Humidity Control with Air Conditioning

Humidity is a fact of life in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas come spring and summer. Mix in the raw heat of Texas and the Southwest United States and it’s pure hell in July, August, and September.

Homeowners understand the relationship between raw heat and their air conditioners: It’s hot outside, so the AC will run more frequently to keep the house cool.

But what’s the relationship between humidity and your air conditioner?

In the next few posts we take a closer look at humidity, its impact on the heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC) equipment that runs all summer long and costs a lot of money to operate, keeping our Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area homes cool and comfortable when it’s hot and sticky outside.

The Science of Humidity

Humidity is the water-vapor content of air and indicates the likelihood of precipitation, dew, or fog. There are three measurements of humidity: absolute, relative, and specific. We’re only concerned with absolute and relative.

Absolute humidity is the total amount of water vapor present in a given volume of air. Temperature is not taken into consideration. Absolute humidity changes as air temperature or pressure changes.

Relative humidity is the figure given in weather reports and the number most people are familiar with. Relative humidity measures the current absolute humidity (water vapor) present in the air to the saturation point at the same temperature and is usually expressed as a percentage.

Humidity is a fundamental factor that defines any habitat and is one of the determining factors how animals and plants survive in any given environment.
Humans cope with hot, hot weather by perspiring and breathing. If there are high temperatures and high heat, the duo often found in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas summers, a person will be sweating but the sweat won’t be drying on the skin. When perspiration is dried by the air there is a cooling effect on the body.

Residents of Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, Texas, the Southeast and Southwest United States — heck, it seems the entire globe these days — depend heavily on air conditioning to survive hot and humid summers.

How Humidity Impacts Your Home

The relative humidity in your home impacts your comfort and health. When the humidity is high, occupants feel hot and sticky because evaporation of perspiration is slowed.

High humidity for an extended period in the home also causes mildew or mold. In basements — not an issue for most residents in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas — high humidity also causes beads of water to form on exterior walls.

When your air conditioning system is working efficiently, it removes the proper amount of heat and moisture from the living areas, resulting in a more comfortable environment.

Depending on location and outdoor heat and humidity variables, indoor humidity ranges from 40 to 60 percent, although for Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, many HVAC contractors and service techs recommend 40 to 50 percent.

If you are unsure of your home’s humidity percentage, as the service or repair tech to check it for you next time he comes to the house for a semi-annual checkup of HVAC equipment. You may also purchase inexpensive humidity monitors (images) at a local home improvement center like Lowe’s, Home Depot, among others.

If your HVAC equipment is not functioning properly, you may feel hot and sticky regardless of the temperature setting. When humidity is right, the AC unit works harder to keep the home cool, which usually means higher electric bills.

It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on the humidity levels in your home and how your HVAC equipment is functioning, especially if you have an older system or it was not “right-sized” from the start. If the AC unit works longer and harder without providing the desired results, it adds wear and tear to the equipment and may prompt more frequent service and repair calls to the home.

Two other signs that your home is too humid include a damp or musty smell in parts of the house and foggy windows.

Low Humidity

So you are aware and to provide a contrast between summer and winter, a lack of humidity in the winter also impacts your home.

Cold air does not hold as much moisture as warm air, so a dramatic drop in moisture levels during the winter can actually leave you feeling cooler even though the thermostat is set to a warm temperature.

Low relative humidity causes a person to feel chilled, even at 70 degrees, because perspiration evaporates at a rapid rate. Low humidity also causes dryness of the skin or throat, dry nasal passages, irritated eyes, aggravated sinuses, and may exacerbate colds and other respiratory ailments.

Strategies for Dehumidification

The most efficient and reliable way to manage the moisture in the home is to have an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas service contractor install a dehumidifier directly into the HVAC system.

However, there are advantages and disadvantages to using dehumidifiers, which we will look at in greater depth in the next post. For now, here are some easy tips to become more “humidity efficient:”

Easy Ways to Become Humidity Efficient

Be aware that what you do in your home — cooking, drying clothes, taking hot showers — adds to humidity already in the air and makes your air conditioning less efficient. Opening doors and leaving windows open to “let a breeze in” adds moisture.

  • Cover pots and pans when cooking to keep moisture from entering the home’s air
  • Install and use ventilation fans in the kitchen (above the stove) and in bathrooms if you do not already have them
  • Do not line-dry clothes inside, although we’re not sure line-drying the wife’s delicates will make much difference
  • Keep doors and windows closed during the day, especially in the summer — meaning you will continue to yell at the kids to close the doors and not to leave the back door open to entice the family dog outside on a hot day
  • Keep your air conditioner coils clean. Use a garden hose and carefully spray away any dirt and debris (lawn clippings especially) stuck in the coils. This allows the system to work more efficient and may even contribute to lower utility bills.
  • Vent the clothes dryer outside (if this isn’t already done)
  • Install a smart thermostat you can program for power-saving settings
  • Install ceiling fans to better circulate cool air
  • Put a ground-moisture barrier in your crawl space (if applicable) to help decrease inside humidity
  • Make sure that furniture and curtains are not blocking air vents and impeding air flow throughout the house
  • Pay attention to carpet: It can actually trap moisture, especially if it’s installed directly on the concrete. This is also bad because allergens grow under these circumstances. Consider using area rugs that can be removed and cleaned periodically instead of wall-to-wall carpeting.

Using Your Air Conditioner to Control Humidity

With spring upon us and summer a stone’s throw away, high humidity not only brings sticky discomfort but also the potential for another problem: mold.
High levels of moisture in indoor air can create the perfect conditions for explosive mold growth, particularly in gypsum wall boards, wood window casings, and vinyl wall coverings.

Using your thermostat you can bring the home’s humidity levels down to a comfortable level and make it harder for mold to thrive. Here are a few tips:

  • Leave the thermostat fan set on AUTO. This is preferable to letting the blower fan running continuously, which causes condensation on the evaporator coil to be blown back into the circulation instead of being allowed to drain out of the unit as intended.
  • Some AC units will continue running the fan up to three minutes after the compressor shuts down. If you are uncertain about this, ask the service or repair tech next time he’s at your home for a semi-annual checkup. He may be able to disable this feature, allowing the fan and compressor to stop at the same time.
  • And what do we always say? Don’t forget to change the filters on the air conditioner regularly. It contributes to a healthier overall HVAC system and presents the cultivation of mold and other harmful airborne bacteria.

Upgrading Your Air Conditioner’s Refrigerant

The Montreal Protocol may be revolutionary and interesting to some, but it sure can be confusing.

To help homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, we’ve turned our second post on the phaseout of R-22 refrigerant (“freon”) into a list of frequently asked questions culled from the Environmental Protection Agency and local residents.

How can I find if my air conditioner contains R-22?

Most air conditioners have a nameplate on the unit that identifies the refrigerant it contains and other information, such as safety certifications and electrical ratings.

For a central air conditioner, the nameplate is usually on the outdoor condensing unit.

If a nameplate is not provided or aged and not readable, check the owner’s manual. If you do not have it or remember where you put it, call the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas who sold you the system or services it.

If all else fails, write down the manufacturer and model number and visit the company’s website, send an email to or phone its customer service department.

Can I purchase a new home air conditioner that uses R-22?

Self-contained systems manufactured before Jan. 1, 2010, may be purchased, but these are usually window units.

New central air conditioning system that use R-22 are no longer being sold as of Dec. 31, 2009.

R-22 may not be produced for new air conditioning/refrigeration systems and instead will be limited to the servicing of existing systems.

Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas homeowners should be aware that supplies of R-22 are becoming limited and are used to service older equipment.

Should I stop using R-22 in my air conditioner?

No. You will not be required to stop using R-22 and you will not be required to replace existing systems.

The lengthy phaseout period provides time to switch to ozone-friendly alternatives.

Beginning in 2020, R-22 will no longer be produced, so homeowners will need to rely solely on recycled or reclaimed refrigerant to service any systems still operating after that date. Expect R-22 prices to continue skyrocketing as supply dwindles.

If you are unsure how the R-22 phaseout impacts your air conditioning and home, ask the Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas service or repair tech who comes to your house for the semi-annual HVAC checkup. It is smart to know where you stand for planning purposes.

What if my air conditioner needs R-22?

You may continue to have your equipment containing R-22 serviced after 2010, although only a limited amount of new R-22 will be manufactured. Prices for an R-22 or freon “charge” are already skyrocketing.

After 2020, production of R-22 will be prohibited an only, recovered, recycled, or reclaimed supplies will be available for servicing existing equipment.

I own an air conditioner that contains R-22. I want to minimize its impact on the ozone layer. What can I do?

If you have equipment that contains R-22, the most important thing you can do is to maintain the unit properly. It is highly recommended to have your HVAC equipment checkout twice a year (usually in the Spring and Fall) by a service contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas.

By doing this, you will spot leaks and can have them serviced or repaired sooner. Major leaks rarely develop in units that are properly installed and maintained.

If you do not already use a reliable HVAC contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas, make sure the technicians you choose are EPA certified to service equipment containing R-22.

It is illegal to intentionally vent (release) any refrigerant when making repairs. Therefore, technicians are required to use refrigerant recovery equipment during service. Also, request that service technicians locate and repair leaks instead of “topping off” leaking systems. This will help ensure that your system operates at its optimal level, which reduces emissions of refrigerant and saves you money by reducing your household energy use and avoiding additional repairs in the future.

Are alternatives to R-22 available?

Yes, alternative refrigerants are available and widely used in the air-conditioning and refrigeration industry today.

Through its Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) Program, EPA has found acceptable a number of alternatives to R-22 that do not deplete the ozone layer. R-410A, an HFC refrigerant blend, is the most common. Some common trade names for R-410A include GENETRON AZ-20®, SUVA 410A®, Forane® 410A, and Puron®.

The EPA maintains a full list of acceptable substitutes for household and light commercial air-conditioning.

I want to purchase a system that uses alternative refrigerants. How should I select an appropriate dealer and contractor?

Not all contractors are properly trained. When searching for an HVAC company in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas, make sure you ask if its service technicians are trained in the use of alternative refrigerants because the transition from R-22 to systems that rely on replacement refrigerants has required the redesign of heat pump and air-conditioning systems.

How should I dispose of a residential appliance that contains R-22?

There are a number of options for disposing of appliances. If you purchase a new appliance, such as a refrigerator or freezer, your retailer like Lowe’s or Home Depot will likely remove the old one, although there could be a disposal fee. Ask at the purchase of new equipment.

Landfills, scrap yards, and metal recyclers may not accept appliances if they still contain refrigerant; if they do, they are still responsible for removing or verifying removal of refrigerant before they take custody.

The appliance cannot be altered in a way that will release refrigerant into the atmosphere before disposal. For example, appliance owners should not cut refrigerant lines or remove compressors in order to have their appliances accepted by a disposal facility.

The EPA requires the safe disposal of ozone-depleting refrigerants in appliances to ensure that they are removed safely and will not harm the environment. A summary of EPA’s appliance safe disposal program is available online or contact a Department of Public Works in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas to see if they offer pick-up/drop-off appliance disposal options.

Tips for Preparing for the Future

In order to avoid the problems and expenses associated with the R-22 refrigerant phaseout, a growing number of homeowners are making the decision to upgrade their air conditioning systems sooner than they might have otherwise.

By making the switch to a cooling unit that utilizes R-410A, you can do your part to help the environment and relax with the peace of mind that rising R-22 costs will not impact you.

Here are a few suggestions for staying ahead of the curve and getting the most benefit from your air conditioner upgrade:

– Work with R-410A certified professionals

– R-410A operates at higher pressures than R-22, which means that new air conditioners require HVAC service techs to follow different safety standards and techniques than before.

– Insist on a proper match

– For homeowners with a split air conditioning system, it’s imperative that both sides of your system, the outside condensing unit and inside evaporator/air handler, are a good match. This means that you cannot simply install an outdoor condensing unit that utilizes R-410A and expect it to be compatible with an indoor evaporator that relies on R-22 refrigerant. Unless both sides of the system utilize the same refrigerant, your air conditioner will fail to run efficiently, and the excess strain on your system could lead to serious problems.

Air Conditioning Refrigerant

It may feel like the opening of Star Wars to residents of Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas . . .

“A long time ago” . . . let’s make that Sept. 16, 1987 to be precise . . .

“in a galaxy far, far away” . . . that galaxy is Montreal, Canada . . .

“It is a period of civil war” . . . OK, there’s no civil war, rebel spaceships, evil Galactic Empire, DEATH STARS, princesses, or starships . . .

But something important did happen a long, long time ago in a “galaxy” far, far away that continues to impact Earth and its inhabitants, including those here in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas.

The Montreal Protocol

An international treaty was signed in 1987 to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of numerous substances that were responsible for ozone depletion. One of those substances, a refrigerant known as R-22, is used in air conditioning and greatly impacts homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, Texas, and, well, a large part of the United States and people in many other countries.

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, as the treaty is formally known, is widely regarded as the world’s most successful environmental protection agreement. It is the only treaty with universal ratification as all 197 members of the United Nations accepted legally-binding obligations to phase out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances, beginning in 1989.

The Montreal Protocol, as the treaty is more commonly known, set out a mandatory timetable for the phase out of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFC), such as R22, by 2030. It has been further strengthened through five amendments — London 1990, Copenhagen 1992, Vienna 1995, Montreal again in 1997, and Beijing 1999, which determined phase out schedules and added new ozone-depleting substances to the original list.

See why it feels like a galaxy far, far away from Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas? All these actions and decisions, which impact homeowners here, originated in Canada, England, Denmark, Austria, and China years ago. And now, 28 years later, the end is in sight.

EPA Publishes Final Rule

At the end of last October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a final rule adjusting the allowance system for the consumption and production of HCFCs in 2015-2019 (view Federal Register), which gives everybody a better understanding of what’s coming (or, in the case of R-22, not coming) . . . – Equipment manufacturers: Since 2010, the manufacture of R-22 reliant cooling systems is no longer permitted. They are actively manufacturing new air conditioning systems that use alternative refrigerants. However, they still have loads of air conditioners using R-22 installed worldwide. – Homeowners: Those with air conditioners or heat pumps older than three years old may be impacted, especially when it comes to replacing used or lost refrigerant in older systems. – Contractors, service and repair techs: They must work with homeowners to understand the status of their air conditioners, how the phaseout impacts them, what they may or may not need to do about it, either soon or in the near future.

R-22 and You (EPA)

Unless you’ve needed an air conditioner serviced, repaired, or replaced, you probably have never dealt with R-22 refrigerant, which is commonly used in in residential (bold faced bullets below) and commercial applications like: – window air conditioner units – packaged air conditioners and heat pumps – dehumidifiers – chillers – central air conditioners – retail food refrigeration – air-to-air heat pumps – cold storage warehouses – ground-source heat pumps – industrial process refrigeration – ductless air conditioners – transport refrigeration – chest or upright freezers

Most residential homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas will be concerned with central air conditioners, but if you are uncertain ask the service or repair tech that comes to your home for the spring HVAC checkup how the R-22 reduction impacts your system.

Availability of R-22

The Clean Air Act does not allow any refrigerant to be vented into the atmosphere during installation, service, or retirement of equipment. Therefore, R-22 must be recovered and recycled (for reuse in the same system), reclaimed (reprocessed to the same purity standard as new R-22), or destroyed.

After 2020, the servicing of R-22-based systems will rely solely on recycled or reclaimed refrigerants. It is expected that reclamation and recycling will ensure that existing supplies of R-22 will last longer and be available to service a greater number of systems. – To give you an idea of the reduction: In 2011 there were 100 million pounds of refrigerant developed; in 2012, it was 55 million; in 2013 it dropped to 39 million. These numbers will continue to dwindle until 2020, when the manufacture of R-22 will be completely prohibited. – With the cost of R-22 supplies shrinking fast, the cost to purchase it is rising quickly. Even a seemingly routine tuneup could become expensive if the air conditioner’s refrigerant is undercharged. – By 2015, there will be a 90 percent reduction in the production of R-22.

Servicing existing units

Existing units using R-22 can continue to be serviced with R-22. There is no EPA requirement to change or convert R-22 units for use with a non-ozone-depleting substitute refrigerant. Such changes, called “retrofits,” are allowed if the alternative has been found acceptable for that type of use.

R-407C is allowed for retrofits but R-410A is not allowed in retrofits due to its higher working pressures. In addition, the new substitute refrigerants would not work well without making some changes to system components. As a result, service technicians who repair leaks to the system will most often continue to charge R-22 into the system as part of that repair.

EPA warns homeowners, home improvement contractors and air conditioning technicians of potential safety hazards related to the use of propane or other unapproved refrigerants in home air conditioning systems. Home air conditioning systems are not designed to handle propane or other similar flammable refrigerants. The use of these substances poses a potential fire or explosion hazard for homeowners and service technicians.

Installing new units

The transition away from ozone-depleting R-22 to systems that rely on replacement refrigerants like R-410A has required redesign of heat pump and air conditioning systems.

 

New systems incorporate compressors and other components specifically designed for use with specific replacement refrigerants. For instance, if a new outdoor unit is installed, it is likely that a new indoor unit will also be required. With these significant product and production process changes, testing and training must also change. Consumers should be aware that dealers of systems that use substitute refrigerants should be schooled in installation and service techniques required for use of that substitute refrigerant.

Right Sizing Heating & Air Conditioning | Dallas

Think about this for a moment: More than half of the heating and air conditioning systems installed in the U.S. are the wrong size.

This surprising tidbit not only comes from a bunch of national surveys but from the mighty Department of Energy.

The surveys contends that more than half of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractors do not properly “size” heating and cooling systems, which means homeowners:

  • are paying for over-sized equipment (and associated installation costs) they might not need
  • believe their HVAC is operating efficiently when it’s actually inefficient, costing more to operate and impacting comfort
  • may be experiencing a “clammy” feeling in their homes and/or unseen and unhealthy mold growth
  • may be experiencing uncomfortable and large temperature swings
  • may have equipment that “short cycles” without realizing it
  • may have equipment that requires more-than-usual maintenance and/or service and repair

The surveys do not single out HVAC contractors in any specific state such as Texas or cities such as Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, but the surveys do call attention to an issue homeowners should be aware of, especially when calling a service or repair company to install new heating and cooling equipment.

This post takes a look at “wrong sizing” and what HVAC contractors can do to “right size” heating and cooling systems for the home.

Brief Background

“Wrong-sizing” isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon, but it’s one that shouldn’t be happening as frequently today because of all the technology and knowledge available to prevent it.

HVAC equipment has been under- or over-sized for decades, but contractors and builders were doing the best they could with the technology and knowledge available at the time.

But, over the past 30 years, homes have dramatically increased in size through renovation and large-scale new construction, which can easily be seen in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, and neighboring communities.

In 1975 the average home was 1,645 square feet. Today it’s 2,434 and it’s not uncommon to see homes (sometimes called McMansions) 3,000 to 5,000 square feet. There’s also been a shift from single-story to two-story homes, which necessitates additional equipment to handle the upstairs living area.

The increased square footage and architectural complexity of homes today also makes it more difficult for service, repair, and installation specialists to properly “size” the equipment.

This does not mean HVAC contractors are crooks or incompetent. Not at all. But if you encounter companies that offer to install heating and cooling equipment without performing load calculations, based on current industry standards and practice, then find another service.

“Wrong Sizing”

Here are a few scenarios to understand.

“Nameplate”

This is where a service technician, installation specialist, or salesman reviews the metal tag on existing equipment. The tag lists Btu per hour output, among other things, and that information is used to sell you “one just like it” or, worse, a bigger unit.

This approach doesn’t take into account any improvements made to the home since the HVAC’s original installation or any worsening conditions or mistakes make during the previous install.

You may also hear from contractors this approach works because of their experience upgrading systems over years of operation.

“Square Footage”

Similar to “nameplate,” but in this scenario a service technician, installation specialist, or salesman asks you for the living-space square footage. He bases his recommendation on a typical value like one ton (12,000 Btu/hour) is needed per 500 square feet.

This approach does not take into account the differences in home orientation, design, construction, energy efficiency, or intended use.

“Rule of Thumb”

Similar to “square footage,” “rule of thumb” involves adjusting the square-foot rule so whatever equipment the contractor has in the warehouse becomes the “right size” for your needs. “Rule of thumb” calculations, which are actually illegal, are based on outdated information and performance specs using high, medium, and low guesses. They often translate into a one-size-fits-all solution.

It’s not that HVAC contractors in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas reply on “rule of thumb” calculations, but homeowners should be aware of the practice regardless.

“Right Sizing”

“Right sizing” requires much more information (see below) and is offered by conscientious contractors. It’s particularly important to “right size” in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas because of the brutally hot summers. Insist on “right sizing.”

If “right sizing” is not offered by a contractor, find another one. Or, in some cases, it’s possible, that the company works with gas and electric utility companies in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas (who will do the right-sizing assessment and calculations) or even major HVAC manufacturers in the area. Also check with nearby home improvement centers for recommendations.

Manual J

Manual J, published by the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, is the most common standard used to calculate residential load requirements.

There are so-called user-friendly (that’s debatable) computer software packages available to consumers who want to calculate load requirements themselves, but you’ll still need a good understanding of HVAC terminology and systems and know something about construction and math.

Insist the contractor not only “right size” but use the Manual J specification.

The Process

The service technician or installation specialist (not the salesman, unless he’s a certified tech) will . . .

  • Measure walls, ceilings, floor space, and windows in each room for accurate dimensions and volume. Room by room assessments allow “estimators,” as the service techs and installation specialists are also known, to understand the “air tightness” of the space and to better estimate air flow requirements.
  • Take into account the R-value of the home’s insulation, the solar-heat ratings of windows, and other building materials.
  • Perform blower-door tests, if applicable, for air leakage.
  • Take into account other variables like skylights, fireplaces, ceiling heights, and how many people live in the home, among other things.
  • Review ducts and ductwork (and seal, if needed) and design solutions with distribution in mind.
  • Test for performance, including duct tightness, room-to-room pressure, delivered air flow, and the a/c system charge.

Benefits

“Right-sizing” according to Manual J standards benefits the homeowners in several ways.

  • Peace of Mind. The equipment, including brand, model, and SEER rating (among other features and functions), has been properly sized and may be smaller and less expensive.
  • Efficiency. Right-sized equipment operates more efficiently because it’s been designed specifically for your home’s environment and characteristics, not on “nameplates” and guess-timates, saving on energy costs.
  • Fewer Repairs. Right-sized equipment requires fewer repairs and lasts longer, assuming basic service and maintenance check-ups are made.
  • Healthier Home. By reducing cyclic losses, humidity control is improved and, with proper duct design, you will have a much healthier and comfortable home.

Next Up

Things for Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas homeowners NOT to do when choosing an HVAC contractor to replace old equipment.

HVAC Service & Repair Contractors

Choosing a contractor for residential heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) needs is one of the most important decision a homeowner makes. The service and installation technicians impact the home much more than you think.

In this post we continue the series on HVAC contractors, specifically examining what they do and how they impact your home, not just your pocketbook.

Investment

Installing new HVAC equipment is one of the biggest investments homeowners make. Not as much as buying the home, but more than purchasing a refrigerator or a stove. You can also spend more on renovations, installing a killer media room, or having a pool put in — but those are elective decisions.

More than any other home expense, HVAC impacts your family’s comfort every minute of every day throughout the year and your wallet every month.

Because HVAC equipment is such a costly investment, quality installation is more important than the actual product (but more on this in an upcoming post).

Think about it: When you buy a TV, you may “size it” for viewing in a specific room or add it to an existing entertainment system or home network. When you buy an air conditioner and furnace, these must be properly “sized” for the home. The equipment isn’t plug-n-play, it interacts with the environment — insulation, windows, doors, air leaks. There are heat-loss, load, and payback calculations to be made.

Who does all this?

Meet the Contractor

The HVAC service and repair contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas you choose to do business with will impact your home for years to come.

Why?

The analysis performed by the contractor’s technicians will impact the home (and your budget) beyond the installation date. If his calculations are poor, his recommended equipment will be off, his overall “comfort design” for the home will be inefficient, and you will pay for it in poor system performance or higher monthly energy bills.

This post is not meant to be an exhaustive look at everything HVAC contractors do in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas — services and approach vary according to contractor. But in general, their work falls into three categories:

  • service, repair, maintenance
  • installation of new equipment
  • HVAC advisor (on new equipment, comfort design, and on products like humidifiers, filtration systems, energy technology, and efficiency, to name a few)

A previous post covered how to find contractors. We’ll assume you’ve talked to your neighbors, have done your internet research, and have a three to five companies in mind in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas.

Now what?

Schedule an Assessment

You NEVER want to get an estimate (even a “ballpark” one) by providing details of your home and needs over the phone, but surprisingly it happens. Companies charm homeowners by saying they’ve installed lots of systems in homes just like theirs. Don’t do it.

You can, however, ask questions of the owner, lead salesman, or head service, repair, or installation technician over the phone to get started. You definitely want to follow-up the conversation with an in-home visit to get a better sense of the company people you’ll be dealing with.

Questions can include:

  • How long has the company been in business in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area? Is the company easy to reach by telephone? Does it offer 24 hour emergency service?
  • Can it provide customer references? Call a couple of references: Did the installer finish as planned? Did he leave the space clean after he finished? How did he handle unexpected issues? Were you happy with the work done, the work crew (if there was more than one installer), the company?
  • Are the contractor’s installers NATE certified? NATE is an industry standard for technician excellence. Other certifications include: HVAC Excellence, ACCA (Air Conditioning Contractors of America), ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers), among others.
  • What type of training do the service and repair technicians get? Technology is rapidly changing every industry. Does the company provide continuing education (on energy technology, for example) to its service, repair, and installation technicians? This is important as they can better answer your questions and offer a wide range of solutions.
  • Is the company properly licensed? Just saying so on a website isn’t enough. Ask for proof.
  • Is the company insured? Protect your home from damage that may occur during installation. A recent example: A contractor in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area installed two units outside a home and two furnaces in the attic. Afterward the homeowner noticed water leaking onto the kitchen ceiling and called the contractor, who immediately sent service technicians back to the home to find and fix the problem. The company paid to have the ceiling drywall properly repaired and painted.
  • Does the company follow industry standards like Manual J and Quality Installation?

A thorough in-home assessment should take an hour or two to complete but to a homeowner it seems much quicker when unfamiliar terms are mentioned like SEER, tonnage, insulation ratings, air leaks, filtration, ductworks, heat exchangers, and so on.

We recommend you . . .

Listen Carefully

Listen to the contractor’s representative, who may be a salesman or a salesman accompanied by a service or installation technician. Is he talking rapid-fire unfamiliar HVAC jargon — SEER ratings (12 or 15?), size and capacity (2 tons or 2.5?), and so on? Truly professional contractors care about the home’s environment (they want your repeat business and recommendation) and should ask detailed questions about occupants, activities in the home, lifestyles, heating and cooling goals, existing issues, budget. If not, you probably don’t want to use that company.

Ask Questions

If everything is going too quickly ask questions, slow things down. Ideally, after having done your homework to find a contractor, you have familiarized yourself with air conditioning and heating terms and may even have a list of questions of your own.

Ask. Have a conversation. Let the installer explain (to your satisfaction) what he’s doing and why it’s important. Get to know your home from an energy and performance perspective.

Sizing and Calculations

Because this is the critical component of an in-home inspection and assessment, we’ve made this the next post. Surprisingly, properly “sizing” a home for HVAC equipment isn’t always done well and the homeowners end up paying for it.

Finishing Up: Get Everything In Writing

So you’ve . . .

  • Found three to five HVAC contractors in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas to interview . . . and called each one to learn the basics about their companies.
  • Held at least two or three in-home inspections and assessments and have a general idea which direction you may go.

Now get EVERYTHING in writing.

Reports

The service technician or installation specialist probably will complete “sizing” calculations on site and report his findings and recommendations. Insist you not only want the calculations but a report on your home’s HVAC status, which will be helpful when considering future upgrades, repairs, and maintenance. The report may take a day or two to compile.

Options

The contractor should provide good-better-and-best options, or scenarios, based on his calculations and the overall assessment of the home’s energy status and needs. For example, maybe improving the insulation in the attic and “tightening” the home’s “envelope” will allow you to install a smaller system. Or, based on special needs, new equipment is recommended with a filtration system or humidifier. It’s not always this brand or that model that’s most important. And make sure you understand the advantages and disadvantages of each scenario.

Estimates

Options will, of course, include detailed cost estimates for all equipment and scenarios, the installation, supplies, installation labor, and variables. What is the company’s change-order policy in case something unexpected comes up like having to modify ducts? When is the final payment due? (Avoid paying up-front.) Make sure start and end dates for the installation are included and the maximum number of days you are without heating or cooling.

Other Details

Does the contractor provide free follow-up inspections to make sure everything is performing as expected? Does the company provide a year’s-worth of free service for semi-annual check-ups? Do they offer an annual service-contract discount if you purchase everything through them?

Next Up

What do HVAC contractors due to “size” a home? And why is it so critical?

Heating & Air Conditioning Repair Contractors | Dallas

Needing a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) service or repair contractor usually happens . . .

  1. when it’s scorching hot outside, aka the dog days of summer here in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas
  2. when it’s cold outside, like it has been this winter
  3. when you’re under duress, aka when something breaks and needs service or repair, usually immediately
  4. when you’re least prepared, aka you you know you need service, repair, or to buy new equipment but from whom? Which contractor can you trust among the multitude of companies scattered throughout Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas?

So to help you ease into Spring and Summer, we’ve put together a series of posts addressing HVAC contractors, followed by a look at the equipment they could be repairing, retrofitting, or replacing in the coming months.

Finding an HVAC contractor

In most cases homeowners . . .

  • Go back to the contractor they’ve been using, if they have one, and start there. If they do this, they probably already trust the company and its service and repair technicians. Even so, it’s OK to read on.
  • Pull out the Yellow Pages (remember these?) and look under heating, air conditioning, HVAC contractors, but that’s so 1980s.
  • A more modern-day approach is to search the Web for heating, air conditioning, HVAC contractors, service and repair using search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo! or sites like, yes, the YellowPages. More on this in a minute.
  • Call, email, or text neighbors, either individually or in a group; many neighborhoods have formal or loosely-knit homeowner’s associations, which usually have phone or email lists available for members.
  • Go to a home improvement center in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas and talk with an HVAC guy.

Let’s Look at These Options

  • Using Your Existing Contractor. A great place to start but, depending on circumstances and needs, you will probably want a second or even third opinion, especially regarding product replacement, brand, installation, and cost. Having additional quotes and information on hand is critical.
  • The Yellow Pages (aka the Phone Book). Here homeowners look for companies near their homes and are influenced by those who purchase the largest display ad. However, Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas is such a large metropolitan area that contractors and locations blend together. A contract may say it’s local to, say, Grapevine but is actually based in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas. Do you want to deal with contractors nearby? With large or small companies? There are advantages and disadvantages to all the scenarios. Purchasing the largest display ad doesn’t mean it’s the right company for you.
  • Web Searches. Being the age of the Internet, most homeowners will “google” heating, air conditioning, HVAC, service, repair, contractors, or some equivalent, for an area they live in like Grapevine or Arlington, which is nearby. One may be in Plano and get results for Dallas. Or one is in Mansfield and gets companies listed in Fort Worth. The results are overwhelming because the Web reduces distance and everybody is “local.”
  • Web Searches and Noise. When homeowners search the phone book, the only additional commentary is the size of the ad. When searching the Web, so much more information is attached. The company probably has its own website and/or blog. There’s the Yellow Pages for the Web, Yelp “user” reviews, sites that aggregate (collect) local business info, “subject matter” blogs and other Web resources, social media, social networks like Facebook, HVAC professional associations, government sites, better business bureaus and, of course, neighboring service and repair companies that are actually competitors.
  • Web Searches and Online Recommendations. Accompanying all the options above, which isn’t even an exhaustive list, are online recommendations, reviews, comments, complaints, ratings, and social media posts. Some people use real names when writing a review. Other people are anonymous. Who do you trust? Less than ethical service and repair companies may write glowing reviews for themselves or post something snarky about a competitor. Information is probably presented through a blog with a slant to influence visitors. If it looks official, these guys must be good. It’s social and info quicksand.
  • Neighbors and Word of Mouth. One way to deal with noise and the quagmire of online recommendations, reviews, comments, complaints, ratings and all that jazz is to ask trusted neighbors who they use, if the companies have been prompt, easy to deal with, do quality work, are fair, and are trustworthy. This doesn’t always work, but you’d be surprised — it never hurts to ask around. Who knows the locals better: a neighbor or Google? If this is a dead end, you can try an online service like Angie’s list, whose entire business model is helping homeowners — who pay an annual membership fee — find reliable, vetted local services. You can also search the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for companies using city, state, or postal code.
  • Due Diligence. In the end, finding an HVAC service or repair contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas comes down to the individual homeowner and how he or she checks up on any information received, whether it comes from an existing company, a display ad in the phone book, a Web search, an online recommendation, or word of mouth. Chances are, it will be a combination of all these sources.

Next Up

We will examine contractors, what to consider when choosing one, and what they represent.

Air Conditioning Repair vs. Replacement | Dallas

As homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas schedule Spring heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) checkups and even do some of the basic maintenance themselves they may already know — nagging them in the backs of their minds — that it’s time.

Time to replace?

Or time for major repairs?

It’s one of the toughest questions homeowners face. The simple question of “Do I replace or repair?” is fraught with gray-area risk because, ultimately, who wants to plunk down thousands of dollars on an air conditioner and a heater?

Unless the equipment is 20 years old, most homeowners would prefer to repair the AC as long as possible.

But is repairing older equipment a good idea? If so, is there a point of no return, when spending money on repairs would be better spent on a new, more energy efficient system?

This post takes a look at repair vs. replacement and what Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas homeowners should consider for making an enlightened decision. Because each home is different, because of all the mechanical variables, there’s no perfect cutoff to determine repair or replace.

Understanding History

A great place to start wrestling with this question — before you even call to a contractor in Arlington Fort Worth, or Dallas — is to review the equipment’s history.

Ideally, you’ve got this information collected in a file for quick review. Chances are, though, that’s not happening, so collect what you can, including:

  • manufacturer, model number, and serial number
  • date the system was installed, or approximate, if you bought a home with existing HVAC equipment and don’t know the install date
  • manufacturer and contractor warranties, and whether these are still valid or expired
  • additional factory- or contractor-backed service or maintenance agreements, and whether these are still in effect or expired
  • receipts or notes of past service, maintenance, or repairs, if known
  • details about any breakdowns during peak use (if the equipment can’t handle demands of the hottest and coldest times of year, that’s an indicator trouble is brewing)
  • rooms with uneven temperatures (an indicator that something may be amiss)
  • noise (an indicator the system may be overexerting itself to keep up with demand)
  • random shut offs (an indicator there may be a problem)
  • trends in monthly utility bills, particularly if costs keep rising during peak months (something to watch)
  • trends in increased service or repair calls (another indicator equipment may be aging)

Time for Inspection

Put down the paper and go outside or climb into the attic for a visual inspection of the air conditioner and furnace. You can do these:

  • Inspect the air conditioner cabinetry. It should be intact, not damaged, and fastened tightly to minimize leakage into or out of the unit. It should not be clogged with leaves or overgrown with weeds that hamper air flow. If so, clean out the leaves, pull the weeds, and hose the unit down and you may see improved performance.
  • Inspect the furnace. Look for holes and rusting.
  • Inspect the coils of the air conditioner. Look for evidence of dirt, debris, or physical damage. Bent or damaged coils restrict air flow and reduce efficiency, increasing operating costs.

You’ve made basic observational notes. Now it’s time for a professional look-see, so call your Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas contractor. A service or repair tech will perform a detailed inspection of the cooling and heating equipment, air flow, temperature rise and split, among other things. Be present during the inspection and review the findings with the tech.

The 10-year Mark

There’s no set-in-stone mark, but equipment generally shows wear and starts to lose efficiency around the 10-year mark, depending on several variables:

  • the quality of the manufacturer for the chosen system
  • how well the equipment was designed into the home; if it’s too large or too small a system, that may result in a shorter life expectancy
  • how well the equipment has been maintained and serviced.

A low-end model from a lesser-known manufacturer may not last as long as a low- to mid-line unit from a leading company. The low-end model may require earlier repair or even replacement.

Equipment less than 10 years old may also be under warranty, depending on the manufacturer or any extended warranties purchased. If so, this will lessen any expense for the homeowner.

If repairs are needed, parts should be easier to come by for equipment less than 10 years old, making repair a more viable option. Make sure, however, that parts “match” existing equipment (best if they come from the manufacturer), or performance may be impacted.

Something else to consider: If your equipment was manufactured around 2006, when much more stringent efficiency standards came into play (a minimum of 13 SEER is required, up from 10), upgrading from 13 to 14 or 15 SEER may not provide much energy savings, so repair may make more sense.

On the Cusp

This is the gray area: equipment that’s 10 to 12 years old, 12 to 14, makes for a more difficult decision, especially considering the quality of the manufacture and equipment and service and repair history.

If the equipment is at 10 years or just beyond and repair costs are approaching 50 percent of the value of the system, consider upgrading. Keep in mind that efficiency savings range between 20 and 40 percent, depending on the SEER of the new equipment.

Be careful not to continue replacing parts in this on-the-cusp gray area because, added up, you might be spending a fair amount money on repair that could be a significant portion of a new system.

One other thing to be aware of: Once equipment hits the 10-year mark, government incentives and tax breaks may be available for the purchase and installation of more energy efficient systems.

This is where the advice from a trusted, vastly experienced contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas is extremely important.

Equipment Beyond 14 Years

Replacement, rather than repair, seems to be a no-brainer here, but it’s not. If the equipment is from a leading manufacturer and well maintained into years 15 or 16, repair may be a better option, depending on need. Otherwise, replacement is probably in order.

  • If the equipment was manufactured before 1993, furnace efficiency was around 65 percent and air conditioner efficiency was 8 or 10 SEER. Replace. The energy efficiency savings will be enormous.
  • If the equipment was manufactured from the early 1990s to 2005, chances are it’s still 10 SEER. You probably should replace anything made in the 1990s to early 2000s. Again, the energy efficiency savings should be significant.
  • If you have an out-of-warranty compressor that has failed or a cracked heat exchanger, replace. You shouldn’t spend thousands of dollars repairing the core of an older system that includes lots of aging components that are likely to fail. Repairing is not a good investment.
  • If the equipment is beyond the three-quarters of life expectancy mark and repairs will cost more than a third of the replacement, you’ll most likely replace the system.

If you are considering repair to an older system, keep in mind:

  • It’s important to remember that the air conditioning and heating systems share some equipment and perform better when they are properly “matched.”
  • On site, or field, matching of new and old components can be done but has risks.
  • Refrigerant types have changed. As of Jan. 1, 2010, R-22 (better known as Freon) is no longer used in the manufacture of air conditioners and will be phased out by 2020 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in an effort to protect the ozone. Newer equipment utilizes R-410A refrigerant. R-22 supplies are being reduced each year and is more expensive to add to older equipment.

You may also consider repair if:

  • the home is near the end of its structural or economic life
  • the home “envelope” is poor and requires repair before you can justify installing higher efficiency equipment
  • cash or reasonable affordable financing is not available
  • you are planning to move in relatively near future
  • your contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas has vast experience repairing — not just installing — HVAC components; these mechanical wizards love repairing 20-year-old-and-above components.

Coming Up

We will be taking an extensive look at contractors — how to find them, what can they do for you, and what makes a good contractor — as well as the equipment — how do air conditioners work, what are your equipment options, and how to purchase.

Outdoor Air Conditioning Unit Maintenance| Arlington, TX

So far in our pre-Spring look at heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) for Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas homeowners we’ve looked at:

  • why you should schedule a Spring service checkup with a local contractor;
  • and what is done during a Spring service checkup.

In this post we’ll dig a little deeper into you doing the basic maintenance on the home’s air conditioner. This does not mean you shouldn’t schedule a checkup — that’s one of the best things you can do to extend the life of your equipment and give you peace of mind.

But life is what it is: You don’t get around to calling that contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, or you just plain forgot. It’s easy to do.

At least now you’ll know how to do basic air conditioner cleaning. It pays off with summertime comfort and lower cooling bills, which can get substantial in the Texas heat.

Project Basics

Time required: This project can be completed in an afternoon

Difficulty: Easy.

Cost: your time is all.

Savings: $100 to $250, est.

Cleaning the Outdoor Unit

Step 1: Shut off the 240-volt power.

The appliance shutoff box is usually mounted on the wall near the air conditioning unit. Some shutoffs simply pull out, others have a handle to pull down or fuse to remove. You can also turn the power off at the home’s main circuit breaker, often located in a garage or utility room in the home.

You will want to clean the outdoor unit when the temperature is 60 degrees or more. Compressors don’t work properly when the temperature is below 60.

Step 2: Clean the fins

The fan inside the condenser coil sucks air through the fins and as a result pulls dirt and debris with it. Dust, leaves, and dead grass collects on the fins and blocks airflow, reducing efficiency. Grass clippings thrown by the lawn mower and “cotton” from cottonwood trees and dandelions are bad offenders.

If the fins are caked with dirt and debris, one option is to vacuum the fins with a soft-bristle brush attachment and a shop vac. The fins are delicate and bend easily. Be careful.

Clear away grass clippings, weeds, and over growth that block airflow through the coil. Ideally, you want a two-foot clearance around the air conditioner.

Step 2 (Alternate): Remove the grille and use the hose

Another, sometimes quicker option, is to simply “hose down” the unit, assuming there is a water spigot and hose nearby. Most service techs spray the hose from the inside out. Again, be careful not to use a force that bends the metal fins.

If you need to remove the top grille, unscrew it but be careful: The fan usually comes with it. Don’t stretch the electrical wires and stress the connections. If the fan does not lift out, avoid spraying it with water when you clean the fins.

If the fan motor has lubrication ports, apply five drops of a special oil for electric motors, available at most home improvement centers or hardware stores in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area. Don’t use penetrating or all-purpose oil.

Step 3: Look over the compressor and motor

The compressor and motor sit inside the coil. They are usually sealed and don’t require maintenance. During an annual spring or fall checkup, a service or repair tech will look these over in more detail so you won’t have to worry about them.

If you have an older compressor, it may be belt-driven by a separate motor. Lubricate the motor through its oil ports.

Always keep an eye out for dark drop marks on the bottom of the compressor case or the concrete pad. This indicates an oil leak, the compressor or tubes might be leaking coolant (refrigerant) as well. If you see a leak, call an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas contractor and schedule a service call.

Do not tighten the joints to stop the leaks yourself. Over-tightening usually makes the problem worse. And a service or repair tech with the right equipment are the only ones who can recharge a system with coolant or “freon.”

Outside Startup Guidelines

Something to be aware of: Compressors are surprisingly fragile and you want to take precautions when restoring power.

  • If the 240-volt switch has been turned off for more than four hours, don’t start the outdoor unit immediately after cleaning.
  • Move the switch from Cool to Off at the thermostat inside the home.
  • Switch the power back on and let the outdoor unit sit for 24 hours, which allows a warming element to heat the compressor’s internal lubricant.
  • Switch the thermostat to cooling and set the temperature so the outdoor unit turns on. Check the unit.

A reminder: If you switch off an older air conditioner at the thermostat at any time, wait at least five minutes to turn it back on. Once off the compressor need time to “decompress.” If you restart it too soon you’ll stress the motor.

Many newer thermostats have auto time delays built into the circuitry to protect the compressor from this problem. If you have an older thermostat, consider upgrading.

Once the unit is on, listen for any odd noises that might indicate damage or excessive wear.

After 10 minutes, pull back the insulation on the pipe (or pipes if you use a heat pump). It should feel cool, about 60 degrees. The other pipe should feel warm, about skin temperature. If they do not feel right call a service or repair tech to check the refrigerant level.

Looking over the indoor unit

Homeowners usually don’t have easy access to the evaporator coil that’s inside the plenum or main duct near the furnace. If you can get to it vacuum the bottom side of its fins with a shop vac and soft brush attachment.

Otherwise, have the service or repair tech clean it once every few years. You want to keep the air that flows through it clean.

Blower compartments of newer furnaces are super tight so you don’t need to lubricate the blower. A service or repair tech can do it during a semi-annual checkup.

The evaporator coil in the plenum dehumidifies indoor air as it cools in the summer. The water that condenses on the coil flows out through a condensation pipe or tube. Check to make sure it isn’t clogged with sludge or algae at the drain port.

Upcoming

In future posts this Spring and Summer, we’ll examine how air conditioners work, what types of AC units are available, the age old question of repair vs. replacement, purchasing new equipment, finding the right contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, warranties, and other topics of interest as the temperature rises.

Air Conditioning Maintenance | Fort Worth

Think of your home’s air conditioner as your car. Both are vitally important. One you take in for regular maintenance, the other you most likely ignore. Which is which?

Chances are you get that car in for an oil change every 3,000 to 7,000 miles, depending on the product you use. Chances are you think about the air conditioner only when it’s not cooling properly.

In this post we look at air conditioning maintenance for the Spring and early Summer for Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area homeowners.

Quick Fact

Studies by government agencies and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) professionals have found that every year of an air conditioner’s usage it loses 5 percent of its efficiency. That means even a five-year-old AC unit could be down 25 percent efficiency-wise, costing you money.

Studies have also shown that with regular maintenance AC units will continue to work the way they should be, maintaining as much as 95 percent efficiency over its lifetime.

“Setting the Table”

Most central air conditioners have two basic parts:

  • an outdoor unit — the compressor and condenser — that sits on the side of or in back of the home.
  • an indoor unit — the evaporator — that’s located in a central duct near the furnace. (If you have a heat pump instead of a furnace, the indoor unit will be in the air handler.)

Basic Maintenance

Change the Air Filter

We’re a broken record about this: change the air filter, change the air filter, change the air filter. It’s one of the least expensive and most overlooked or forgotten maintenance items. A fresh air filter traps contaminants such as dander and pet hair and helps the system run more efficiently, prolonging its life.

Some air conditioner manufacturers recommend changing the filter monthly, others suggest every three months, some every six months, and others annually. If you don’t know much about your home’s air conditioner, ask the service or repair tech from an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas HVAC contractor to review with you the system during a service checkup.

Now do this. Take a Sharpie and write the installation date of the filter on the filter itself or keep a notebook next to the air handler or furnace to log events and take notes. If you have a camera on your phone, take a picture of the filter and its dimensions so you have it handy when you’re at an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas area home improvement center or hardware store.

Here’s another hint. Buy two filters (or four if you have a two-filter system). Use one (or two) now. Set the other(s) aside for future use. It’s always a good idea to have an extra filter on hand when you have forgotten to make the change after six months.

To finish up, the manufacturer’s recommendations for changing air filters are just that: recommendations. So much depends on your home’s environment: How big is it? How many people live inside? Are there dogs and cats? Does anybody smoke? Are there special medical circumstances like allergies?

Now, assume you are changing the air filter. How does it look? Often it’s easy to tell if a filter is clogged just by looking at it. But let’s assume you’ve changed the filter at exactly six months, which is what the manufacturer recommends. Is it super dirty? Can you really tell? Should you change it more frequently?

Set that air filter aside so when a tech from an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas contractor comes to the home for a service checkup you can show him and ask for an assessment. Chances are that filter should be changed sooner.

Enough about air filters.

Check the Thermostat Settings

During a Spring checkup, the service tech should review the thermostat settings to make sure the system is cooling as programmed. If you notice any odd fluctuations or variances during a season, make note of it.

Electrical Review

The service tech will inspect the electrical connections and test the voltage on system components. This is something most do-it-yourselfers don’t want to mess with, unless they’re handy with electrical issues and have the proper equipment.

Broken, loose, or disconnected connections can mean the system is not operating properly, efficiently, or safely, and increases the likelihood of component failure.

Lubricate Moving Parts

Moving parts without the correct amount of lubrication increases friction and decreases the system’s overall efficiency. Without proper lubrication parts wear more quickly.

Depending on the system, this is something DIYers can do — as long as they use the proper lubricant. But why bother? It’s something that service and repair techs from Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas contractors do during seasonal checkups.

Inspect Condensate Drain

If the drain for condensation from the air conditioner, furnace, or heat pump becomes obstructed water damage can occur, there could be high humidity levels inside the home, and there’s always the possibility of mold and bacteria growth occurring.

If air conditioning and heating equipment are located in an attic, be particularly on the look out for signs of a clogged drain — a water spot may appear on a first floor ceiling. If left unattended — as happened recently in an Arlington-area home — the ceiling can come crashing down from water that leaked from the condensate drain. A costly and messy repair ensued.

Check System Startup and Shutdown Controls

Service techs will check the startup and shutdown cycles, which are based on thermostat settings, to make sure the system is operating properly and not short-cycling. They will also check all operating pressures.

Clean Outside AC Unit

Clear any growth within two feet of the AC unit. Remove debris — grass, weeds, leaves. If there is a hose nearby, some techs will even “wash down” the coils for you.

If possible, shade the outdoor unit. Air in shaded space is typically five to six degrees cooler than surrounding air, which can be a big deal in an Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas summer. Proper shading can be up to 10 percent more efficient over a cooling season.

Cleaning Fan Blades

If needed, either you or the service tech should clean the fan blades and coils before the cooling season begins in earnest.

Always turn off the power before attempting anything other than superficial cleaning. This can be done at the breaker by the AC unit.

Remove the fan grill and fan blades. Gently brush off debris. Uncover the condenser coils and gently brush the dirt aside. Hose water from inside the unit, using plastic bags to protect the motor and other components. Check the base pan under the unit and remove any debris that has accumulated there as well.

If the condenser fan makes clicking or grating noises the blades may be striking an obstruction. If the blade is bent, do not straighten. Replace it. Otherwise, the blade may be unbalanced and could cause further damage.

Other Adjustments

  • The service tech will check and refill the refrigerant charge, if necessary. Not having the right amount of cooling refrigerant can lead to a damaged air compressor, which is a costly repair or replacement.
  • Clean and calibrate the blower system components for optimal airflow.
  • Adjust belts, if applicable.
  • If the unit outside needs lubrication, look for oil ports. These are usually plugged with rubber or metal caps. Use non-detergent lightweight SAE-20 oil and add no more than 10 drops per port.

Finding the Right HVAC Contractor

There are plenty of media outlets telling people What Not to Do. What Not to Wear on TV. The Eat This, Not That! series of books. And now, for homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, we have What To Do when it comes to hiring a contractor to do their air conditioning and heating service, repair, and installation.

This post offers a slightly different perspective (loosely based on research at the Comfort Institute). This is in no way an indictment against any company or service and repair techs in Arlington, Fort Worth or Dallas. It, hopefully, illustrates what makes a good contractor.

Not All Contractors are the Same

In 20+ years of working in home comfort and closely with contractors, the researchers at the Comfort Institute (CI) have “witnessed an enormous variation in heating and air contractor competence and ethics.” They contend a small minority are “downright dishonest.”

A few years ago, TV investigative news magazines Dateline (NBC) and 48 Hours (CBS, YouTube clip) aired hidden-camera reports that exposed fraudulent HVAC contractors, who bent the facts (watch out for this one) or committed outright fraud.

In most cases, homeowners did not accompany the technicians outside during the equipment examination. If they did, the homeowners didn’t pay close enough attention.

We always recommend homeowners accompany technicians during inspection of any equipment and to ask questions, not in an annoying I-don’t-trust-you manner but in an I’m-interested-to-learn way.

The Better Business Bureau also ranks HVAC as one of the highest-complaint industries.

The Comfort Institute insists “the great majority of contractors are honest. They work hard and mean well.” However, CI notes that most contractors “simply don’t have the business systems in place to properly serve the consumer.

This includes:

  • Staff Training. Most companies don’t invest enough in initial or ongoing staff training. When considering a contractor, ask about training for service, repair, and installation technicians and, if in doubt, request proof. This is surprisingly important because diagnosing problems, properly “sizing” homes, and designing cost-effective, energy-saving systems is getting more complicated as technology continues to improve. Do the techs have the updated technical know-how?
  • Staff Support. In addition to training, most residential companies don’t pay high enough wages to attract the best service and repair technicians and don’t supply them with state-of-the-art tools and diagnostic equipment. Look for the companies that treat their employees well and support them with the needed tools and equipment to do the job right.

Don’t Choose “Fly-by-Night” Contractors

We’ve covered this in the past but it’s worth repeating:

  • How many years has the company been in business in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas or surrounding cities?
  • Is it properly licensed, registered? Does it carry general liability or workman’s compensation (not required in some states)? Is the company a member of a national trade association? The service and repair techs? Can it provide names and numbers of customers? And so on.

“Name Brand” Dealers are not an Automatic Choice

We’ve not discussed the relationship between brands, manufacturers and contractors — yet. Just because a contractor may “rep” a name brand that doesn’t automatically mean he is up to speed with the latest and greatest. Does the company send its service and repair techs to ongoing training provided by the manufacturers?

Don’t Ask if the Contractor Performs Diagnostics

At least not immediately. Comfort Institute says wait to see if the contractors you are considering bring up the importance of diagnostic testing for “right sizing” a home, infiltration (blower door test), or duct system air flow and leakage.

This approach allows a homeowner to see if the service, repair, or installation technician has been “trained about the problems that are likely lurking in your home and duct system and the importance of fixing them, or he doesn’t care.” Be wary of salesmen selling you a metal box and not truly solving heating, cooling, and home comfort issues.

Don’t Be Misled by Contractors Who Only Offer to Replace Equipment

Comfort Institute says “most contractors will only offer to replace your old equipment with the same size (or a bigger one), without performing any measurements, inspections or diagnostic tests” and insist that, while advanced industry training is now available, “relatively few contractors take advantage of it.”

We’ve discussed “wrong sizing” and the importance of “right sizing” at length, but CI’s belief that few contractors are taking advantage of advanced training is alarming. Comfort Institute thinks homeowners may interview 10 to even 20 companies before finding the right match. That’s not a difficult with the number of companies in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, and surrounding cities, but it can be time consuming and confusing. It’s worth the effort — now that you know what’s going on.

Be Wary of Online Search Services

In your search for the right contractor, there are lots of online search services that claim to put homeowners in touch with licensed HVAC contractors. Plug in your zip code and — presto! — here are 30 companies in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas that match your needs.

Most of these online services make money by charging contractors for “leads” generated by your clicks on their links and filling out a form. At best these search services give you additional names to research. The best contractors, CI says, don’t need these services.

Don’t Choose a Contractor Who Doesn’t Ask Lots of Questions

We’ve discussed the importance of homeowners asking questions and have touched on the service and repair technicians and salesmen asking questions, but Comfort Institute offers this perspective as a reminder.

“A good contractor is committed to 100 percent customer satisfaction. But to achieve this, he needs information. He knows that you and your family are the best source of information about these problems.” The company rep should start meetings by asking questions about “areas that have been hard to heat or cool, air that is either too dry or too humid, about how the old system worked (or didn’t work), and about what you are looking for in a new system.”

They interview you as much as you interview them.

“The typical contractor is only interested in swapping the metal boxes, and won’t try to help you take full advantage of this unique opportunity,” the CI says.

A Few More Pieces of Advice

  • Don’t put the burden of a new system on one spouse’s shoulder. Everyone in the home should participate in determining heating and cooling needs and goals.
  • Don’t make a rushed decision, which may be difficult when your air conditioner dies in the middle of a hot Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas summer. Good contractors will work with you (some have even been known to install temporary units).
  • Don’t focus on initial costs. It’s tempting to spend as little as possible, but try to fully understand what your opportunities are for whole house comfort, energy conservation, and utility savings.
  • Don’t assume the lowest-priced company is the one you should hire. Price matters, but CI’s experience notes that the “low priced contractor is rarely the best value. It usually ends up costing more in terms of unreliable operation, an uncomfortable home, repeated (service) visits to get problems resolved, higher utility bills, and even unsafe operation.”
  • Don’t put up with high pressure salespeople. Nobody likes them anyway.
  • Don’t choose a contractor who wants you to pay cash.

In the end, the Comfort Institute reminds homeowners that hiring the right contractor to put in the appropriate HVAC system to meet the home’s heating and cooling, energy conservation, and energy savings goals is a unique opportunity.

“Don’t waste it.”