NJ AIR QUALITY BLOG

I Need Help with Central Air Conditioning!

ByMarc Silberberg

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Members of the baby boomers who were fortunate to be financially comfortable were able to install central air in old and new construction during the last century. Many of these baby boomers are presently downsizing or halfway out the door of their homes heading to warmer climates such as Florida or moving into senior living quarters. Most seniors do not want to spend all that cash for major upgrades on completely new central air systems. Still, they want to be sufficiently cool in the summer heat and are asking the following question. Are there any frugal ways to improve our current central air conditioning while holding on to our wallets?

Unlike the throwaway generation of today, seniors try to keep what they have and fix their possessions if broken. For example, even though today a shoe repair can be up to fifty dollars for heels and soles they are attached to comfy shoes and want to keep them. The same goes for appliances such as stoves and freezers. The older stoves are easier to turn on without having to use electric starters and frost freezers (as opposed to frost free) keep the food fresh and tasty longer even though they must be defrosted periodically. Modern stoves such as induction are easier to clean but the balance of the high and low settings is tricky and mine has burned my soup pot more than once.

There are some hacks for keeping the central AC in order and cooling properly without having to part with lots of hard-earned cash. For example, installing additional thermostats, sun blocking window shades, increasing the frequency of filter changes as the AC gets less efficient with age, sealing windows, cleaning the condenser including the coils and very importantly duct cleaning.

Separate Thermostats

If some of your rooms are not as cool as the rest of the house a separate thermostat could be the answer. Sometimes one or two of the outer rooms of the house were either added on or built without a basement or crawl space beneath them. This causes those rooms to be colder in the winter and warmer in the summer. Only the rooms that the thermostat can sense the temperature will be cooled and heated efficiently. By investing in a separate thermostat for one or more of those rooms you will be able to have sufficient cooling in them without investing in an additional central air unit.

Skylight Shades

Another reason that certain rooms do not cool properly even though there is a basement or crawl space beneath them is because the sun is beating down and warming those rooms more than others. Room darkening shades or shades that block out the heat could help keep those rooms cooler. If your home has skylights which are great during the fall and spring since they light and warm up the house you should have skylight shades installed. When the skylight is on the roof the sun beats down directly onto the floor below and the outline of the sun can be seen on the floor that is beneath it. For example, if the skylight is situated in an upstairs hallway, you will clearly see a lighter patch on the floor or carpet where the sun hits the floor.

A friend of mine had a problem for many years with the heat coming to the second floor landing due to a roof skylight. Midday she could actually see the square beam of light coming from the skylight. She invested in an electrically powered skylight shade which she can remotely open and close at her discretion. She keeps the shade closed the entire summer from the moment she feels the heat coming from the skylight until the weather gets cooler in the fall. She no longer has the sun beating down on her second-floor landing and not only is her home staying cooler, but she expects to see a reduction in her electricity bill.

Change the AC Filters More Frequently

As your AC ages, dirt and dust accumulates on the filters and condensers. Even if you have a regular yearly service to check your HVAC system before turning it on in the spring, the service doesn’t necessarily include the changing of the filters. If you do not ask your serviceman beforehand to bring you new filters, he might explain that yours are older and he doesn’t have them on his truck. This does not mean that they are not available, only that he doesn’t have the customers for your size filters, so he does not keep them in stock. Since it’s cheaper for the HVAC company to buy the filters in bulk it will most certainly not buy the ones for the older machines. Luckily, if you look online, you will find the right size filters. You don’t want to be left with the only option of vacuuming an old filter so stock up on them generously when you find the right size.

It’s quite easy to change the filters as long as you can access them by step ladder. It’s safer to ask a younger member of the family to help you since you do not want to lose your balance and fall. Older systems have a tendency to attract grime and dust more easily than newer systems so even though you may read that AC filters should be changed once a year, in the case of older systems the filters should be replaced at least twice a year.

Clean Drain Lines

If there is too much moisture in the drain lines, the water can stay in the lines into the winter causing the moisture to freeze. It is normal for an AC to produce a small amount of moisture called condensation but too much will clog the lines. To clean the lines, mix some bleach with water and pour it down the line and then pour plain warm water down the line to flush it. This process should drive out any foreign substances that can harden and stuff up the drain lines.

Seal Your Windows

Living in an older house has certain advantages such as beautiful Parkay floors, detailed molding around the ceilings and a cozy feeling that is hard to get from new construction. However, one major challenge in older homes is the windows. Even if they were sealed before, the sealants can dry out and begin falling off the window frames. If you have never sealed your windows, then you will see a major difference in your HVAC system not only in the summer but in the winter as well. Major energy loss (up to 30%) in homes occurs through the doors and windows according to the DOE (Department of Energy).

To seal and reseal your windows we recommend calling in an expert to do the job properly. This is because before entertaining the task of sealing the windows you first have to remove the preexisting sealants and trims. A professional will use a special type of caulking and apply additional overlays of sealant. You don’t have to take their advice about installing new windows since that would be quite a costly renovation for people who may be moving out of that home in a few years. You will see a marked improvement in your HVAC system by just resealing the windows.

Condenser Cleanout

The condenser is located outdoors, inside the large AC unit. If you are the handy type, it is possible to clean the condenser yourself. Remove the cover of the AC and look down into the unit. You should immediately notice all kinds of dirt and debris that can be vacuumed with an outdoor vacuum. Unscrew the fan so you can see what’s going on. I would not attempt to use your regular indoor vacuum and a wet/dry outdoor vacuum can be rented for a nominal fee. Be sure to shut the power connection before beginning this cleanup. The power connection is generally located on the outside wall in a box with an on and off switch.

The vacuuming of the inside of your AC unit may be enough for you as a layman to carry out. Another step would be to find or purchase a spray attachment to your garden hose. Spray the fan blades, reattach the fan and replace the AC cover. This process might sound easy to some of you and impossible to most others. You might not need an AC professional for this job; it can be by someone who is handy and has done a condenser cleaning before. Personally, I would recommend calling in a professional to do this cleaning job. Remember a typical AC professional will not include this cleanup in their price so just as you must ask about the filters, inquire about cleaning the condenser.

Removal of Debris Near Outside Unit

Make sure that you don’t plant your tomatoes or strawberries too near the outside AC unit since the vents could get blocked cutting off the airflow from the machine. Central air conditioning units work by pushing out heat and hot gas from the coolant turns into liquid via the condenser coils. This is to ensure that you get the most out of your system energy-wise, no plants should be put less than two feet from the condenser.

HVAC Air Duct Cleaning

Although we left duct cleaning for last it is probably one of the most important parts of the HVAC system. The reason we left it for last is because this is not a task that we recommend the homeowner to attempt by themselves. Having a local air duct cleaning service clean the ducts is a very tricky undertaking because if not done correctly will do more harm than good. If your ducts are dirty and clogged it’s bad enough but if the homeowner attempts to clean them out and punctures holes in them then not only will this exacerbate the problem, but you may have to end up replacing the damaged ducts and that’s not a place you want to visit.

Final Words

Older HVAC units have many problems when not working right and some of them are relatively easy to remedy. A handy homeowner will be able to handle most of the options we suggested such as frequent filter replacement. If you notice a deterioration in your central air cooling please don’t ignore it and hope it will get better by itself. There are several ideas presented above that are not too pricey yet have helped people who are absolutely against replacing their HVAC system whether for the reason that they don’t know how much longer they will be living in that home or because it’s not financially feasible for them at this point in their lives. In any case it’s advisable to have some type of a contract with a reliable air quality specialist to check out your unit each year and don’t be timid to ask them to do some extra work such as cleaning out the condenser. In fact small improvements such as resealing the windows and removing the junk near the outside unit will give you positive results.

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