Air Conditioner Check-Up Time

Man checking air ventDon't wait until the first scorcher of summer hits to find out your air conditioning isn't working. Here's some advice to make sure your A/C stays in good working order and is ready for you when you need it.

Whether you have a central air conditioning system or room air conditioners, the maintenance is basically the same. If you have room air conditioners, unplug them before you start to clean and check them.

Vacuum Grills and Vents
First, vacuum the front grills, air registers and return air vents.

Check Air Filters
Next, remove the grill on the main unit — and all window units — to check the air filter. Before removing the filter, notice how it is held in place so you can reinstall it correctly. Many filters simply slide in and out or are draped from prongs on the air conditioner body or the back of the grill. Be sure to read the filter packaging to see which side faces up.

Dirty filters are a common cause of air conditioner problems and inefficient operation. Filters should generally be cleaned or replaced every four to six weeks in the peak of the cooling season. To clean a washable filter, brush it free of lint, then wash it in warm soapy water. Squeeze and let the filter dry completely before reinstalling it.

Clean Fins and Coils
While the filter is out, check the condition of the evaporator fins or coils. These are normally exposed by removing the filter. Warm air drawn into the air conditioner passes through the filter and then over the fins or coil, where it is cooled and blown back into the room.

Vacuum the fins or coils carefully, using a soft brush attachment. Avoid bending the fins. If damaged, they may block the flow of air and cause the air conditioner to whistle. To straighten bent fins, insert a putty knife between them and pry gently.

Drain the Drip Pan
Beneath the fins or coils there is normally a small drain hole to channel condensed water to a drip pan in the rear of the air conditioner. Poke a wire or straightened paper clip through the drain hole to clear it, especially if you notice water. It should drain out right away. If a window unit doesn't drain properly, use a carpenter's level to check the mounting of the unit. It should slope at least a quarter of an inch downward toward the rear.

Does the unit smell musty? The smell is a sign of mold or bacteria growth in the water drip pan. If the smell persists after the drain hole has been cleared and the unit cleaned, professional servicing may be necessary.

Check Outdoor Surroundings
For maximum cooling, the outdoor part of an air conditioner should be shaded from the sun. Trees, shrubs or an awning can provide the shade, but they must be far enough away to allow warm air to escape. Foliage should be trimmed back at least two feet, and even more in corners where air is still.

Like any major appliance in your home, your cooling system should be checked and cleaned periodically by a professional. See your owner's manual for the recommended frequency of this care.