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  • Writer's pictureRob Mitchell

Preparing your HVAC system for the coming winter season

Leaves in the Denver area are beginning to turn. This means winter and colder temperatures are on the way! While the weather is still nice, it’s a good time to prepare your HVAC system for the job ahead once the cold weather arrives.

Preparing your HVAC system for winter

Whether you’re putting your air conditioning system to bed for the fall or prepping a heat pump for the winter heating season, the outdoor unit requires some attention. It’s not uncommon for grass clippings, leaves, twigs and other debris to get caught inside the condenser or stuck in the fan blades and motor. If this happens, your unit will have to work twice as hard to do its job.

First turn the power to the unit off. You will normally find a power shut-off box outside, near the unit. If there isn’t one, then switch off the breaker at the main electrical panel.

Grass clippings, “cotton” from cottonwood trees, and other debris clogging your coil can be gently rinsed off using a garden hose on a gentle setting and a spray degreaser such as Simple Green. DON’T blast it with the hose on a high setting or you’ll bend the fins. You might need a professional to remove the top to your unit and access debris and clean from the inside depending upon how much you have.

Check the condenser surroundings for adequate airflow. Make sure that any nearby grass is trimmed low and other potential obstacles are removed. It is helpful to give the unit at least two feet of clear space free of foliage, large rocks, or lawn furniture.

If you have a heat pump, you’ll want to turn the unit back on. If it’s just an air conditioner you might elect to leave the power off until spring.

Air conditioner condensers are made to be installed outside. They are built to withstand years of exposure to harsh elements. It is not necessary to cover them. We do not recommend you cover your air conditioner for the winter, especially with a full-length cover. This leads to unwanted condensation, mold and other problems inside. It can also make it a shelter for critters trying to find a home during the winter. If you wish to keep the snow out and protect it from falling icicles, you may put a board over the top. In most cases it is not necessary. Don’t forget to remove the board in the spring.

While you are outside you should also clear debris from heating and dryer exhaust vents and ensure that they will not get covered up by deep snow or mulch.

Time to test the heating system. Fire up your furnace at least three times in early fall before the cold weather arrives. It’s best to find out if there is going to be a problem now, instead of when it’s -10 degrees outside.

Before turning on your furnace for the first time in months, check for signs of moisture, rust, or dirt on the vent pipe and around the heating equipment. Then, power on the heating cycle and listen for any strange banging, rattling, squealing, or other noises. Give your system 5 to 10 minutes to warm up. Then, place your hand against various supply registers around the house to make sure the air coming through feels warm. If you discover anything unusual you might want to call a professional now, to investigate the problem further.

It is tempting to use your mechanical room as a storage closet, but this isn’t wise. Your furnace needs room to “breathe,” and flammable items stored too close to the equipment might catch fire. It is a good idea to remove boxes and anything else you may have stored near the furnace before winter comes.

The most important thing you can do for your HVAC system is to change the air filter. Filters tend to fill up quickly over the summer as the air conditioning unit is running frequently. Make a habit of checking your filter once a month, changing it when it appears clogged or every three months at the most. Doing so will allow better air flow through your system and increase its efficiency.

It’s a common misconception that closing air vents in unused rooms saves energy and money. In reality, this throws off the airflow balance. This results in pressure buildup in your ductwork that can lead to equipment strain and damage. You can redirect air to certain areas by partially (but not fully) closing some vents in the warmest areas. This way, more warm air will redirect to the cooler areas. It is important not to fully close or block vents. By only partially closing the vents you can reduce the pressure build up in the system. Also, make sure return registers aren’t blocked by furniture, rugs, or curtains that could restrict airflow.

If you have air leaks in your home, your HVAC system will have to work overtime to keep you warm. Windows and doors are the most common source of leaks, so you may want to check them for drafts. For a quick check, hold a piece of paper up to a spot where you suspect a leak. The paper will move if you’ve got air coming through. Fixing a leak is usually as easy as installing new weatherstripping.

If you don’t already have a programmable thermostat, consider installing one. It allows you to program temperatures based on your schedule for maximum energy efficiency without sacrificing comfort. Now’s the time to switch your thermostat from cooling to heating, if necessary. This may also involve adjusting the pre-programmed schedule based on your family’s habits during the winter.

Consider scheduling a furnace “Clean & Check”. Our maintenance visit will be more than just a quick once-over. When you choose Elbert Heating & Air to maintain your heating equipment, you can expect us to address your system’s unique needs. Every tune-up is a little different, but you can always expect the following to take place:

Inspect and tighten electrical connections

Check the thermostat and control systems

Check the blower components

Lubricate moving parts

Check fuel connections for leaks

Inspect and clean the furnace burner

Check the ignition switch

Inspect the heat exchanger for cracks

When the temperature plummets outside, the last thing you need is a broken furnace. Unfortunately, your heating system is most likely to fail when you need it most. To avoid waking up in the middle of the night to a freezing house this winter, schedule a “Clean & Check” now. We may be able to catch developing problems early, resolving the issues before they lead to mid-season breakdowns and costly repairs.

Furnaces should last at least 10 to 15 years. However, neglected systems often fail sooner than this. Routine maintenance helps provide season after season of reliable performance, and might add a few years to your system’s lifespan.

If your heating unit is 15 years old or more, it might be time to investigate its replacement. Older units use more energy to produce heat and are often less effective than newer models. If you’ve noticed a spike in your energy bills or that your heating unit fails to warm your home evenly, it might be time to consider installing a new one.

Other fall maintenance tasks you might also want to consider.

Homes with gas furnaces or boilers need to have carbon monoxide alarms. Carbon monoxide is a dangerous gas that can be produced by incomplete fuel combustion. Winter is a peak season for carbon monoxide poisoning, and neglected furnaces are often the culprit. Problems like a crack in the heat exchanger or a blocked flue stop the safe venting of this gas to the outdoors. Your carbon monoxide detectors are your last line of defense against this silent killer. Change batteries in all the home’s carbon monoxide detectors. Test the operation of each alarm by pressing the test button until it sounds. If the device does not produce a loud, steady alarm or if it is over 10 years old, you should install a new one.

If you have a humidifier, change the evaporator pad. Much like the filter in your furnace, mineral deposits and particles from your water can build up within your humidifier evaporator pad. Replacing your pad on a timely basis will reduce strain on the fan motor and ensure you continue to add moisture to your home. In addition, you'll help to avoid the drain lines becoming clogged; which can lead to bacterial growth. Most humidifier manufactures recommend replacing the evaporator pad at least annually.

Consider having your chimney(s) serviced. Creosote and other flammable materials can build up in chimneys, so you should have them professionally cleaned on a regular basis. Even if you don’t burn wood or coal, you should still have the chimney for your gas or oil furnace inspected regularly for signs of corrosion, animal activity or carbon build-up.

Many of the repair calls we receive in winter are due to a lack of preventive maintenance earlier in the year. When you are proactive about taking care of your HVAC system, you’ll be better prepared for the cold when winter does arrive.

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