The Heat is On

By Diane Tait

Image courtesy flickr
Now that winter has made an appearance in north Florida, the HVAC technicians are starting off the year with a bang. That’s because most people don’t realize they have a problem with their home’s heating system until the first cold snap of the year occurs.  To make matters worse, some of the service calls that homeowners make are not only costly, many are unnecessary.  To help you keep from making a repairman’s day, I thought I’d take the time to give you a few tips that will help you keep warm and comfy instead of becoming hot under the collar when it comes to the care and feeding of your HVAC system.

Who you gonna call? – Just finding a capable, trustworthy heater technician is no simple matter.  That’s because there are so many from which to choose.  What makes the task even harder is that there are dozens of dedicated HVAC repair companies and there are electricians that repair them on the side.  Trying to weed out the chaff from the wheat isn’t always a simple proposition. While a scan of online review sites helps somewhat, you still don’t know if the technician assigned to help you resolve your issues is a new recruit or seasoned veteran.  That’s why I prefer to work with an owner operator rather than booking an appointment with a larger firm with lots of staff.  Plus, the independent operator is going to go the extra yard to make sure he retains you as a customer and you will get to know him on a first name basis.

How to save yourself a service call – What’s even worse than having to pay through the nose for a service call is to find out after the fact that you could have fixed the problem yourself.  I found this out the hard way myself a couple of years ago when I sprung for a service call only to find out the problem wasn’t with the HVAC system.  It was a thermostat problem.  What had happened was when I popped the new battery in the thermostat, I somehow failed to align the connections that engaged the heater circuit.  As a result, when the temperature fell far enough to trip the thermostat, the fan ran but the heater failed to activate.  As a result, the technician showed up and opened the thermostat only to cure the problem by properly aligning the connections.  Apparently, that particular thermostat was known to have this problem.  Since I had already spent $75 for the service call, I had him replace the thermostat with a new model that didn’t have the same congenital defect.

Image courtesy flickr
Other than thermostat problems, one of the other DIY fixes that can get a balky heater or air conditioner running in a hurry is to check the air filter.  If you’re like me, you probably change the air filter every month or so.  However, being out of sight and out of mind, many homeowners or renters neglect to change the filter on a regular basis.  A clogged filter can stop any HVAC system cold…literally.  A friend of mine who was renting a house forgot all about the filter so long that it froze like an iceberg in the middle of a heat wave.  Not only did he have to shut down the system, but it took him a couple of hours to thaw the frozen air handler with a blow dryer.  Lucky for him no permanent damage was done or there would have been hell to pay with his landlord.

Another way to stop up an HVAC system is to have the drain hose or vents get clogged with gunk.  When it comes to vents, the cheapest fix is to open all the vents and air handler and run a vacuum cleaner hose down them.  You’d be surprised what builds up in the ducts over time.  As for the drain hose, most air handlers have an inspection port.  Simply unscrew the cap and pour a half cup of bleach down the line twice a year to keep it from gumming up.

Paying a service technician sucks – Keeping the outdoor AC unit clean by sucking dirt and debris off it with a vacuum cleaner, beats making a service call every time.  Especially in the winter when leaves fall like snow, a lot of debris tends to fall onto and even into the unit.  Left unchecked, the fan blades atop the unit can get gummed up to the point where the unit has trouble keeping cool. 
Another thing your outdoor unit doesn’t appreciate is being out of balance.  This can happen if the concrete pad on which it sits settles over time.  Just like your washing machine makes a loud racket during the spin cycle if the clothes inside settle to one side of the machine, an off balance AC unit not only has to work harder to keep cool, but the coolant tubes have trouble discharging condensation and the electrical lines can be strained to breaking point.  The best way to find out if your unit is on the level is to take a carpenter’s level and sit it atop the unit.  If it is way off center, you may need to put shims under it to rebalance it.

Image courtesy flickr
Do you have a room from hell? – Depending on the layout of your home, sometimes you may find that one room is hotter or colder than the others.  I used to have this problem in my home office which has big glass windows facing south, not to mention the office was further from the air handler than any other room.  The afternoon sun caused the office to bake, making it nearly uninhabitable in the summer.  The solution was to add an in-line duct booster fan that helped my central air conditioner keep the room cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.  There are also register fans that mount atop or replace the vent register.  This way you can eliminate the room from hell without breaking the bank.

Time will tell – If you’ve had your central air unit for a decade or more, time and sun can take their toll.  The insulation that protects the lines can crumble, fan blades can become noisy and cooling fins can get coated with crud.  Simply by rejuvenating or lubricating selected parts can give your aging unit a new lease on life.  (To find a step-by-step process for lubricating noisy fan blades go to the link below.)

Diane Tait owns and operates A&B Insurance.  To find out more about how you can save money on insurance, go to her site or fill out the form at right.


  1. There's nothing like using your stove to try to warm the place up because your heater bit the dust.

  2. I have been a landlord for over 20 years and what amazes me how people don't understand how simple service and maintenance can save them money. It's just crazy.


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