The Value Of Proper Maintenance

Five reasons your air conditioner won't work when you need it
Consumer Reports - Apr 11, 2013 2:00 PM

This month while some regions of the country are flirting with temperatures in the eighties others are still digging out from snow. But summer will be here all too soon so it's a good time to make sure your air conditioner is in working order before a real heat wave hits. Air conditioners fail because they're installed wrong, serviced poorly, or not maintained properly. Some problems you can fix yourself but others may take a call to a professional. Here are the five most common problems with air conditioners and how to troubleshoot them, according to the federal Department of Energy.

Refrigerant leaks. Air conditioners work most effectively and efficiently when the refrigerant charge exactly matches the manufacturer's specifications, and is neither undercharged or overcharged, according to the DOE. Leaks are another matter and in addition to making your system struggle, can be harmful to the environment. If your air conditioner leaks, adding more refrigerant won't fix it. You'll need a trained technician to fix the leak, test the repair and then charge the system with the correct amount of refrigerant.

Inadequate maintenance. Dirty filters and air conditioning coils can cause the machine to under perform. And overtaxing the unit can cause the compressor or fans to fail prematurely.

Electric control failure. The compressor and fan controls can wear out, especially when the air conditioner cycles on and off frequently, as is common when a system is oversized. Corroded wires and terminals can also be a problem in many systems, so have a professional check the electrical connections and contacts during a service call.

Sensor problems. To keep a room comfortable, window air conditioners have a thermostat sensor behind the control panel, which measures the temperature of air coming into the evaporative coil. If the sensor is knocked out of position, the air conditioner can cycle on and off too often or otherwise behave erratically. The sensor should be near the coil but not touching it. To adjust the position carefully bend the wire that holds it in place.

Drainage problems. When it's humid outside, check the condensate drain to make sure it is draining properly and isn't clogged. Window air conditioners may not drain properly if they aren't level.

In Consumer Reports latest reliability survey of more than 40,000 readers who bought a central-air-conditioning system, the three brands that logged the most repairs were Amana, Goodman and York. Choosing one of the more reliable brands in our survey can boost the odds that you'll be comfortable. Seven other brands were less repair-prone including names you'll recognize.

Our window air conditioner testing is currently under way but many of last year's models are still available in stores. We found 13 units good enough to make our list of top air conditioner picks including the large LG LW1210ER, $320, medium Friedrich Kuhl SS08M10, $800, and the small Friedrich CP06F10, $250. When buying an air conditioner, make sure you size it correctly. A unit that's too small won't do a good job cooling a room. One that's too big cools the area so quickly that it doesn't have time to remove enough moisture, leaving you with a cold, clammy room.
—Mary H.J. Farrell

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