It’s summertime in Houston, so the list of survival essentials looks something like this: 1.) water, 2.) food, 3.) air conditioning … and after that, not much else matters. So, how do you keep your AC running efficiently and minimize the chance that it breaks during the hottest day of the year?
Starting outside with the AC condenser
There are several things homeowners can do to maintain their central ac system, but one of the easiest is to start outside. The condenser unit is the big box (some are round) outside that is loud and can be obtrusive, so a lot of people like to landscape around it to hide it from view and cut down on the noise it produces.
The condenser’’s job is to cool down the refrigerant in the system and turn it from a hot vapor back into a cool liquid. The more quickly and completely your condenser can perform this task, the lower your energy bills and the less likely your system is to break down.
How to landscape for peak AC system efficiency
There is a long-held belief that by installing shade plants around your condenser it can work more efficiently. The basic theory is that if the air around the unit is cooler, then it won’t have to work as hard cooling the external air it uses to cool down the hot vapor.
However, a study performed by the Florida Solar Energy Center a while back showed that while there is a chance of shade plants improving efficiency by around 1%, there is a risk of actually decreasing your system’s efficiency by planting foliage that restricts air flow around the condenser.
It turns out that the three biggest outdoor threats to a smooth running system are: 1.) restricted air flow, 2.) dirt (and debris), and 3.) damage to the condenser system.
Let Your Condenser Breathe
Most of the time, people landscape around their AC condenser for one primary reason — to hide it from view. This usually means constructing fences or planting dense shrubs close to the unit. Unfortunately, both of these solutions can restrict the amount of air flowing across the condensing coil. If less air flows over the coil, less heat is removed and your AC works harder to keep your home cool.
On the flip side, a fence or shrub border can decrease the amount of leaves and debris that can make it’s way into the condenser to clog up the coil and fins that actually do the cooling. As long as the shrubs don’t lose their leaves and get caught up in the air intake pattern.
So, if you decide to build a fence or place shrubs around the unit, make sure there is a good amount of space between the closest branches or fence — at least three feet or more. Make sure that your shrubs are evergreen and that any trimming occurs when the condenser is not running and that you clean up all clippings.
Let’s Keep It Clean
The U.S. Dept. of Energy says that “a dirty condenser coil can increase compressor energy consumption by 30%.” And, dirt and debris in the AC system is one of the most common causes of AC problems.
Basically, if your condenser is working much harder than it needs to be, every minute that it’s running, not only are you losing money, but increasing the likelihood that your system will break down during the hot summer months.
Try installing a border (stone, metal, etc.) around the base of your condenser pad and filling it with crushed rock or pea gravel, you can help keep you condenser clean and running optimally. Rain or water runoff from the roof can cause dirt to splash up and foul the fins and coil. Additionally, grass can be kicked up by your trimmer or lawn mower and get sucked into the condenser.
By clearing the immediate area of all grass and weeds — and installing a border filled with material that eliminates muddy back splash — you can keep your system from getting overly dirty between annual AC service calls.
Reduce the risk of damage
The final way to extend the life of your condenser and keep it operating at peak performance, you need to make sure that the coils and fins don’t get physically damaged. The most common ways your condenser can get damaged is by 1.) coming in contact with a string trimmer; 2.) being physically jarred by a lawn mower; and 3.) rocks or other hard objects being kicked up by a lawnmower.
The above-mentioned fence with wide clearance or heavy border filled with gravel also double as great barriers to physical damage. Both of these solutions can keep your lawn tools from coming close enough to your condenser to do any physical damage.
It’s not too hot (yet), so now is a good time to get the area around your AC condenser in order with a simple landscaping project. One weekend now, could save you a lot of money and headaches during the dog days of Summer.