Angie's List: Save money and stay cool with a properly maintained air conditioner

A happy AC is a clean and recharged AC

TAMPA - Save for a few days during winter, most of us use our air conditioners year 'round. But they really get a workout during the hot and humid summer months. And when is your A/C most likely to break down? That's right, on the hottest day of the year. Highly rated service specialists tell Angie's List the majority of their emergency repair calls can be traced back to poor maintenance. Each year your air conditioner goes without maintenance, it will lose about 5 percent of its overall efficiency.  

Air conditioning service technician Darren Scaggs said there are several signs that you need service. "It needs to be tuned up once a year, every year," he said. "Also, if the outdoor coils are dirty, if the cooling capacity is not up to par and you're not getting air flow out, things like that can show that the air conditioner needs to be tuned up."

Angie's List founder, Angie Hicks adds, "Your heating and cooling system uses over 50 percent of your energy costs in your home. So any improvements you can make to maintain your system will make a difference in your monthly bills."

Finding potential problems before they arise will keep you from having an unexpected failure in the middle of a heat wave, will save you emergency repair bills and will help avoid costly repairs down the road. Some of the most basic maintenance can be done by you. "Changing the filter on your furnace or air conditioner is one of the simplest things you can do," said Hicks. "Just remember to check it every month when you pay your utility bill. It's something that anyone can do themselves and it can save you up to 15 percent on your energy bills if you get them well maintained."

Angie's List, the nation's premier provider of local consumer reviews, asked its heating and cooling experts for ways homeowners can save and still beat the heat:

  • Call a professional: Each central air conditioning unit should be inspected, cleaned and tuned by a professional before the summer season. Ask about annual maintenance plans. More HVAC are offering these plans that will insure visits twice per calendar year.
  • Keep the filter clean: Clean and replace the air conditioner filter frequently (check the filter once a month). This is especially important during the summer when dust and allergens circulate. If the filter becomes clogged, your system will have to work harder to supply the same amount of cool air. Check with your provider on the right type of filters to use with your system.
  • Made in the shade: Air conditioners with proper shading can be more efficient. Air in a shaded space is cooler than the surrounding air, meaning the A/C will have an easier time cooling the air, but keep plants, shrubs, and other landscaping about two to four feet away from your outdoor unit to ensure adequate airflow.
  • Dial for dollars: Remember that each degree you dial below 78 increases your energy consumption by about 8 percent. If your monthly electric bill is about $100, you'll save $8 a month with EACH degree you can stand above 78.
  • Set and go: If it's hard to remember to tweak your thermostat before you leave for work, consider investing in a programmable thermostat or a timer for your window unit.
  • Time to replace? If your unit is more than 10 years old and you have substantial repair costs, it's probably time to consider a replacing your unit with a new, energy-efficient model. When replacing your A/C, look for a properly sized unit. If you install a unit that is too large, it will cycle on and off – reducing the efficiency of the system.

A typical A/C tune-up will cost between $70 and $100. Scaggs said it should be performed by a professional. "Going to the outdoor unit we check the indoor coil, the outdoor coil, the capacitors, compressor, do an all systems check on the electrical and make sure everything is tightened check the refrigerate level the temperatures and make sure the system is efficient and operating as it should."

Angie's List tips for hiring a HVAC company:

  • Check that they are properly licensed and insured.
  • Some companies hire maintenance technicians to do their tune-ups as an entry level position. Make sure they have certification that shows they have met the minimum standards for knowledge of their trade.
  • Be wary of companies that offer significantly lower prices. Emergency or weekend repair calls often carry extra fees of $50-$150 above the time and materials needed for repair.
  • Get multiple estimates, even in an emergency situation.
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