Air Conditioner Maintenance Plan – ASM’s DIY Maintenance Guide

We’ve been getting a lot of emails lately about a do-it-yourself air conditioner maintenance plan, so, per your request, here’s the plan.  To be honest, I can’t help but roll my eyes each spring and fall when I hear the HVAC contractors on the radio toting, “air conditioner tune-up – just $99!”  I’ll be frank (a shocker, I know), you really don’t need to pay for an air conditioner maintenance plan, or an “AC tune-up;” it’s all Snake Oil.  All modern air conditioners are manufactured as self-contained, weather resistant pieces of machinery.  Everything that you’ll pay a professional HVAC technician for in order to maintain your air conditioner, is something that you can do yourself.  Those of you who know us, know that we are a small, U.S. Veteran-Owned heating and air conditioning company in Southern California, and have made our reputation by giving honest, straight answers.  In this article, we’ll take you through a do-it-yourself air conditioner maintenance plan, and help keep your AC running smoothly for years to come.

Air Conditioner Maintenance Plan – Why Not Just Pay for an AC Maintenance Plan?

Air conditioning companies offer maintenance plans for a couple hundred dollars a year (we, of course, do not…because you don’t need one), so why not just get one?  Well, you could, but these air conditioner maintenance plans are just composed of basic housekeeping that you can easily do yourself in about 15 minutes a year.  It’s kind of frustrating for us, actually, since many people buy into the hype and spend their hard-earned money.  But here’s the secret: there is no secret.  It’s all pretty basic stuff.

Sure, it is very important to maintain your equipment properly – no argument there – but, you have to realize that unlike your car, which has an engine that is exposed to the elements and has points of high friction, your air conditioner is completely sealed from the elements, and is an electric motor (with minimal friction).  So, here is how I feel about hiring a company to perform an air conditioner maintenance plan: if you are elderly or disabled, then of course t’s okay…totally worth it.  However, if you are capable of getting on a ladder or stepping stool, and capable of using your garden hose, then you can save several hundreds of dollars a year by doing these very simple tasks yourself.  Trust me…you’ll see.

“Free Air Conditioner Tune-Up” – You Get What You Pay For

“But Tim…!  My local HVAC contractor has a commercial for a free air conditioner tune-up!”  I’ve heard it all before.  It’s the same things as the “$99 air conditioner tune-up.”  I usually refrain from commenting negatively on other contractors, but I draw that line when I think that they are taking advantage of people.  It’s sad, but they are only offering these services so they have a chance to get into your home and point out all of the things that are wrong (but not actually wrong) with your air conditioner and “need to be repaired.”  In actuality, however, your unit is running just fine.  After all, if it weren’t working, then you’d have called them out for a legitimate repair call months ago, wouldn’t you?  DON’T FALL FOR IT.

Think about it from a business perspective…does it make sense for them to send out a team of HVAC technicians, for which they are paying an hourly wage, gas for the truck, insurance, and other operating costs just to maintain your unit for free?  Trust me, they are going to find a way to make money off of you, so please be careful.

The So-Called “Mandatory” Air Conditioner Maintenance Plans

“But Tim…they told me that if I don’t have them maintain my unit, then it will void the warranty.”  Ok…call up Carrier or Goodman and have them tell you that their brand warranty is voided if you don’t use “ABC Heating and Air Conditioning Service.”  Give me a break.  Maintenance plans are the same deal – once you see exactly what it is that they are doing, you’ll see why it is a crock to pay them hundreds of dollars to do it for you.  And remember this:

If you forget everything else mentioned in this article, remember that the single most important thing that you can do to maintain your air conditioner, is to replace the air filter every three months with a high quality filter.

For a guide on the best air conditioning filters to buy, try:

  • The Best Furnace Filters

The Do-It-Yourself Air Conditioner Maintenance Plan

In this section, we will show you the steps that you can take to implement your own, DIY air conditioner maintenance plan.  When you do this once, you’ll get why I was being so harsh on the contractors who offer maintenance plans to their customers.  Before you ask, “but Tim…I don’t see anything on here about a ‘compressor inspection,’ or ‘P52f’ valve!”  That’s because your compressor is sealed at the factory and can’t be accessed by you, or anyone else, including an HVAC technician… and a P52f valve is just something that I made up.  See?  It’s so easy to sound technical and fool a consumer…don’t fall for it.  Besides, there’s no reason this can’t be fun [for me], right?

Below is the air conditioner maintenance plan that you should follow.  After you read it over, continue reading below to see how to do each of these steps:

Time Frames for Your DIY Air Conditioner Maintenance Plan

If you look at the air conditioner maintenance plan above, then you will notice that the majority of your maintenance is done on an annual basis, with two exceptions:

  • Replace your air conditioner air filter every three months – I will mention this again, since when I was flight instructor in the Navy, I learned quickly that students never listen to you the first two times that you tell them anything…
  • If you live in a humid climate, then you should clean out your evaporator drain every six months – do so annually for all other climates.

How to Perform Your DIY Air Conditioner Maintenance Plan

In this section, we will go over each of the steps addressed in your air conditioner maintenance plan.  Please keep in mind, that each and every air conditioner will be different.  So, although this maintenance plan might take you 15-20 minutes (combined) throughout the year to perform, the first time that you do some of these will probably take twice as long until you figure it out.  Be patient – it’s well worth it in the long run, and you can add years to the longevity of your unit.

Step 1 – Air Conditioner Maintenance Plan – Replace Air Filter Every Three Months

I’ll say this again, since many of you probably completely skipped the previous sections:

  • Replacing your air filter every three months is the single most important step in your air conditioning maintenance plan that you can take to increase the longevity of your unit.

The detailed reason for this is outside the scope of this article, but the short answer is that your air filter is not really designed for you or your allergies (get over yourself! – joking) – it is designed to keep the internal components of your air conditioner free from dirt and debris buildup, especially your evaporative coil (the indoor part of your air conditioner – usually in the attic).

Use high quality filters, and replace them every three months.  If you live in arid, or other dusty climates, then you may want to change your air filter more often.  Let’s take a look at a three month old filter for reference:

On the left, a new filter; on the right, a 3-month-old filter being changed at the proper interval of 90 days.

How to Replace Your Air Conditioner’s Air Filter

  • Turn your air conditioner off at the thermostat.
  • Locate your air filter – this will be the most difficult thing to find.  Remember that it will likely be in your return air vent – the largest vent in your house.  The second most likely spot is at your air conditioner itself – right before the evaporative coil (the indoor part – maybe in your garage or attic). Be careful walking through your attic!
  • Open the filter access panel.
  • Remove and dispose of the old filter carefully – remember, it is filled with three months of allergens, mold, and dirt – take care not to hit it on anything.  I’d recommend that you just throw it in a garbage bag that you bring with you.  If you suffer from asthma or allergies, I’d recommend you wear a paper “surgeons mask,” available at any home improvement store.
  • Write the date on the new filter for reference later.
  • Place the new filter in, taking care to point the arrows on the side of the filter in the proper direction – the direction of air flow.  If you don’t know which way the air is flowing, always point the arrows TOWARDS the air conditioning unit, since the air always passes through the filter BEFORE it gets to the air conditioner.
  • Replace filter access panel.
  • Turn your air conditioner back on at the thermostat.
  • Have a beer (if that’s your thing).

For more on the importance of regularly changing your AC air filters, as well as the best filters to choose, try:

  • Air Conditioning Filter Change – How Often?
  • Best Furnace Filter for Your Money

Step 2 – Air Conditioning Maintenance Plan – Clean Out Evaporator Condensate Drain

Imagine that it is a hot day, and you just poured a nice, tall glass of iced tea.  You are sitting outside and have your tea on the table.  After a while, however, you notice that the outside of your glass is covered in water; condensation.  This is a naturally occurring phenomenon.  We all know that…what you might not know, on the other hand, is that this occurs inside your air conditioner too.  The cold, evaporative coil that chills the air inside of your home does the exact same thing – it creates condensation.  But if you had this thing running for hours a day, imagine how much condensation you’d have; where does it all go?

Well, your air conditioner has a drain built into it (two, actually, if it was done properly).  If you go to your evaporative coil (the part of your system that is inside your house or attic), then you will see one or two PVC pipes sticking out of it; those are your condensate drains (aka “evaporator drains”).  Step two of your DIY air conditioner maintenance plan is to clean one of these out – the primary drain.  Don’t worry, we’ll show you how to tell which one is which, but first:

  • If you live in a humid climate, then you’ll want to clean these out every six months.
  • If you live in any other climate, do it once a year.

Tip: if you have a packaged AC unit instead of a split AC, then you can completely skip this step.  Not sure, see: Split vs. Packaged Air Conditioner

Click to Enlarge

How to Clean Out Your Primary Condensate Drain

First things first – if you have two PVC drains sticking out of your evaporative coil, then the primary condensate drain (the one we care about) is the one that attaches to your air conditioner slightly LOWER than the other.  So, the lower drain is the one you care about.  The higher drain is called the secondary drain, and usually drains into a pan located below the unit.  The secondary condensate drain is there just in case the primary drain gets clogged (which it [hopefully] won’t because we are doing preventative maintenance).

The primary drain will be sealed with blue plastic cement in all locations except for at one joint.  This is on purpose – it is so you can pull it out and clean it!  Let’s take a look at how to do this:

  • Turn your air conditioner off at the thermostat.
  • Remove the primary condensate drain from the unit by pulling gently.
  • Use an air compressor (if you have one) to blow compressed air through the drain (not towards the unit) and clear it out.  If you don’t have an air compressor, that’s okay – you should have decent luck by cupping the end of the pipe with your hands, and blowing hard.
  • Carefully pour 1/2 cup of bleach into the drain after it is cleared out.  Take the proper precautions as you see fit – goggles, clothes you don’t care about getting bleach on, etc.  Just don’t get bleach everywhere!
  • Replace pipe firmly into unit.
  • Turn unit back on at thermostat.

Step 3 – Air Conditioner Maintenance Plan – Clean Condensing Unit Coils Annually

Next on your DIY air conditioner maintenance plan is to clean your condensing unit coils (this is the portion of your split air conditioner that is outside).  You’ll want to do this annually.  The best time to do this is in the spring, right after the thaw.  That way, you will be maximizing your efforts by removing all of the leaves and dirt collected over fall and winter when the unit was not in use.

How to Clean Your Condensing Unit

This part of the cleaning process can be dangerous if you aren’t careful, so pay attention (don’t remove the fan if you don’t feel comfortable doing so):

WARNING: turn the power to your air conditioner OFF in TWO, SEPARATE LOCATIONS: both at the thermostat, AND the main circuit breaker panel.  Otherwise, the fan could turn on and severely injure you while you’re cleaning!

  • Before doing anything, turn your air conditioner back ON at the thermostat, just to verify that the proper circuit breaker is disconnected.  Once verified by the unit not turning on (or the thermostat losing power), turn the thermostat OFF again (or not if it has no power).
  • Remove the screws at the top of your condensing unit, and pull straight up on the condensing unit fan, being careful not to bend the blades.  Rest the fan gently on the side of the unit.
  • Remove all of the leaves and dirt that have collected at the bottom of the condensing unit.
  • Use your garden hose to spray the coils themselves from the inside, out (always from the inside, out) to thoroughly clean the coil fins.  Don’t use a pressure washer or any type of soap or cleaner – this can damage or corrode the coils; just use plain water.
  • Carefully place the fan back into position and replace the screws securely.
  • Visually check the blades to ensure that they haven’t been damaged, and won’t scrape against the side of the housing.
  • Turn your AC circuit breaker back on, and turn your thermostat on to check the unit for proper operation.

Step 4 – Air Conditioner Maintenance Plan – Inspect Condensing Unit and Refrigerant Lines

Right after you finish cleaning the unit, give it a quick once over.  We are talking common sense here (which is, unfortunately, not that common these days).  Pay particular attention to the refrigerant lines, ensuring that the larger line is insulated with foam refrigerant insulation.  If it is cracked or deteriorating, buy some at Lowe’s or any other hardware store for about $3, and replace it.

Step 5 – Air Conditioning Maintenance Plan – Clean Evaporative Coil Every Two Years

  • Turn off your AC unit at the thermostat and then in a second location by turning the HVAC circuit breaker off on the main power distribution panel (your circuit breaker panel), just like in the last step.
  • In a bucket, make a solution of one part bleach to three parts water and throw a disposable scrub-brush in.
  • Next, I’d get a pair of goggles and cleaning gloves, and put them on.  This can be messy, and you don’t want any of this stuff getting in your eyes.
  • Locate the evaporator coil inside of your HVAC unit (the inside part of your air conditioner), and open the panel on the outside of the unit.  This will take a little time to figure out based on your unit; every unit is different, so be patient.
  • If there is a lot of dust, start with a shop-vacuum and remove as much of it as you can.
  • Finally, scrub your coil thoroughly, using a motion that goes in the same direction as the coil fins.  Clean the coils and surrounding areas throughly, making multiple passes towards you.  Finish by drying the entire area with an old (disposable) towel or some paper towels.
  • Discard the dirty water, brush and all towels, then wash your hands thoroughly.

Tip: if you use high-quality air filters, you’ll never have to do this step again…hint, hint; wink, wink.

Evaporative Coil

Step 6 – Air Conditioner Maintenance Plan – Have the Refrigerant Checked Every Five Years

This is the only part of the DIY air conditioner maintenance plan that you can’t do yourself.  It’s actually illegal for a consumer to handle refrigerant.  Typically, you’ll know if the refrigerant is low because your air conditioner will keep freezing up (more on this can be found in: Air Conditioner Freezing Up).  And no, you don’t have to do it every year as those radio commercials would have you believe – but, I promised my wife that I’d try and be nice for this article, so…there you have it.  However, it is a good idea to do it every five years.

Final Thoughts on the DIY Air Conditioner Maintenance Plan

Hopefully you’ve found this air conditioner maintenance plan useful.  As you can see, all of these are things that you can do yourself.  You don’t need to pay an HVAC technician $99, four times a year to do this – it’s ludicrous.  For more information on subjects like this, check out our ASM Air Conditioning Blog.  If you live in Southern California and want to have your air conditioner maintained – don’t call us – we just showed you how to do it yourself!  For anything else, however, you might be in our service area.  Click below for more details.

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