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Cleaning Air Conditioners in the Spring

Few routine chores will pay off more handsomely, both in comfort and in dollars saved, than a simple air-conditioner cleaning. The payoff: Summertime comfort and lower cooling bills. You'll also prolong the life of your air conditioner.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

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    Most cleaning jobs will cost you nothing, but keep in mind may need to purchase a new furnace filter or some fan motor lubricating oil.

Cleaning Air Conditioners in the Spring

Few routine chores will pay off more handsomely, both in comfort and in dollars saved, than a simple air-conditioner cleaning. The payoff: Summertime comfort and lower cooling bills. You'll also prolong the life of your air conditioner.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

The most important step: Clean the outdoor unit

In this article, we'll show you how to clean and maintain your central air conditioner to keep it running efficiently. We won't demonstrate the maintenance steps for a window-mounted model here. Most central air conditioners have two basic parts: an outdoor unit (compressor/condenser) that sits next to your home and an indoor unit (evaporator) that's located in a central duct near your furnace (Fig. A). If you have a heat pump instead of a furnace, the indoor unit will be in the air handler. Use the same maintenance steps we show here. If your furnace looks different from the one in Fig. A, or you have a heat pump, use the owner's manual to find your way around it. The basic parts will be the same.

The most important maintenance steps are fairly simple, but if this is the first time you've cleaned the unit, allow about a half day to carefully work through the steps. If you're not up to the task, call a pro (look under “Air Conditioning Contractors” in your Yellow Pages). Cleaning and servicing a central air conditioner costs $100 to $250.

Fig. A shows a typical central air conditioning/furnace setup. Two copper tubes connect the outdoor compressor and its condenser coil (a “coil” is a combination of fins and tubes) to the indoor evaporator coil that's located in the plenum (Fig. A) above the furnace blower. One tube is covered with foam insulation. If you have a heat pump, both tubes will be insulated.

Outside, your main job is to clean the condenser coil (Photos 2 - 4). The fan inside the condenser coil sucks air through the fins, and as a result, pulls dirt and debris with it. Dust, leaves, dead grass and anything else that collects on the fins will block airflow and reduce the unit's efficiency. Grass clippings thrown by the lawn mower and “cotton” from cottonwood trees and dandelions are particularly bad offenders. You might have to clear the fins weekly or even daily during the spring “cotton” season! Always begin by shutting off the electrical power (Photo 1).

Then proceed with the cleaning (Photos 2 - 4). If the fan motor (Photo 3) has lubrication ports, apply five drops of special oil for electric motors (not penetrating or all-purpose oil). You can find oil for electric motors at hardware stores. Many fan motors are maintenance-free—they don't have oil ports (ours doesn't) and can't be lubricated. Check your owner's manual if unsure.

The compressor and its motor sit inside the coil (Fig. A). They're usually sealed and won't need maintenance. However, if you have an older compressor that's belt-driven by a separate motor, lubricate the motor through its oil ports. In every case, keep an eye out for dark drip marks on the bottom of the compressor case or pad (Photo 5). This indicates an oil leak; the compressor or tubes might be leaking coolant (refrigerant) as well. If you find a leak, call in a pro to check the problem. Don't tighten joints to try to stop leaks yourself! Over-tightening can make the problem worse. And only a pro with proper equipment can recharge the system to the proper level of coolant.

The components of a central air conditioning system

Figure A: Central Air Conditioning System

Refrigerant in the copper tubes absorbs heat at the evaporator coil inside, cools indoor air and then releases heat at the condenser coil outdoors.

A printable version of this illustration is available in the Additional Information at the end of this story.

Tip:

Cover your outdoor unit in winter with plywood (Photo 1) to prevent damage from falling ice. Don't wrap it with plastic or any other material that completely blocks airflow. Moisture that's trapped inside will promote corrosion.

Important outside startup guidelines

Compressors are surprisingly fragile. Follow these precautions when restoring the power:

If the 240-volt power to your compressor (Photo 1) has been off for more than four hours, don't start the outdoor unit immediately after cleaning. Instead:

1. Move the switch from “Cool” to “Off” at your inside thermostat.

2. Switch the 240-volt power back on and let the outdoor unit sit for 24 hours. (This allows a warming element to heat the compressor's internal lubricant.)

3. Switch the thermostat to its cooling mode and set the temperature so that the outdoor unit comes on. Then check the outdoor unit like we show in Photo 5.

If you switch off the air conditioner (at the thermostat) at any time, wait at least five minutes before switching it back on. Once off, the compressor needs time to “decompress.” If you restart it too soon, you'll stress the motor. Many thermostats have automatic time delays built into the circuitry to protect the compressor from this problem.

Clean the outdoor unit when the temperature is 60 degrees F or higher. Compressors won't work properly in temperatures below 60 degrees.

Clean the indoor unit

You usually don't have easy access to the evaporator coil that's inside the plenum or a main duct near the furnace (Fig. A). If you can get to it, vacuum the bottom side of its fins with a soft brush attachment.

Otherwise, have a pro clean it every few years. The best prevention is to keep the air that flows through it clean. Begin by turning off the furnace.

There's usually a switch mounted on, or close to it. (On heat pumps, the switch might be a circuit breaker.) Or shut off the power to the furnace at the main electrical panel. Then replace the furnace filter if it's dirty (Photo 6) and vacuum up any dust in the blower cabinet (Photo 7).

The blower compartments of newer furnaces are so tight (Photo 7) that you usually can't lubricate the blower. Have a pro do it during periodic furnace maintenance.

The evaporator coil in the plenum dehumidifies your indoor air as it cools it during the summer. The water that condenses on the coil flows out through a condensation tube.

Check it to make sure the tube isn't clogged by sludge and algae, especially at the drain port (Photo 8). A flexible tube is easy to pull off and clean, but you might have to saw off a rigid plastic tube with a hacksaw to check it. Then reweld it with the proper pipe joint solvent and coupling.

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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

    • 4-in-1 screwdriver
    • Safety glasses
    • Shop vacuum
Garden hose and sprayer nozzle
Funnel
Wisk broom

Comments from DIY Community Members

Share what's on your mind and see what other DIYers are thinking about.

1 - 10 of 10 comments
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September 01, 8:41 AM [GMT -5]

Question: I do not have the flexible pipe but the white I believe 3/4 pvc pipe. How can I insert a joint with the opening to pour the bleach down like in the picture? Will I be able to get the pipes out of the current joint or should I cut them and them and then buy new pipes to recreate the drain?

This comes as a result of serious leaking and the floor of my basement is water soaked. I am calling a professional today but I read a few sites and think a clog may have caused this backup and leaking.

August 21, 1:42 PM [GMT -5]

This is great for a general basic cleaning on the condensing coils. As far as the inside is concerned, you can vaccuum all you want, but if you don't clean the inside coils and blower with a thorough washing then it's pointless because that's where most of your dirt and mold is. If you have mold then you need to have a professional come and clean the coils, blower, and ducts. They have chemicals that help kill and remove the mold. There are way too many people that don't do this, hence the reason they have so many allergy problems part of the time. Your unit should be completely cleaned every 6 to 10 years. Sorry to get on my soap box, but I really just want people to know that there's more to it than just cleaning the outside condensing coils. Also, cleaning the entire unit will save even more energy.

November 15, 11:26 AM [GMT -5]

For home of commercial use, please see our MaxiJet200 - Portable Battery Operated 200 PSI Coil Cleaning Machine that siphons! Sideshot nozzle available - no need to remove guards! IN-and-OUT

http://maxi-vac.com/maxiJet200.html

Thank you,
Maxi-Vac Sales Team

November 15, 11:26 AM [GMT -5]

For home of commercial use, please see our MaxiJet200 - Portable Battery Operated 200 PSI Coil Cleaning Machine that siphons! Sideshot nozzle available - no need to remove guards! IN-and-OUT

http://maxi-vac.com/maxiJet200.html

Thank you,
Maxi-Vac Sales Team

September 09, 4:50 PM [GMT -5]

Please consider using the proper equipment for the job!!! We manufacture equipment exactly for this purpose, visit our website for available units such as CS250, JS400i, JS700i at www.maxi-vac.com and purchase our equipment from your local United Refrigeration Supply and Johnstone Supply! Or call us with any questions at 630-620-6669.

Maxi-Vac Sales Team

August 07, 12:39 AM [GMT -5]

Too bad units a re made that prevent DIYers from getting to cooling plenems and blowers!

July 28, 4:50 PM [GMT -5]

I did this service to my air conditioner today. Good clear easy to understand instructions. WOW! I had no idea how badly it needed this cleaning. The coils were clogged full of dirt and stuff. Should work much better now.

June 22, 9:11 PM [GMT -5]

Good instructions. I look forward to trying this myself.

April 29, 10:31 AM [GMT -5]

Crossing my fingers the AC bill is lower now!

rob

April 29, 10:22 AM [GMT -5]

Thanks for the tips!

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