side view landscaping around ac unit

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These practical and easy-to-tackle HVAC 101 maintenance tips will not only help keep your unit in top working condition but can save you thousands in costly repairs.

Your HVAC system: in terms of home maintenance, it can feel like one of the more intimidating things to stay on top of in your home. But if you’re looking for a few good tips to feel like a more empowered do-it-yourselfer, this post is for you! I’ve got some DO’s and some definite DON’Ts, along with some easy tips to provide a handy guide to things you can do to prevent HVAC breakdowns.

For this series of posts (this is a 2-parter, so I have another on the way with more DIY tips!), I’ve partnered with Trane Residential as a sponsor. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know I’ve been through the ringer with my own HVAC mishaps, mostly as a result of something I didn’t know I needed to do until something went horribly wrong. And that gets… a lil’ pricey. So, I figured, what better way to make sure I’m passing along the correct info (aka, the stuff that can really save you a ton down the road!) than partnering with a world leader in air conditioning? I mean, as much value as there may be in learning what not to do vicariously through me, I really would prefer to do things right this summer. ? My to-do list has some really heavy-hitters (like Ruby!), and I really don’t need to be sidelined by another home repair! Let’s get started on the DO’s and DON’Ts!

5 HVAC Do’s and Don’ts for DIYers This Summer

1. DO change the air filter regularly and set a timer

The air filter in an HVAC system is meant to trap and keep microscopic particles like dust, pollen, and pet dander out of the air. The better the quality of the filter, the less junk is floating around in your home (and can help a great deal with allergies). But, a clogged A/C filter can cause extra strain on your system, leading to costly repairs down the road. A good rule of thumb is to change them every 3 – 9 months, but that can be easy to forget (for me especially!). You can remember AND save on your budget by either:

  • Buying multiples of air filters to have at the ready (a 3-pack is common and usually offers a little savings vs. buying one) and programming your phone’s calendar with timely reminders OR
  • Setting up a filter delivery service. As soon as a new filter arrives in the mail, you know it’s time to change your filter. These also often provide discounts for subscription savings.

Tip: If you’re allergy prone like me, be sure to use a HEPA filter (Trane recommends their CleanEffects filters).

Tip #2: The size of filter needed can differ from unit to unit. Speaking from personal experience, that’s TOO is hard to remember! The next time you make the switch, note the size and save the exact dimensions of the air filter you need in your phone (or take a photo of the label). That way, when you’re standing in the aisle with all the filters in front of you, you can grab and go.

Tip #3: How to replace your air filter: the direction of the flow of air is important for inserting the filter correctly. When you remove the old filter from the unit, look to the little arrow on the side of your filter’s frame. Be sure to install a new filter with the arrows pointing in the same direction!

arrow on an air filter indicates air flow

2. DO keep a nose out for feet

Come on — you knew I was going to mention something I found funny! If you turn the A/C on and your air smells like sweaty feet or mildewy socks, take heart that at least it’s not all that uncommon. It happens when your evaporator coil or other areas grow mold or bacteria from being off all winter and should dissipate after repeated use.

However, if the smell doesn’t go away after using it for a bit, check the filters. If you still have an issue, ensure the evaporator coil drain line is not plugged and flowing freely (if you look near the outside unit and see a tube coming out of the house but there is no dripping when the A/C is working, it might be). You can also contact a Trane professional to check your system and to help find the source, such as if your ducts need to be cleaned. In my case, the condensation line clogged the drip pan simultaneously leaked — which could have been a lot less worrisome if we’d caught it earlier!

stain on living room ceiling

3. DON’T use shedding plants near the outside unit

A common way to make your A/C unit (unintentionally) work too hard is to plant shrubs or trees too close to the condenser unit outside. As good as shade might be for keeping the unit cool (putting the unit in the shade is good), an excess of leaves and branches can crowd the unit and hinder air flow instead of keeping it cool. Trane recommends keeping plants 1-3 feet from all sides of the outdoor unit and a minimum of 5 feet overhead. At the start of the warm season, prune back shrubs and check for piles of dirt or leaves.

side view landscaping around ac unit

Tip: Pay even closer attention to the type of shrub you plant around your outside unit. Avoid anything that sheds seed pods or needles. Having removed multiple pine trees from my yard (and my neighbor did too), I can say that there is FAR less debris that has to be cleaned off the condenser coil when it undergoes a checkup!

4. DON’T build a too-close outdoor screen

A few summers ago, I built an A/C screen, in part because I wanted to hide it from the view of the street. But you can actually do more harm than good if you don’t give the A/C unit enough space to breathe and function properly!

air conditioning unit screen

The condenser coil (in the outdoor part of your system) is where all the heat from your home is picked up and then dumped outside. Airflow over the condenser coil is needed to remove that heat. If less air flows over the coil, less heat is removed. The warmer that cycle stays, the less efficiently your home is cooled over time (because it has to work harder to achieve the same cooling goals, AKA the temperature you set your thermostat). That means an increased electric bill and may even lead to having to replace the A/C sooner.

Trane Residential recommends a minimum of 3 feet on the service panel side, 1 foot on the other sides, and — just like your plants — 5 feet above. So, if you were considering a fence or screen, now would be a good time to take out the measuring tape and mark off the distance needed.

Tip: Make sure the screen or fence you build nearby has spacing for airflow, too. If it’s one solid wall, the air has a greater chance of getting too hot. Here’s how I made mine, and you can find other ideas here.

5. DO get it inspected every year

Even if you don’t suspect a problem, getting your system checked at least once per a year (ideally in spring) ensures that your unit is operating at peak efficiency. If you live in a very cold climate, Trane recommends a second check in fall. Efficient systems conserve more energy, therefore the less you have to spend to cool your home.

Tip: Sometimes, you just don’t know what you don’t know, right? With A/C maintenance, there are common things that a trained service specialist should do on every inspection, and some things that aren’t necessary. It’s better to simply ask your technician questions about the service than to assume they’ve done these tasks and wind up with clogged drains, low coolant, or other problems down the line. Here’s what to ask before they leave your home:

Did you find any debris on the condenser coil and clean it off?

Did you find any water in the drip pan or any clogs in the condensation line?

Did you check the freon levels?

Did you see any particular problems that might need to be addressed before the next inspection?

Mention any other specific A/C problem you may have had in the last year

Tip #2: It’s important that the person who is inspecting your system is licensed and insured expert you can trust, rather than a high-pressure salesperson who will encourage you to replace a unit that isn’t broken (Do things seem to be running/cooling fine? If yes, but you’re being told to replace, get a second opinion!). Try this instead: the Trane Comfort Specialist Locator will help you find someone in your area that can offer you a maintenance service plan (which may be more cost-effective than one-time services) to inspect and clean your air conditioning unit. Their technicians can also answer any questions you may have during your inspection and make recommendations.

trane technician
photo: Trane Residential

Thanks so much to Trane for sponsoring this post! If you want more, I’ll be posting another list of DO’S and DON’Ts very soon. The Trane website also has lots of helpful resources for problem-solving, maintenance and recommendations, so be sure to check them out (this post, in particular, is one of my faves).

5 summer air conditioning dos and don'ts

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One Comment

  1. Thanks for the tips about setting a filter delivery service since I never knew that that was an option for air conditioning maintenance. Every summer, I tend to be quite vigilant with my AC usage because as much as I would need it for the entirety of the season, I also would not like it if I happen to overwork it to the point of disrepair. This year, I would definitely be more mindful of regularly changing filters.