As summer approaches, your thoughts may turn to your air conditioning system. Your likely concern: Will it work?
If your home is among the 91% of homes in the U.S. with an air conditioner – according to the U.S. Census – you want to know the answer to that question before the heat of summer begins to bear down.
Spring is an ideal time to schedule a visit from a cooling and heating professional. "That's the time you want to get on the schedule and have somebody come out, take a look at (your air conditioner), find the potential issues that they might have, get them fixed up, so when it does get that first 80-to-90-degree day your system is running at peak efficiency," said Jimmy Hiller, founder and CEO of Hiller Plumbing, Heating, Cooling, and Electrical in Knoxville, Tennessee.
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Why is it important to have my air conditioner checked?
There’s nothing worse than having your air conditioner give out during a heat wave, so it’s important that homeowners schedule tune-ups before the summer months arrive, said Angie Hicks, chief customer officer at Angi and co-founder of Angie’s List.
"Not only can annual tune-ups save you from emergency repairs, but having an efficient AC system can save homeowners up to 15% on their monthly energy bills and extend the system’s life," she said.
Tune-ups typically cost $60 to $200, while a full AC replacement can cost $5,000 or more, she said.
"Obviously, you want to have your system turned on before you really need it," Hiller said. "It's no different than when you're taking a long trip … you want to have that vehicle checked out. That's really what we recommend (for your AC unit). We're going to check three things: the mechanical system (and) that refrigerant cycle. We're going to check the electrical system, make sure everything's working properly. And then the airflow (to) make sure that the system is producing the amount of air that it needs to and (is) distributing it to the right rooms."
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What can I do during the year to keep my air conditioner running smoothly?
Check your air filter. Hicks recommends changing filters, which capture tiny allergen particles and can become clogged, at least every 90 days. "But if you have pets or family members with allergies, you’ll want to change them every 60 days," she said. Some may need to change filters monthly to help their AC run efficiently, Consumer Reports suggests.
Keep the area around your AC unit clean. Trim any bushes that could restrict airflow and be careful when mowing to not have trimming pile up against the unit. "It's the air that flows through the system that helps the air conditioner work properly," Hiller said.
Check your vents. Often overlooked, vents that are clean can keep your system running smoothly, Hicks said. You should clean them at least every 90 days. "It’s a very simple task that can have an impact on the lifespan of your AC system," Hicks said.
Clean your air ducts. This is especially important if family members have allergies or if you've recently done some home renovation, Hick said. Air duct cleaning costs $379 on average, with most homeowners paying $268 to $492, she said.
My energy bills are high each summer. Are there ways to save money?
Give your system a break. Use ceiling fans or tower fans to help cut costs and use less energy, Consumer Reports suggests. Most homes can raise the thermostat a bit higher with the use of fans. And keep the blinds closed during the heat of the day, Hicks said. Also, check your weather stripping to make sure your house isn't too drafty, she said.
Install a smart thermostat. Many people have good intentions of adjusting their thermostat to save money but often forget, Hicks said. "With a programmable thermostat, you can program and forget." The average Energy Star certified smart thermostat can save you about 8% on your annual heating and cooling bills, according to Consumer Reports.
Get an in-window AC unit. If you have one room that gets warm easily, this can be a budget-friendly solution, as window AC units cost, on average, $313, Hicks said. You want about 20 BTU (British thermal unit) per square foot of the room to keep your system working efficiently.
Get an HVAC maintenance contract. If you’re planning to buy a new system, most HVAC companies offer a maintenance or service contract where they offer ongoing checkups, tune-ups, emergency repairs and more for an annual fee, Hicks said. The contracts typically cost $150 to $500 a year. "Many homeowners find that peace of mind worth the price," she said.
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What are some air conditioner trouble signs to watch for during the summer?
Watch for any discrepancy in the temperature your system is set at on the thermostat and what the temperature in the home is, Hiller said.
"Anytime you get more than two or three degrees difference, that's probably a sign that there's a problem," he said. "You want to start looking at the air filter, make sure that it is clean .... Check the registers (to) make sure you have airflow going through there. Or maybe there's some ice buildup inside the coil, that's a big sign."
If that is the case, turn the system off before you call for service. "If it is frozen to make sure that when they get out there they can go to work on the system," Hiller said.
What if I have a heat pump instead of an air conditioner?
The Department of Energy recommends getting your heat pump – which despite its name also can cool the home –serviced annually by a professional technician, who should inspect ducts for any possible leakage, filters, blower, and indoor coil for dirt and other obstructions.
If it's time to replace your air conditioner, it might be worth considering a heat pump system, which shifts heat in or out of the house, depending on the season, Consumer Reports said. Although a heat pump can cost on average, about $5,900, you can save up to $948 on energy bills annually, compared to oil heating, the organization says.
Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How to lower your summer air conditioning bills by taking action now.