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The Ultimate Homeowner's Guide to Air Conditioner Troubleshooting

by The Cooling Company, on May 24, 2018 1:56:36 PM

There's nothing more exciting than getting the keys to your first house. You are officially a homeowner! You've been working towards this your whole life and now, you have a house to call your very own.

Of course, the excitement wears off a bit when systems start malfunctioning in the home and you realize that fixing those issues is your responsibility. Suddenly, you are learning how to do things you never even imagined, and occasionally, you bite off a bit more than you can chew.

One of the systems that can experience problems is your Air Conditioning and Heating system. Understanding what can go wrong and whether or not you should attempt to fix it... that's the difference between being a do-it-yourselfer and a break-it-yourselfer.

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HVAC Troubleshooting Overview

Thermostats, water heaters, ducts - oh my!

Your home's HVAC is an intricate system that can cause a variety of problems if it's not working properly. It can also cause a lot of anxiety when you don't understand what's happening. Add in extreme weather conditions and you are looking at an extremely stressful situation.

6 Most Common Air Conditioner Problems & Solutions

6 Most Common AC Problems Infographic

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When all systems are go, your home is a welcoming, comforting, respite from the stress of the outside world. However, when air condition problems strike, you may find yourself hot, sick, and paying too much money to keep your home comfortable and your family safe.

Air conditioner problems often occur when you need it most during extremely hot temperatures. Fortunately, there are some AC issues that you may be able to fix without calling in a professional.

1. AC Not Cooling

You come home in the dead heat of the summer months, eager to relax on the couch with a cool drink and the air condition blowing at full strength. There's just one problem. Your home is just as hot as the street.

Signs of a Cooling Outage

There are a few signs you can look for that suggest you're experiencing a cooling outage.

  • AC is not cooling at all - It appears to be running but there is no (or not enough) air being forced out.
  • AC is running, but not cooling - When there is air coming from your ducts, but it's warm air.
  • AC won't turn on - You've pushed all of the right buttons on your thermostat, but it refuses to kick on.
  • AC fan is not working - air is not being circulated.
  • Loud noises - While few air conditioners are completely silent, if you hear a loud clanking like cast iron and concrete, something is wrong.
  • Unpleasant smells coming from the unit. While you'll notice an odor within the first few minutes of turning the AC on for the season, that should go away quickly. If you notice a musty, melting, burning, or ozone smell, you'll need to investigate.

The Reasons Your Air Conditioner is Not Cooling (and Solutions)

There are many possible causes to your air conditioning woes. Some of these are a quick fix, while others will require bringing in a professional.

1. The heat is on.

It seems silly, but it's worth checking. Make sure the thermostat selector is on "cool" not "heat." You may also have the fan set to "on" which forces the indoor blower to stay on.

2. The compressor and condenser are not receiving power.

Locate the unit outside and make sure that the switch is on and sending power. If there's no power, the system may stay on, but it won't cool down your home. While you are looking at the unit, clear any debris such as twigs, leaves, and branches that may have settled around the unit.

3. Your refrigerant level is low.

When you have issues with your compressor or leaks in your system, your refrigerant levels may drop. This can cause low (or no) cool air output and may also cause icing on the condenser coils. If you see signs of this, call a professional to identify the problem and correct it before it leads to more expensive repairs.

4. The air filter is dirty.

While your air condition will still be putting out semi-cool air, it won't be running efficiently. The air filter is something that you can change on your own for just a few dollars.

2. Long AC Running Times

Obviously, if your air conditioner doesn't turn on, you have a problem. But what about when it won't turn off?

A constantly running AC can signal issues with your HVAC system as well and could lead to a major malfunction (and expense) if the problem isn't addressed immediately. Keep an eye out for the following signs:

  • The AC won't turn off in house
  • The AC won't turn off when it hits the set temperature
  • The air conditioner keeps running even after it's been turned off
  • The AC is off but the fan keeps blowing

The Causes of a Constantly Running AC (and Solutions)

If your AC is running constantly, it may be due to one of several problems:

1. The thermostat is broken or set wrong.

The thermostat may have been accidentally set incorrectly or reset as a constant demand for cool air. The temperature may have also been set too low, causing the air conditioner to stay switched on. In order to test this, you can set the thermostat to room temperature which should cause the unit to switch off. If it doesn't, you may need to call a repair person.

2. The Fan Limit Switch is set to "manual."

Look for a Fan Limit Switch on the AC unit. If it has been set to manual override, it will cause the fan to run on its own. Set it to "auto" and the fan will only run when told to by the thermostat settings.

3. Clogged Air Filter

If your air filter is dirty, the system won't function properly and may run continuously in an attempt to remove humidity from the air. If your air filter appears dirty or clogged, you can change this yourself.

4. Dirty Evaporator Coil

If the evaporator coil is covered in dirt and debris, it will have to work harder to cool your home. If this is the case, you will need to call a professional to clean and service the unit.

5. Frozen Evaporator Coil

If your system is not only running constantly, but also blowing warm air, shut the system down immediately and call a professional. If the evaporator coil has frozen and you continue to operate the system, you could cause a great deal of damage.

6. Leaky Ducts Allowing Cool Air to Leak Out

This happens frequently in older buildings where the insulation may be gone or the joints are no longer sealed. Call a professional to assess and correct the problem.

7. Issues with the Blower Motor or Fan

When the blower motor fails to produce enough air for the system to run efficiently, or when the fan runs at a low speed, the whole system may run too much to compensate. Try adjusting the fan speed. If that doesn't help or the fan blades are covered in dirt and grime, you'll need a good professional cleaning.

8. Not Enough Refrigerant

If there isn't enough refrigerant in the system, the unit can't cool the home properly and will continue running, working harder to cool the place down. This will require a professional to find the leak and repair.

3. Uneven Cooling: Hot & Cold Spots in the Home

When one room of your house is practically arctic while another is filled with a sweltering heat, your air conditioner may not be working properly and may create differing temperatures depending on where you are in the home.

Signs & Symptoms

If you suspect that your home is not cooling properly, be aware of the following potential signs:

  • Uneven air flow throughout the house
  • Rooms are not cooling equally - for example:

Common Causes of Uneven Cooling & Heating in Your Home

Before your give up and accept that you'll need to carry a parka with you while walking through your home, there is another possibility.

Once you uncover the root cause of the problem and address it, you and your family will be comfortably lounging no matter what room you're in.

1. Your attic isn't insulated properly

To determine whether your attic is properly insulated, head upstairs and check for floor joists. If they are visible, your attic needs to be re-insulated to correct the problem.

2. Your Soffit vents are blocked.

Soffit vents allow air to flow freely from the outside environment into the attic. These may be due to poor insulation and may be causing the upstairs to retain heat. Once the vents have been unblocked, air will flow freely and the temperature differences should subside.

3. Your air ducts are leaking.

When ducts leak, they can't function properly which will cause heat buildup upstairs. The ducts will need to be fixed or replaced to remedy this situation.

4. Your ductwork is poorly insulated.

Frequently made from a thin sheet metal, ductwork is often not properly insulated an can lead to a 10%-30% loss of energy (according to US Department of Energy). An infrared duct inspection can help identify the issues so they can be fixed.

5. Your air conditioner is not the right size for your home.

If your HVAC unit is too small or too big, it can lead to inconsistent temperatures throughout your home. You may find that the humidity level of your home is challenging to control and that some areas will get more air than others. If this is the cause of your issues, you may need to reevaluate your system and purchase a new one based off of your square footage and layout.

6. Malfunctioning Thermostat

Your air conditioning woes may be attributed to that little panel hanging on your wall.

Signs and Symptoms of a Bad Home Thermostat

If you notice any of the following signs, you may have a malfunctioning thermostat:

  • The air conditioner refuses to turn on.
  • The air conditioner refuses to turn off, running constantly throughout the day and night.
  • There are different temperatures throughout your home.
  • The thermostat doesn't change when you alter the settings.
  • The temperature is not correct.

Causes of a Malfunctioning Thermostat

If your home thermostat isn't working properly it may be because:

1. Thermostat Placement

If your thermostat is in direct sunlight, too close to air vents, or not centralized in the home, you may experience challenges. If this is the case, move the thermostat to a hallway in the center of your home as far from sunlight and air vents as possible.

2. Your battery is dead or dying.

Sometimes, it's that simple. Check your thermostat by:

  1. Switch it to the "on" position and set it to "cool" or AC. If you have a programmable thermostat, check for any override programs that may be engaged.
  2. Replace the batteries.
  3. Have someone stand near the furnace while you stay by the thermometer. The furnace should kick on the moment you switch it to "heat."
  4. Raise the thermostat until you hear a click. The other person should listen to the furnace. If it doesn't make a sound, it's likely not receiving a signal from the thermostat. Replace the thermostat.

While the cost will vary based on the type of thermostat, they are relatively inexpensive to replace. An analog thermostat will run around $10-$30 while a digital thermostat (which is a better option) costs around $100.

5. Poor Indoor Air Quality

Your home is supposed to be your sanctuary, a safe place to escape the outdoor pollutants. But sometimes, they follow you inside.

Signs Bad Indoor Air Quality

The following are signs that you might have issues with indoor air quality:

What Causes Poor Air Quality (and Solutions)

Identifying the cause of your air quality issue will help you correct it.

1. Poor Cleaning Within the Home

Not cleaning properly or frequently can cause a buildup of dust and debris. Do two thorough cleanings each year including the draperies, fabric covered furniture, and carpets. If you do clean your home regularly but notice that dust is accumulating more quickly, this may be a sign that something is wrong with your AC unit.

2. Chemical and Toxin Buildup

You may not realize what chemicals are in your home, but they can still affect you. There are certain plants such as garden mums and spider plants which help filter toxins out of the home.

3. Your air conditioning unit is inefficient.

Your HVAC system pushes air through filters which can sometimes trap debris which you then breathe in. Change your filter regularly to avoid this.

4. There is poor ventilation in the home.

While homeowners often turn on the AC to get fresh air, this doesn't improve ventilation, it just re-circulates the air already in the home. In order to improve ventilation, open the windows and doors when the temperatures are bearable.

5. You have a furry family member.

Your lovable dog or cat may be contributing to the poor air quality in your home. To counteract the fur and dander make sure you bathe them regularly, vacuum regularly, and if possible replace your carpets with hard floors.

6. High Energy Bills: Inefficient AC

You've likely budgeted for your utilities, but occasionally, you open the bill to a very unpleasant surprise.

Signs & Symptoms

If your electric bill is higher than expected, it may be due to an inefficient ac unit. This can be caused by:

  • Bad installation
  • Lack of maintenance
  • An old system
  • Failing parts in the unit

Reasons Your AC Causes High Energy Bills (and Solutions)

If your AC is not functioning properly, check the following:

1. Is the air filter clean?

These should be replaced every few months to keep the air clean and the unit efficient.

2. Are any of the parts old or failing?

If a part is not working properly, the system won't work properly. Replacing this part should help ramp up your system's efficiency.

3. Is your refrigerant low?

Your system won't be able to remove heat well so it will have to work harder (increasing your energy bills). A professional can determine if there is a leak and bring your levels up.

4. Is your home properly insulated?

If air is escaping (or unwanted air is entering), the system will have to work harder to reach the desired temperature. Check for proper insulation and improve if necessary.

Maintaining Your Air Conditioner

As with any system in your home, vehicle, or personal health, preventative maintenance is the best way to avoid costly repairs.

how to maintain your air conditioner infographic

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Here are some ways to keep your ac unit functioning at its best:

  • Keep it clean and free of debris - this includes the unit itself as well as filters, ducts, and evaporator coils.
  • Avoid placing the unit in direct sunlight so it stays cool
  • Purchase a programmable thermostat to keep the temperature consistent without overtaxing your system.
  • Change the batteries on a regular basis.
  • Adjust the thermostat settings when you go on vacation or will be out of the house for long periods of time.
  • Review the wiring for any signs of damage.
  • Bring in a professional to do regular checkups and maintenance, ensuring that your system is in working order.

Conclusion

While it's true that many air conditioning problems can be troubleshot by the homeowners, if you don't know what you are doing, or take on a project that's beyond your ability, you may find yourself sweating from the heat... and the repair bills. When in doubt, the best solution is to contact a professional. They can diagnose your ac issues and determine the most effective and cost-efficient way to correct them. By hiring a professional to do regular maintenance, you lessen the chances of something going wrong and increase the likelihood that you and your family will have a happy, healthy, and comfortable summer!

Topics:Air Conditioning TipsHVAC

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