by Fran J. Donegan for The Home Depot
Have you ever woken up in the middle of a winter night, shivering under the blankets and able to see your breath? Or have you ever watched the thermostat creep into the upper 80s during a record-setting heat wave, realizing you haven't heard the air conditioner kick on? If so, your heating or cooling system was on the fritz—and (of course), it happened at the worst possible time.
These systems not only fail when you need them the most, but also during the hardest time of the year to get a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) contractor to come by for repairs. Naturally, technicians are at their busiest when these systems are busiest. So, unless you have a relative in the business, the best way to ensure your heating and cooling systems keep working is to maintain them properly.
To guard against a future breakdown, have a professional perform periodic maintenance on the systems before the peak seasons begin. Have the heating system serviced in late summer or early fall, and keep in mind that priority scheduling for repeat customers may begin mid-summer. For a central air-conditioning system, arrange to have a pro check it out in the early spring, after temperatures have reached 65° F, depending on when it starts getting hot in your region.
A typical maintenance call will involve tightening electrical connections, checking the condition of hoses and belts, lubricating all moving parts, and making sure the controls work properly.
For cooling components, the contractor will clean the evaporator coils that remove the heat from the air in your home, as well as the condenser coils that release the collected heat to the outside air. Your tech will also check the fan components, make sure the refrigerant level in the system is correct, inspect ductwork and gas lines, and check for leaks.
For heating systems, technicians typically check fuel connections, change the filters, and inspect the system's combustion and heat exchangers.
What You Can Do
Here are a few maintenance tasks you can perform yourself:
Repair vs. Replace
If your HVAC system does break down, you will be faced with the decision of whether to repair or replace it. Repairs are less expensive, but there are a number of reasons to consider replacing the entire unit.
When faced with a large repair, discuss your options with a qualified HVAC contractor. If you choose a replacement, make sure you hire a reputable, licensed and insured contractor associated with a company you can trust, and confirm that you have a sufficient warranty to insure you against installation and mechanical errors. And after the repair or replacement, keep it well maintained.
Fran Donegan is a home-improvement expert who writes on heating and cooling systems and other home features for The Home Depot. Fran is also the author of the books "Pools and Spas" and "Paint Your Home." Check out The Home Depot's heating and cooling services available for homeowners online.