HVAC systems are a critically important part of your house which means proper maintenance and damage prevention is something you should do regularly, especially if you're about to head out on a long vacation. Here are 9 things to check up on and do to ensure your home's HVAC system is in good working order before heading out (but also good to do regularly).
One of your most essential tasks as a homeowner is to keep your HVAC functioning effectively and efficiently. The technology is advancing all the time, and it’s possible to keep your house at an ideal temperature without prohibitively high energy costs, but there is always going to be maintenance to do, and you won’t have that same efficiency if there’s a problem in your system.
This is even more important when you’re getting ready to leave the house to go on vacation. Whether you’re gone for a few days, weeks, or months, you won’t be around to respond to problems with your HVAC if something goes wrong. If it breaks down and struggles to continue regulating the temperature, you could be coming home to shockingly high energy costs. If it breaks or stops working entirely, you could face significant water damage from a leak or mold spreading from a lack of cooling.
When you come home from a long vacation, you want to be able to immediately set your bags down and relax in your comfortable, peaceful home. Nothing causes more stress or ruins the end of a vacation quicker than coming home to a sweltering hot house or dramatic property damage from an HVAC malfunction. Check out these critical steps for ensuring your heating and air conditioning is in good shape in order to help you keep your costs down, and extend the operating life of your HVAC unit.
Table of Contents
1. Change Filters
One part of your regular maintenance tasks should always include changing all the air filters in your home, and this is extra important before leaving town for a while. Clean, new air filters are important for maintaining healthy air quality in your home. They keep the air moving and reduce the level of dirt and contaminants, which will help control the spread of allergens as well. Old filters may encourage the growth of mold and bacteria in the system.
Most filters are expected to last either 30 days or three months. After a few months or if there are unusual amounts of dirt or dust, the air filter will get clogged and dirty. Not only does this leave the air in your house dirtier than you’d like, but it forces the fans in your system to work extra hard to circulate air. This may increase your costs, and add extra wear and tear to your system from the added stress.
A pleated air filter with ridges across the surface can last up to three months, but a smooth, non-pleated air filter needs to be replaced at least once a month under normal conditions. You should be able to see through the other side of a clean filter in the light.
First, you should find your old air filters, whether they’re in the walls where the air is coming into the room, or in an air filter slot at the HVAC unit itself where the air is being circulated. Turn off the system before you change the filter to stop the flow of air. Then you need to dispose of the old filter without dropping too much dust and insert the new one. If you’re not sure what size of filter you need, you can bag up the old filter and take it to the store to show to a clerk.
2. Ensure it’s properly maintained
Before you leave your house for an extended period, one of your top priorities should be to make sure you’ve kept up with your HVAC system preventative maintenance. You want to make sure your unit is in good working order already. “You should always be monitoring your AC/HVAC unit and making sure you change faulty parts before they have the chance to damage anything else,” says Lee Jackson, the director of Lee Jackson Air Conditioning. If you don’t catch something wrong before you leave the house for a while, there’s no telling what else could go wrong as the problem develops in your absence.
While you might not know how to identify every possible problem on your own, you can do a lot to keep issues from developing by examining your unit and cleaning it regularly. The first step is always to change the filter. “Then clean the coil, wash the condenser and check the unit to see if any more Freon is needed,” says Jared Cohen, a representative of Trig Builders Inc. “Afterwards, check the system diagnostics to ensure that everything is running perfectly and you should be safe for a long trip.”
Check out the system at least several days or up to a week before you leave. That way, if you spot anything unusual as you’re cleaning or the diagnostic says anything unusual, you have time to call a professional before your vacation.
3. Schedule an Inspection
You may be able to handle most regular care for your HVAC system on your own, but occasionally there’s no substitute for bringing in an expert to inspect your system. At least once a year, you should work with a licensed company to have your heating and cooling evaluated by a qualified technician. If you’re about to leave on vacation and you realize it’s been a while since you’ve had that kind of professional inspection, consider investing in your peace of mind and scheduling an inspection.
An HVAC professional will often be able to quickly identify any developing problems in your system, and avoid trouble before it starts. This will help keep your system efficient and prevent disaster. Some repairs will require a technician. Clogs and blockages in the ductwork will often require special equipment to clear as well, and it may be more cost-effective to bring in the expert than to try to seek out the equipment for yourself.
4. Clear Out Dust and Debris from the HVAC Unit
Once you’ve changed the filter and made sure the system itself is working correctly, you should make sure the whole unit is as clean as possible. Any dust and debris left untouched are just going to get into the filters and the system, and make it dirty again even faster. You want your unit clean to be able to last and stay efficient while you’re gone. You also need to clean the fans as any dirt will block the flow of air and slow it down.
Clean the outside of the unit, but also check inside the condenser, drip pan, and drain line to clear it out of any debris that’s collected. If you’re taking care of the drain yourself, you may want to periodically wash it out with a mix of water and bleach to clear out algae and mold that builds up over time. Once a year should be sufficient under normal weather conditions.
If your AC unit is outside, it’s even more important to regularly check for debris, especially before you head out of town. Any vegetation growing around the unit may restrict air flow, so you should clear any out. Sticks and rocks can also get into a unit when it’s open to the elements, and even a small object can damage a fan.
5. Get the House Ready for Optimum Air Flow
If you’re leaving your house for a significant period, you need to be concerned about every part of the environment and every step of the air circulation in your home. You’ve already cleared out the dirt and debris in your system itself, so now you need to clean up the dust elsewhere in your home. Vacuum your carpets and sweep floors before you go to pick up as much dust and dirt as possible so it won’t block the air ducts later. You don’t want to come home to a massive cooling bill.
Then you can optimize the environment your HVAC is working with in the home by controlling air flow. “Remember that hot air goes to cold air,” says Larry Oglesby, HVAC Department chair at Remington College. “Keeping doors closed, attics insulated and ensuring that all windows are sealed properly are still the best ways to help with the efficiency of the air conditioner.”
The first step is to seal your house as well as possible from outside air flow. That means closing windows and doors, and even closing your curtains to stop heat from coming in through the windows.
Then, while the house is sealed to the outside, you want to maximize the healthy flow of air within the home. Open the doors inside your home, especially closets, and make sure all of the air vents inside the house are open, too. Closed doors or vents will force the system to work harder to achieve the same temperature. You can also take some of the weight off of your system by turning on some individual ceiling fans and leaving them on low.
6. Set the Thermostat
Once you’re sure the system is in good shape, you can decide how you’re going to set it before you leave. A lot may depend on the season and what the temperature and humidity conditions are in your area, but you generally want to leave your system on. Just adjust the temperature slightly above or below your normal range for that time. “Don’t turn the system completely off,” says Chris Forbus, owner of Choice Air Care. “But rather set it to 85, which will use minimal electricity and keep the home and items inside from suffering from heat or humidity damage.”
The goal is to maximize efficiency and lower costs as well as stress on your system without putting your home or HVAC at risk. “These systems are designed to work non-stop for best efficiency, and turning them off can lead to frozen pipes in winter and mold in summer,” says Jane Wilson, marketing director for Fantastic Cleaners.
If you live in an extremely humid climate, you might want to be conservative and avoid setting your thermostat above 80 or 82 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Paying a slightly higher power bill is preferable to the mold problems you might encounter otherwise. A little cooler is better in this case, especially if you also have pets staying in the house. You don’t want to leave the animals entirely at the mercy of the weather outside.
Another good option before vacation is to set a specific schedule, if possible, on your thermostat. This way, you can also set it to return to an average living temperature shortly before your return. Then you can come home to a comfortable house without having to wait for it to cool down when you first get back and are exhausted from traveling.
7. Prepare for Emergencies and Weather
Check the forecast before you head out to start your vacation. If there’s a chance of significant rain or powerful storms, you should take some extra precautions in storm-proofing your home.
For storms, make sure you have a functioning surge protector installed. This will protect your system against any potential damage during a power outage. If you get heavy storms, you may want to leave up hurricane shutters, but you should be cautious if you’re going to leave them up for an extended period while you’re gone. “If you have hurricane shutters on your house, you’re eliminating a major heat load, and your AC systems will not run enough to manage humidity,” says Marco Radocaj, general manager of Temp Control. “If they must be up, set your thermostat a few degrees cooler, so it ensures it will run.”
If you expect to get heavy rain while you’re gone, clean out your gutters, and clear the area around your house of debris. You want the drainage on your home to be working at maximum effectiveness. You might also want to find a rain guard or cover for your air conditioner to protect it from the rain while allowing normal circulation. Be careful about cutting corners on this, however. Be sure to find a cover recommended by your manufacturer.
“Covering your system with a makeshift board, plastic wrap or garbage bag creates a hostile operational environment, voiding your warranty and allowing moisture and condensation to build up and become trapped inside the system,” says Richard Ciresis, a franchise owner of Aire Serv.
“It can corrode and rust metal components, rot wire and rubber and offer an attractive home for insects and critters.”
8. Plan to Check In
If you’re going to be gone for a long time, you might want to find someone else to stop by now and then and check up on your home. You may want someone to do this anyway to take in your mail, water the plants, and take care of any pets you have. It’s possible to hire a house sitter or to ask a nearby family member to check in. They’ll be able to catch anything unexpected that might’ve gone wrong including sudden leaks or a malfunctioning system.
Some HVAC system tools even allow you to monitor your temperature controls remotely through your phone. This way you’ll know immediately if something is changing, and you’ll know you’re not coming home to any nasty surprises. The most advanced technology lets you communicate directly with your HVAC company when the system detects something going wrong, so you’ll be able to address the problem and get everything back on track while you’re still off enjoying your time away.
9. Consider Increasing Efficiency
If your unit is relatively old or you’re not satisfied with how efficiently it keeps your home at a comfortable level, you can always consider looking into new HVAC options and technologies for increased efficiency and performance. A lot of these high-tech systems offer extended system life and impressive energy efficiency, which means lower monthly costs for power and fewer maintenance costs over time. Look for Energy Star certified products for maximum efficiency.
You can reduce your energy costs in other ways as well. Upgrading your insulation or doing anything to help seal your home from the outside and increase airflow inside the house can help lower your bill. Check the EPA guidelines for your area to see what they recommend in terms of insulation. You can also hire a professional to evaluate your home and make recommendations.
Sit Back and Relax
If you’ve done your due diligence and your HVAC and home are in good shape and well-prepared for an emergency, you’re ready to relax. There’s no way to avoid something going wrong 100 percent of the time, but you can substantially reduce your risks of unexpected problems. After you’ve done everything in your power, it’s not worth worrying about anymore. Enjoy the peace of mind you’ve earned and focus on appreciating your vacation with loved ones.
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