HVAC/R – Getting a start on air conditioning season

HVAC/R – We as an industry tend to think of air conditioning in terms of refrigerant and charge, but there’s a whole host of things that can keep a system from performing in top form, and a pre-season service call can help identify and fix them before the heat of the summer hits.

It is often assumed that air flow is just fine, that ductwork, grilles and registers need no attention because they have been functioning since original installation, and that nothing has changed. But there may be significant problems.

Ductwork may have collapsed, or come apart. Or it may have been originally installed with lots of leaks. These leaks can be especially problematic when you are trying to push air conditioning to upper floors. That’s because cold air is heavy and wants to stay as low as possible. If it can leak rather than go up, that is its preference.

Cleaning is another important aspect of A/C start-up. No one likes to clean, but every system needs it, every season. Dirty filters mean air flow blockages. Dirty coils cannot exchange heat effectively. Of all the many things to do for a start-up, cleaning is probably the most important.

Whether it is for a system startup or troubleshooting a system that is up and running, an air conditioning checklist is an invaluable tool. It doesn’t matter whether the system is commercial or residential, the risk of working without a checklist is the same — some things could easily be overlooked or forgotten.

Think of it as a cheat sheet if you like, but it’s going to save you time, money and frustration. The reality is it’s a tool for avoiding possible callbacks. The checklist can also be a pre-job reminder of parts and supplies that are likely to be needed for the start-up.

Wondering what to include in the startup checklist? Here’s the one that I use. It might be a good thing to develop one for your own company, or feel free to clip this one and put it on a bulletin board at the shop where technicians can see it.

■ Replace or clean air filters.
■ Check indoor and outdoor coils
and clean if necessary.
■ Clean and check condensate pan
lines and/or pump, including
check valve.
■ Check condensate pump and/or
pan secondary safety switches.
■ Replace belt if needed.
■ Clean blower wheel if necessary.
■ Lubricate motors if applicable.
■ Amp out motors and
■ Check motor and blower
■ Check integrity of cabinets and
■ Paint accumulator and rusted
■ Be sure all dampers, registers and
returns are open.
■ Check relays and contactors.
■ Check electric supply and draw.
■ Check electrical wiring for cracks
or chafing.
■ Check electrical connections for
■ Check pressure switches.
■ Check temperature switches.
■ Check all safeties.
■ Check reversing valve if
■ Check refrigerant level (pressures
and temperatures).
■ Check pressure drop across driers
if applicable.
■ Check temperature splits.
■ Clean debris from outdoor unit
and advise customer if shrubs are
overgrown around unit.
■ Ensure that all panels, grilles and
guards are attached.
■ Ensure that all disconnects and
switches are on.
■ Make sure that thermostat is set
for cooling, and for desired
■ Make sure there are no leaks.
■ Get service ticket signed, collect
for any charges, advise customer
of any problems, and answer any
customer questions.

Whether it’s summer or winter, suggestions of ways your customers can improve their energy consumption are always a good idea. If you’re not in the business of doing a complete energy audit, you can at least point out the obvious — missing insulation, lack of weather stripping or cracked windows. These things are usually thought of for winter, but whenever there is a temperature difference between inside and out, leakage costs money – plus, some of these projects are easier to tackle when the weather is a bit less wild.

While you are on site to prep the air conditioner for the coming season, take a quick look at accessories such as humidifiers, air cleaners, heat recovery ventilators, or energy recovery ventilators. 

Offer to “summer-ize” them. It’s quick and easy to close off a humidifier’s “summer switch” so that air conditioning doesn’t flow through it. Check the pads and filters for all the other accessories and if they need replacement it should equate to an additional sale for you — even if the humidifier pad won’t be needed until autumn. 

Air cleaners, of course, are used year round. Changing dirty air cleaner media filters can keep the air conditioning from going off on high limit. If there’s an electronic air cleaner, see if it’s functioning. If it snaps, that’s a sure sign that it needs to be cleaned. A residential unit can usually be washed in a dishwasher. Or, for a fee that makes it worth your time, you could take it to a car wash. If the air cleaner simply isn’t working, offer to repair it. An air cleaner can make all the difference in removing summer allergens.

So you’ve dropped in on your customer, run through your checklist while working on the equipment and the system is left to perform its job as the warm weather approaches. That’s great in theory, but a little farther into the air conditioning season you could find yourself back on a jobsite where the equipment was started up just a month or two earlier.

So while the owner is busy saying the system has developed a new problem, or perhaps claiming that it never worked right, the start-up checklist can help to prove what was checked, and can be useful for troubleshooting. Even a seasoned technician can forget steps. And especially as the temperatures get hotter, it gets harder to remember what you have done. The checklist is a friendly, non-judgmental companion that can say, “Did you remember to check the . . . ?”

A checklist can be used to provide the building owner or homeowner evidence of just how thorough you were. Leave a copy of your checklist with all of the details checked off, and be sure to include a copy in your client’s file, just in case they call back in a few months claiming that the system was not properly checked.

Carol Fey is a technical trainer who has worked as a heating mechanic in Antarctica and has published six books for the HVAC/R industry. She can be reached at [email protected], or visit her website, www.carolfey.com.