Owning a home is one of the most rewarding and costly decisions you will ever make. And a big part of responsible home ownership includes taking care of routine maintenance items for all the systems in your home, most importantly your heating and air conditioning system. Your HVAC system (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) keeps you cool in the summer, warm in the winter and impacts your indoor air quality year-round. It is very important to pay attention to this vital system and hire a licensed, experienced and trustworthy company to be your partner in taking care of this vital system.
One thing homeowner’s often overlook is the yearly maintenance of the a/c and furnace. By hiring a licensed and trained HVAC contractor to do a spring A/C tune-up and fall furnace tune-up, you will ensure your equipment is operating properly and efficiently at the beginning of each season. A tune-up can also identify problems before the season begins, so you don’t have to deal with a breakdown in the middle of the summer’s heat or winter’s cold.
Maintenance is something homeowner’s tend to put off until they are ready to turn their unit on, but smart homeowners know to schedule maintenance before the start of heating or cooling season—you’ll get faster attention and have more flexibility when scheduling the appointment.
One important component of the tune-up is changing the filter. Whether you have a furnace or heat pump, each type uses some kind of air filter or screen to prevent larger airborne particles from entering the system and clogging sensitive machinery. A system that has a dirty filter can suffer from pressure drop, which can lead to reduced air flow. Any of these conditions can cause the system to work harder to keep the home warm or cool (depending on the season and the setting). And any mechanical component that has to work harder to run efficiently puts undue stress on the whole system, which can lead to premature failure, resulting in repair or replacement. Also, a dirty filter that’s exposed to condensation can become damp, which can lead to mold growth that can be spread throughout the home by the HVAC system. This can lead to serious health consequences, not to mention a compromised unit that will likely require servicing and may require replacement, depending on the severity of the moisture problem.
How Often Should You Change The Filter?
Your HVAC company will change your filter twice yearly during the spring and fall tune-up. In addition to changing the filter, other components will also be checked. Because the system contains moving parts, it’s important that belts are not cracked and dry, ventilation ductwork is not gapped, cracked or rusted, and components, such as coils and fans, are clog-free and adequately lubricated for unimpeded operation.
The filter of the unit, especially if it’s an HVAC unit that will tend to get nearly year-round use, should be changed by the homeowner one between each tune-up, for a total of four times per year. Your filter may need to be changed monthly if any of the following conditions apply:
- You have pets. Pet dander can become airborne and circulate through the home’s ventilation system just as typical household dust does.
- You have a large family. More activity means more household dust, dirt and debris.
- You smoke indoors.
- You or someone in your household suffers from allergies or a respiratory condition.
- You live in a particularly windy area or experience high winds for extended periods, especially if there are no nearby shrubs or trees to provide a natural windbreak.
- You have a wood-burning fireplace that you regularly use.
- There is construction taking place around or near the home. Even if the activity is only temporary, dust and debris from worksites adjacent to or near the home can be sucked into the home’s ventilation system, and this increased activity can tax your HVAC system.
A heat pump uses the outside air to both heat a home in winter and cool it in summer. A heat pump is a mechanical-compression cycle refrigeration system that can be reversed to either heat or cool a controlled space. Installation for this type of system typically consists of two parts: an indoor unit called an air handler and an outdoor unit similar to a central air conditioner, but referred to as a heat pump. A compressor circulates refrigerant that absorbs and releases heat as it travels between the indoor and outdoor units. Think of a heat pump as a heat transporter constantly moving warm air from one place to another, to where it’s needed or not needed, depending on the season. Even in air that seems too cold, heat energy is present. When it’s cold outside a heat pump extracts this outside heat and transfers it inside. When it’s warm outside, it reverses directions and acts like an air conditioner, removing heat from your home. One advantage of a heat pump is that it moves heat instead of generating heat, giving you more energy efficiency. Also, it is powered by electricity, so you can save substantially on fuel consumption.
Furnace (Natural Gas)
A natural gas furnace uses fossil fuel combustion to transfer heat. It converts gas to heat. The main components to a furnace include burners and a heat exchanger, blower and controls. A gas furnace, or forced-air heating system, reacts when the room air temperature drops below your programmed setting on the thermostat. The igniter lights a burner inside the combustion chamber and the heat created is then pushed into the heat exchanger, where the air is then heated. This newly-heated air moves through the ductwork and into the rooms of the house. The combustion gases used to create the heat are vented through a flue in the roof or wall.
An air conditioner draws heat energy out of the house and transfers it to the outside air. An air conditioner can change the temperature, humidity or general quality of the air. More specifically, an air conditioner makes your home cooler, by drawing heat energy out of the house and transferring that heat to the outdoors, then replacing the air inside your home with cooler air. The air conditioner in a central heating and cooling system provides cool air through ductwork inside your home, by providing a process that draws out the warm air inside, removing its heat. In a split system, the compressor condenses and circulates the refrigerant through the outdoor unit, changing it from a gas to a liquid. The liquid is then forced through the indoor evaporator coil or cooling compartment. The indoor unit’s fan circulates the inside air to pass across the evaporator fins. The evaporator’s metal fins exchange the thermal energy with the air around it. There, the refrigerant turns from liquid into vapor, removing any heat from the surrounding air. As the heat is removed from the air, the air is cooled and blown back into the house.
From that point, the condenser or outdoor unit then turns the refrigerant vapor back into a liquid, removing any heat. By the time the fluid leaves the evaporator again, it is a cool, low-pressure gas, eventually returning to the condenser to begin its trip all over again. This process continues again and again until your home reaches the cooling temperature you want, as programmed and sensed by your thermostat setting.
The evaporator coil works with the indoor unit, functioning with the air conditioner or heat pump to cool and condition indoor air that flows over it by drawing out heat and moisture. The coil, also known as an evaporator coil or an indoor coil, is the unsung hero of any home heating or cooling system. Its job, heat transfer, is one of the most important factors in achieving heating and cooling efficiencies that keep your home comfortable all year long. An evaporator coil is located indoors and is either installed with your furnace or as part of your air handler. Inside the coil, the refrigerant evaporates as it absorbs heat from the indoor air that passes over it. The coil essentially serves as a heat exchanger, working with your heating system in the winter and your cooling system in the summer.
If you have an air handler it is an important part of your air conditioning equipment. Its job is to effectively circulate conditioned air throughout your home. Your central heating and cooling system consists of two main parts—an outdoor unit and an indoor unit, or air handler. When matched with a heat pump, it circulates both cool and hot air, depending on the season.
A humidifier adds water vapor to the air to increase humidity. A humidifier is a machine that can be added to most central heating and cooling system to monitor the humidity levels in a home and increase humidity when needed. The humidifier unit uses a humidity-sensing control that cycles the humidifier on and off and a water panel that adds water vapor to the circulated air when needed. Relative humidity is the amount of moisture in the air expressed as a percentage of the maximum amount that the air is capable of holding at a specific temperature. In dry air conditions, the sensor tracks that percentage and adjusts the amount of added water vapor, giving your skin the moisture it needs and helping to keep any personal belongings, such as wood floors, furnishings, and keepsakes, from drying out.
What to Look for When Hiring an HVAC Contractor
The number one thing you need to look for when hiring an HVAC contractor is to see if they have the appropriate city and/or county licenses. All HVAC companies are required to be licensed in Johnson and Wyandotte Counties in Kansas. Most cities also require a separate license. You can check to see if a company is licensed by clicking on the following link, which will take you to the Johnson County Contractor licensing website:
Hiring a licensed company ensures that they have the appropriate liability insurance, which protects them and YOU! Most jurisdictions require a permit to be pulled when replacing or installing new equipment, and a permit cannot be pulled unless the company is licensed. In practical terms, hiring a fly-by-night guy working out of an unmarked van may be cheaper but in the long run you may pay more if you have warranty issues or need someone reliable to show up when they say they will. Also, a contractor that does not install new equipment up to code and correctly may be putting you and your family at risk.
When selecting a company to maintain your system, look for one that designs, installs, and services the type of system you have. Full service companies also tend to be up to date on the latest advances in the field.
Besides checking that liability insurance policies are in force, ask for recommendations or check with neighbors, friends and family who have used the company over several years.
Buying a New HVAC System
Heating and cooling equipment is designed to last 15 to 20 years. If your system is older than this, you might want to have its condition assessed. Although replacing HVAC equipment is a major expense, modern systems operate much more efficiently than the older units they replace. This translates into energy savings, with equals money savings.
Most HVAC contractors specialize in designing and installing the systems of a few manufacturers, so no one shop is going to carry every major brand. But before you worry about the equipment, it makes sense to find contractors in your area that are knowledgeable and service-oriented.
Start your search by asking neighbors, friends and family what company they hired to replace a furnace or air-conditioning system. If they were happy with the installation, ask their contractor to come over and talk to you about heating or cooling your house. All reputable companies will give a free estimate for new equipment installation.
When picking a contractor, remember that sizing an HVAC unit by matching it to the home and existing ducting requires skill and experience. A poor design typically results in a system that doesn’t deliver a consistent temperature from room to room and costs more to operate. The correct size of the unit will consists of a number in tons for the air conditioner and a BTU rating for the furnace.
But it can be even more serious than that. In very tight houses served by ductwork, poor design can lead to back drafting, a dangerous situation where flue gases are sucked back into the house.
Most HVAC shops are small, so the owner should be involved with the system design and either participate actively in the installation or inspect it when it’s done. You don’t want your system designed by a salesman with no field experience.
Definitions For Common HVAC Terms:
Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER)
The Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) rates how many BTUs an air conditioning unit will remove for each watt of electricity consumed. The higher the SEER, the less you spend on operating costs. Federal law mandates a minimum SEER of 13 for all new air conditioning units.
An air conditioning ton equals 12,000 BTUs per hour. That means a three-ton air conditioner can remove about 36,000 BTUs of heat per hour from your home.
Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE)
The Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency estimates how much heat a unit delivers for every dollar spent on fuel. The higher the AFUE, the lower your heating bills. The minimum percentage established by the DOE for furnaces is 80%.
The distribution or movement of air.
Air Handler/Coil Blower
The indoor part of an air conditioner or heat pump that moves cooled or heated air throughout the ductwork of your home. An air handler is usually a furnace or a blower coil.
A British Thermal Unit is a unit of heat energy. One BTU is the amount of heat required to raise one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. The higher the BTU rating, the greater the heating capacity of the system.
An odorless, colorless, tasteless, poisonous and flammable gas that is produced when carbon burns with insufficient air.
Central Air Conditioning System
System in which air is treated at a central location and distributed to and from rooms by one or more fans and a series of ducts.
The part of the outdoor air conditioner or heat pump that compresses and pumps refrigerant to meet household cooling requirements.
The outdoor portion of an air conditioner or heat pump that either releases or collects heat, depending on the time of the year.
A movable plate, located in the ductwork, that regulates airflow. Dampers are used to direct air to the areas that need it most. Typically used in a zoning application.
The Department of Energy is a federal agency responsible for setting industry efficiency standards and monitoring the consumption of energy sources.
A comfort system that pairs an electric heat pump with a gas furnace, providing an energy-efficient alternative to the conventional furnace/air conditioner combination.
The method by which air is channeled from the furnace or the blower coil throughout your home.
Electronic Air Cleaner
An electronic device that filters out large particles and bioaerosols in indoor air.
An EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) designation attached to HVAC products that meet or exceed EPA guidelines for high-efficiency performance above the standard government minimums.
The Environmental Protection Agency develops and enforces federal environmental regulations. The EPA oversees the nationwide ENERGY STAR® program.
The part of the air conditioner or heat pump that is located inside the air handler or attached to the furnace. Its primary function is to absorb the heat from the air in your house.
Garage heaters are an excellent product for combating cold garages and workshops during the winter months. Heating capacities provide warmth for a 1 car garage up to a 4+ car garage application. Separated combustion models provide heating for hard-to-heat applications. Available in natural or propane gas, units should be installed by a Lennox dealer/installer.
Located in the furnace, the heat exchanger transfers heat to the surrounding air, which is then pumped throughout the home.
A heat pump is an HVAC unit that heats or cools by moving heat. During the winter, a heat pump draws heat from outdoor air and circulates it through your home’s air ducts. In the summer, it reverses the process and removes heat from your house and releases it outdoors.
When an air handler or furnace is positioned on its side and circulates air in one end and out the other. Ideal for attic or crawl space installations.
An indoor air quality device that introduces moisture to heated air as it passes from the furnace into the ductwork for distribution throughout the home.
An automatic device used to maintain humidity at a fixed or adjustable set point.
A thermostat with the ability to record different temperature/time settings for your heating and/or cooling equipment.
The old standard for residential air conditioners, R-22 refrigerant is now being phased out by the U.S. EPA. Lennox offers dry-charged units for those who still have R-22 compatible systems.
A chlorine-free refrigerant that meets the EPA’s newest, most stringent environmental guidelines.
A chemical that produces a cooling effect while expanding or vaporizing. Most residential air conditioning units contain the standard R-22 refrigerant, or Freon.
Two copper lines that connect the outdoor air conditioner or heat pump to the indoor evaporator coil.
A specially designed compressor that works in a circular motion, as opposed to up-and-down piston action.
A heating and cooling system contained in one outdoor unit.
An HVAC system in which some components are located inside the structure of the house and some are located outside. Split systems should be matched for optimal efficiency.
Usually found on an inside wall, this device operates as a control to regulate your heating and cooling equipment, allowing you to adjust your home comfort at the touch of a switch.
Provides two levels of heating or cooling output for greater temperature control, energy efficiency and improved indoor air quality.
When an air handler or furnace is installed in an upright position and circulates air through the side or bottom and out through the top. Typically used in basement, closet and attic installations.
Variable Speed Motor
A motor that automatically adjusts the flow of warm or cool air for ultimate comfort.
A system that exchanges stale, recirculated indoor air with fresh, filtered outside air.
A method of partitioning a home into independently controlled comfort zones for enhanced comfort and efficiency.
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