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Maintaining the AC Condenser Unit: What Homeowners Need to Know

Posted on May 06, 2021

Research shows that globally, households spend up to 42 percent more on utilities when using air conditioning. Regular AC maintenance is necessary to keep this cost as low as possible.

“Exactly what is a condensing unit?” we hear you ask. It’s the part of your air conditioning system that sits outside, containing a compressor, a fan, cooling fins, and coils. It sucks air from the outside, cools it, and pumps it into your home.

Typical condenser unit malfunctions include blocked or deficient airflow, bent fins, fan issues, and leaks. A handy homeowner can fix many (though not all) of these problems quickly and simply.

Read on to learn how to get your air conditioner ready for searing summer temperatures.

Keep the Condenser Clear of Plants and Debris

AC condensers are typically hidden away in inconspicuous locations somewhere along the outside of a house.

If you’re not sure where the unit is in your home, look for the copper tubes that run into it. One is usually naked copper, and the other should be covered with a foam sleeve–unless you have a heat pump where both tubes are enclosed.

Because they’re outside, sometimes even actually in a garden, they can quickly get crowded out by vines, grass, and weeds. These organic materials can limit the amount of air that flows into the machine. Leaves and ice damage may also have accumulated around or even inside the condenser over the fall and winter months.

The experts agree that an easy and first-step condensing unit maintenance task is to clear away debris and plants. Use gloved hands and a vacuum cleaner to clear a two-foot space.

Don’t Hose the Condenser Unit Fins

One of the critical elements in an AC condenser unit is the fins. These delicate metallic blades help heat from the air conditioner disperse faster. As air moves through the machine, it sucks dust, dirt, and organic material like leaves, grass, or seeds into the blades.

This debris blocks the airflow, leading to an AC unit that works inefficiently.

The fins are made of thin aluminum, so they need to be cleaned carefully. One of the best ways to get them looking brand new again is to use your trusty vacuum cleaner. Unscrew and lift off the protective box to access the fins more easily.

If the fins are bent or crushed, buy a set of fin combs from your local hardware stores. These both clean and straighten the fins. It’s best not to hose out the fins as the pressure from the jet of water can push dirt further inside.

And don’t forget about the coils, too. Clean these essential coolers with a commercial coil cleaner and let them dry.

Carefully Check and Clean the Fan

The fan is what pulls air into your HVAC condenser unit. To access it, you need to unscrew and lift off the grill on the side of your machine. Remove leaves or other debris caught around the parts and wipe the entire fan down with a damp cloth.

Once that’s done, unscrew the fan itself and lift it out. This might be a two-person job since the fan is connected to the unit by electrical wires. Ask someone to hold the fan while you vacuum out the inside of the condenser.

Don’t use any water during this step in case you damage the motor or electrical systems. Occasionally, rodents or other pests overwinter in the machinery, so keep this in mind as you’re opening everything up to avoid a nasty surprise.

Give the Motor a Once-Over

The fins are straight. The fan is squeaky clean. Next, it’s time to check if your fan motor needs to be lubricated.

If you have a newer AC system, the motor probably has sealed bearings, which are already lubricated. (If you’re not sure, always refer to your owner’s manual.) However, some machines have ports or even a belt-driven compressor.

In this case, lubricate the bearings with a few drops (about five) of electric motor oil. Avoid an all-purpose or penetrating oil because it may harm the bearings.

If you’re unfamiliar with electric motors, this is one step that could challenge a DIY-ing homeowner. If you don’t know which motor your AC unit contains or are unsure which oil to use, it’s best to contact your local AC repair specialist for advice.

Unintended motor mishaps are a cost you don’t want to shell out for!

Has the Concrete Pad Settled?

An air conditioner condenser unit is usually installed on a small concrete pad. This pad protects the unit from water damage and keeps it level. However, these pads tend to sink into the ground as the years go by.

It’s essential to check the pad’s state every year to avoid ruining sensitive parts like the electrical lines or copper coolant tubes. Use a carpenter’s level to see if the pad is straight. If it’s started to shift, lift it with a pry bar and pack sand or gravel underneath it.

In most cases, you won’t even need to move or unhook the AC unit, though watch for the pad cracking as you lift it. If you can’t get it level or the platform breaks, it may be worth replacing the concrete with a durable, inexpensive plastic pad.

Know When to Call in the Experts

The AC condenser unit is part of a crucial yet complex mechanical system that cools (and sometimes also heats) your home. If you get a problem with just one piece, the entire system is compromised. Regular cleaning and inspection can help you ensure you get the most extended life out of this substantial investment.

In some cases, the homeowner can do their AC repair and maintenance, but more complicated problems require professional help. If you’re a Gaston and Mecklenburg counties homeowner struggling with a faulty air conditioner or HVAC system, get in touch with Unique Air Heating & Cooling today.