does a replacement normally take? How many hours, etc.?

For a full system HVAC replacement, I’d say about six hours on average. But some replacements are much quicker, and some take a lot longer. It’s different with every installation. That’s why we pretty much have to come out to give people prices. Because not everything is the same.

Is there a certain time of year that’s better to schedule a full replacement?

If they’re being proactive about doing it—rather than just waiting until it completely conks out—the fall or early spring is usually better, and we can get them a better price at that time. There’s not as much demand at that time, and it’s easier for the workers to complete when it’s not 100 degrees outside. You can imagine, if it’s that hot outside, how hot it is up in the attic. Even the homeowners are more comfortable, because they don’t have to have the system down [when the weather isn’t amenable].

If a homeowner’s HVAC system stop working—especially their AC—is there anything they should do right away?

They should probably check their breakers and make sure their filters are clean if they’re not changing them regularly. Make sure there’s nothing blocked and that the breakers aren’t tripped before calling a professional. But it probably should still be checked if the breaker is tripped. That way, the HVAC contractor doesn’t have to come out for nothing.

About how much do regular services cost? What is a ballpark figure for a replacement versus just a repair?

Repairs are usually in the two to three hundred dollar range. It could be less or more, though. And with replacements, you’re talking about in the $2,000 dollar range, or for a full system, all the way up to $7,500, and it can go up from there.

Is there anything that can make the system you purchase more expensive?

Higher efficiency, depending on the model. And then what the house is like. If it’s really old, you may need all new ducting and that’s going to be more money.

That’s helpful to know. James, we appreciate you speaking with us today!

No problem. Thank you for having me.

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