Like most people, you love the summers in southern California and the enjoyment they bring. But, you also depend on your air conditioner to provide a little relief when the temperature starts climbing. How does your air conditioning system work, and what can you do to get the most from it?

Refrigerant Cooling

Air conditioners are refrigerant cooling systems, much like refrigerators and freezers. The goal is to remove the heat from inside the conditioned area to outside the area.

All of these systems use the refrigerant to absorb the heat, move it outside, and then vent it. To accomplish this, it must regulate the refrigerant pressure, both increasing and decreasing it at the right times.

When the refrigerant pressure decreases, it gets cold and allows it to absorb heat. When the pressure increases, it gets hot and allows it to vent the heat.

The expansion valve restricts the flow as it enters the evaporator coil, allowing the pressure to drop and the refrigerant to cool. Then, when it moves to the condensing unit, the compressor increases the pressure.

Any problem that prevents the system from regulating the pressure properly will inhibit the cooling capability. Too little pressure in the system, and you may deal with freezes in the unit. Too much pressure and you risk damaging some components.

Air Movement

In addition to needing refrigerant to provide the cooling effect, your system must also circulate air. Not only does it need air flowing through the system, but it also needs to circulate air through your home.

Your circulating fan draws air into your air conditioner through the return vents, creating a low pressure around the vent. It then cools the air as it pushes it through the evaporator coil and back out into your house. It creates high air pressure where it comes out from the vents.

This difference in pressure causes the air to move throughout your rooms and residence. Any obstructions to the air movement prevent proper cooling.

This is why it’s important to keep your vents open and unobstructed. Whenever possible, allow at least two inches above and around your vents to allow for good air circulation.

Within the system itself, your air filter plays a major role. It collects the majority of airborne contaminants before they enter your system. If the air filter clogs, it prevents the right amount of air from entering your system to cool your home. This restriction not only reduces cooling capacity, but it also adds stress to your air conditioner, causing it to work longer and harder. The added strain leads to preventable repairs and a shortened service life.

Understanding Size

Size is an important aspect of your air conditioning system doing its job properly. BTUs, or British thermal units, are the common measurement for air conditioner size. You may also see it referred to in terms of tons, with one ton equaling 12,000 BTUs.

A single BTU is the amount of heat needed to warm one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. It might make sense that the ability to cool more would be advantageous. However, you really want a unit that’s the right size for your property.

If your unit is too small, then it will run continuously, trying to achieve the set temperature. This results in increased operational costs and needless repairs from overexertion.

Too large of an air conditioner is just as problematic. These units are expensive to install and use more electricity to run. However, because they have more cooling capacity, they run shorter cycles. Counterintuitively, shorter cycles actually cost more to run for these larger systems.

The start-up process uses the most electricity and puts the most strain on the unit. The more often the air conditioner starts, the higher the utility costs rise. Additionally, the more wear it puts on the system, especially the compressor.

The Phenomenon of Aging

Air conditioners have an expected service life of 10 to 15 years when properly maintained. They’ll start showing signs of their age as they near the end of their service life.

As air conditioners age, their efficiency begins to degrade, leading to slowly climbing utility bills. Slowly building airflow restrictions, suboptimal components, and ductwork leaks lead to this efficiency loss.

The airflow restrictions add strain to the system and its components. Parts naturally wear out over time. The added strain pushes these already wearing parts to the point of failure.

Reducing Problems With Maintenance

To help your air conditioner work effectively for its entire service life, it requires routine maintenance. Manufacturers often stipulate this maintenance as a term of their warranties.

The first step of maintenance should be checking and replacing your filters regularly. Most systems will need a new filter about every 90 days. However, your air quality and the specific filter type may increase or decrease that frequency.

Plan to check your filter monthly to be sure your system doesn’t experience unusual strain caused by a restriction. You can extend your filter’s service life by gently vacuuming off the intake side of the filter. Be sure it’s the intake side only, as trying to pull the contaminants through the filter will ruin it.

Your air conditioner also needs professional maintenance annually, most commonly performed in the spring. Your technician will go through a series of tasks to ensure there are no airflow restrictions and everything is operating optimally.

Part of the maintenance process includes cleaning the circulating fan and the condensing and evaporator coils. These are the most common areas for airflow restrictions beyond the air filter itself.

Technicians will also check your fans, tighten the mounting bolts, and lubricate the bearings. They’ll test the capacitor and contactor in the condensing unit to ensure they’re operating within optimal parameters. Additionally, they’ll inspect the amount of refrigerant in your system. This quickly indicates if there’s a leak, which is both hazardous and quickly damages the unit further.

The Problems You May Face

You’ll know when you have a substantial problem with your AC unit because it will no longer push out cool air. However, there are some tell-tale signs something is wrong before it gets to that point.

Keep your ear open for odd sounds as your system runs, especially when it first starts up. These sounds tell you not only that there’s a problem but also what’s happening before a catastrophic failure.

For instance, a loud buzzing sound may indicate a bad fan motor or capacitor. A chattering sound, along with rapid restarting, indicates a bad contactor. If you hear a loud squealing, your fan motor may be about to fail.

When you pay attention to small problems early, you’ll save on the overall expense of repairs. Small issues compound the strain on your system, leading to more substantial repairs and costs down the road.

For more than 32 years, Friar's Heating and Air has provided trusted heating and air conditioning services to residents throughout San Diego. Our expert technicians provide heating and cooling installation, maintenance, and repair as well as indoor air quality solutions. Contact us to schedule your appointment today.

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