Tune-up your air conditioner now to save money, avoid frustration this summer

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by Catherine Holland

Video report by Jill Galus

Posted on April 8, 2014 at 11:07 AM

Updated Tuesday, Apr 8 at 11:20 AM

PHOENIX -- With the temperatures soaring into the 90s this week, chances are many people will be turning on their air conditioners for the first time this year.

Before you flip that switch, however, they are some things you need to do.

First, change your filter. This is the most basic maintenance you can do to keep your air conditioner running smoothly throughout the summer. Depending on what kind of filter you use, plan to change it at least every month. Some filters are designed to last for 90 days. With heavy summer use, however, you probably should change those more often.

The other thing you should do before the heat of the summer really sets in is have a qualified contractor come out and do a tune-up. This is not something you should be doing yourself.

"It's very important because we can catch a lot of the problems before they actually occur in the middle of the summer," Jay Kline of Penguin Air & Home Services explained. "There could be a simple low-on-refrigerant issue that is a simple fix at the very front of the season, but as you get into the season, it could cause more damage to the compressor …. It's very easy to catch at the beginning and could save [you] money down the road."

A proper tune-up should involve at least a check of the refrigerant pressure, tests of the electrical components and cleaning of the coils ensure good air flow. A problem in any one of those areas could mean that your air conditioner is not running as efficiently as it should.

"I really do recommend having a tune-up done by a contractor," Kline said, emphasizing the importance of heading off potential issues to alleviate an inconvenient -- and probably expensive -- breakdown in July or August.

Whatever company you choose, Kline said it's essential that you do your research. He recommends looking at online reviews, as well as checking with the Better Business Bureau and the Arizona Registrar of Contractors.

"You've got to be a little bit careful with the really cheap tune-ups, or free tune-ups even," he said.

Penguin Air & Home Services charges $79 for an air-conditioner tune-up.

Once your air-conditioner is running as it should, Kline suggests you leave it on for the season. Many people think they're saving money by turning off their air conditioners while they're gone during the day. That's not a good strategy.

"If you shut it off when you leave the house, that's actually very inefficient for the system," Kline explained. "The house heats up during the day. It gets pretty hot. Most people come home around 5 or 6 in the afternoon when it's the hottest outside. It's really hot inside. They turn on their air conditioner to bring it down 5, 10 degrees, and it really runs a lot more than it should."

A better solution is to turn your thermostat up couple of degrees during the day and let your system maintain that temperature. This is where a programmable thermostat can be very helpful and even save you money.

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