Air conditioners are expensive appliances, which is why it’s so important to keep them in tip-top condition. There are several things you can do to help maintain your AC unit, including vent cleaning and refrigerant refills, but one that shouldn’t be overlooked is cleaning the coils inside the unit. The two coils inside every air conditioner play a vital role in cooling the air, so any dust or dirt on them can affect the unit’s function and even the whole HVAC system. Here’s a quick rundown of what goes into cleaning your air conditioner’s coils.
Introduction to Air Conditioner Coil Cleaning
Air conditioners work by pushing a working fluid called refrigerant back and forth between two metal coils: the evaporator and the condenser. As the refrigerant passes from one coil to the other, shifts in pressure cause it to change from a liquid to a gas and vice versa. This in turn causes a heat transfer on the metal coils, making the condenser hot and the evaporator cold. When the blower fan passes air from your house across the cold evaporator coil, it cools the air before releasing it back into the room. There are a few more moving parts that are involved in this process, but the whole system runs on the backs of the two coils. That’s why air conditioner coil cleaning is an important part of AC maintenance. If the evaporator and condenser coils can’t work properly, then the entire air conditioner is going to suffer and you’ll see the results in your monthly power bill.
If you’re comfortable with the inner workings of machines like air conditioners, you can clean the coils by yourself without the aid of any special tools – we’ll go over the cleaning process a little later on in this piece. However, for most people, having their AC coils cleaned is just a part of their regular yearly maintenance appointment with an HVAC technician. These standard annual appointments are necessary for anyone who has an air conditioning system so you can have your pressure levels checked, refrigerant topped off, and other preventative maintenance operations. For this reason, it usually makes sense to just save the cleaning for the appointments and let the professionals handle it instead of tackling the job yourself.
A quick Google search for “clean my AC coils” or “AC coil cleaning services near me” is a good place to start, but ultimately you’ll want to find an HVAC contractor that you can work with long-term. Cleaning the coils is only one part of a full maintenance appointment, and even the most spotless evaporator and condenser can’t help you if there’s a clog in the drain line or a refrigerant leak. With proper maintenance, your air conditioner should last for a decade or more without needing a replacement.
Why You Need To Get Your AC Coils Cleaned
There’s a whole list of air conditioner coil cleaning benefits, but for the most part, it comes down to the efficiency and effectiveness of the unit. Dust and grime building up on the surface of the coils reduce the efficiency of the heat transfer that makes the whole system work. The effects of that central inefficiency will ripple out through the rest of the system and result in higher power bills, discomfort for you and your family, and, eventually, long-term damage to the parts inside the unit. You can think of it like preventative maintenance on your car – while it might be a pain to constantly keep everything clean and well-maintained, it’s still a lot easier and cheaper than fixing the major issues that follow.
When dirt and grime partially block the heat transfer to the coils, the air conditioner has to make up for that inefficiency by working harder. It’ll turn on more frequently, run for longer, and, if you have a variable refrigerant flow unit, force more juice into the motor so it’s working harder. One immediate consequence of this is that the system will require significantly more electricity to run. Because air conditioners are notorious power hogs even when running properly, you’ll likely see the inefficiency reflected in your electricity bill pretty much right away. The longer you leave the problem, the more dust and dirt will gather on the coils, and the higher your bills are going to be.
There are other consequences to dirty coils as well. When the system is forced to work harder and run for longer, it doesn’t just drain more power, it also creates wear and tear on the mechanical parts inside the unit. Fans, belts, bearings, and other moving parts will wear down faster, requiring more frequent repairs to keep the air conditioner running. This becomes somewhat of a self-perpetuating cycle – dirt forces the unit to work harder, which damages the moving parts inside, forcing the system to work even harder to make up for the damage, and so on. Not only does this mean costly repair bills, but it’ll also take years off the lifespan of your AC unit.
Finally, all the grime and dirt built up on the coils can encourage corrosion in the metal. Small cracks and holes in the coils will eventually require you to replace them entirely. Additionally, the corrosion can spread to the refrigerant lines, causing the working fluid to leak out. Low refrigerant levels can severely affect the operation of the air conditioner. All of these problems will affect the lifespan of the unit, so failing to keep your coils clean is just setting yourself up for some serious financial costs later on down the line.
If you’re wondering “How can I clean my coils myself?” then there are plenty of guides available to help you through it, including later on in this blog. However, replacing your own refrigerant is extremely difficult and potentially hazardous without the proper equipment, so it’s best to save that for an appointment with an HVAC technician.
How To Identify Signs of a Dirty Air Conditioner Coil
There are plenty of signs of dirty AC coils, but the main one is just going to be that inefficiency we talked about in the previous section. If you notice that your air conditioner is turning on more frequently than usual and staying on for longer, that could mean a dirty coil. Unfortunately, there are a ton of different AC problems that have identical symptoms, so your best bet is to learn what dirty AC coils look like so you can pop the unit open and take a look for yourself. Any kind of dirt, dust, or caked-on grime is a potential issue on the coils, so they should be cleaned pretty much immediately.
If you don’t really pay attention to the sound of your air conditioner while it’s running, you can still catch the symptoms of a dirty coil by checking your electricity bill. Any spike in power usage could mean something is forcing the AC to work harder than usual, potentially a dirty coil. If you notice your monthly bills getting higher and you’re not sure why, then you should get in touch with an HVAC technician so they can come to check out the unit and see what’s causing the inefficiency.
Sometimes dirt can cause moisture to condense on your evaporator coil. If not cleaned, that water can eventually freeze and prevent the coil from functioning at all. If you notice any water dripping from the unit, that could mean the coil is frozen and needs to be cleaned. You can get rid of the ice on the coil yourself, but we recommend switching the unit off and waiting for it to melt before cleaning off the coils. The metal coil is very delicate, and you can easily damage it when trying to break the ice off.
If you notice any of these symptoms, we recommend getting in touch with an HVAC contracting company. AC issues can be difficult to diagnose correctly without opening up the unit and looking around inside, and the cost of hiring a professional is extremely low when compared to the cost of new parts or a replacement air conditioner.
When Should You Have Your AC Coils Cleaned?
“When should I clean my AC coils?” is a fairly common question for HVAC technicians, and the answer will depend a little bit on where you live and other specifics of your situation. First things first – if you do recognize any of the symptoms of a dirty coil from the previous section, you should have it cleaned right away. You really can’t be too careful when it comes to preventative maintenance, and acting quickly can save you a lot of money down the road. However, as long as you keep up with your regular maintenance schedule and take good care of your air conditioner, you really shouldn’t encounter too many problems until the unit is 10 years old or so. AC units are built to be fairly durable, and they can run for a long time if properly taken care of.
In general, we recommend having your coils cleaned as part of a regular maintenance appointment about once a year or so. There are a bunch of different maintenance operations that work well on a yearly schedule, so bundling them all into a single appointment is the smartest way to go. During a maintenance appointment, an HVAC technician will clean every part of the unit, including the coils, as well as check the refrigerant levels and top them off.
If you live in a city with a lot of smog in the air, or somewhere especially dusty, you might want to consider cleaning the coils twice a year instead of just once. You might be surprised how quickly dust can build up inside an air conditioner when you live in the desert. You can also help keep things running smoothly by using a brush to gently clear away any big chunks of dirt or grime every month or two.
How Does the Process of Coil Cleaning Work?
How air conditioning maintenance works is often pretty complicated, but cleaning the coils is a relatively easy procedure that you can do yourself if you don’t mind opening up the unit and finding the right parts. If you have a split-system air conditioner with two different units, each unit has one of the coils. The evaporator coil is located in the indoor unit and can be reached by removing an access panel, although each model is slightly different. If you’re having trouble finding the coils, you should check the manual that came with your air conditioner. The condenser coil is in the outside unit, usually wrapped around the other components inside.
One easy way to clean the coils is by using compressed air to blow away any dust or dirt built up on the metal. This is a fast and very effective way to clean the coils, however, you should be very careful to blow the air straight down through the coils instead of at an angle. The fins that make up the coils are extremely thin and can be bent by the force of compressed air. If you have a small shop-vac, you can use that to collect any bits of dust that are blown from the coils onto the bottom of the unit. Finally, you can spray the coils with a mix of water and a mild household cleaner to pick up any tough grime that wasn’t blown away by the air. Let the cleaner sit for a few minutes before gently washing it away with a hose or just letting it drain naturally.
If you’d rather let a professional handle the cleaning process, you can give Valley Comfort Heating & Air a call. We’ve been providing Napa, Sonoma, and Marin Counties with HVAC service for years and have more than enough experience to handle any problem you might run into with your air conditioner unit.