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HVAC System for the Next Freeze in Houston

22 Dec 2021

Author: Jeff O'Hara

The deep freeze of Texas back in February of 2021 took every one of us by surprise. No one could have possibly foreseen the number of homes that would lose power, natural gas, and in some places, and even water during the storm. It would be days before those services could be fully restored, but what has lasted longer is the damage to our confidence in the systems that deliver these services to our homes.

As proof of this lack of confidence, sales saw a tremendous spike for items that can make a home “self-reliant,” like residential solar panels, generators, water purifiers, and space heaters. The idea of being able to maintain all the comforts of home while remaining “off the grid” became more important to many homeowners. 

Most of what occurred during the big chill in February came down to a lack of planning and a lack of maintenance. The largest electric and gas companies hadn’t prepared enough of their substations for harsh winter conditions, and the unprecedented demand for power exceeded their limited capacity. Homeowners that failed to heed warnings to get their homes ready for the freeze found themselves with burst water pipes, flooded homes, and expensive repair bills.  

It doesn’t take much to get your home’s HVAC system ready for the assault of another brutal winter season. Taking a few steps today could potentially save your family thousands of dollars in repair bills and days of chilly discomfort. Even though the “experts” suggest that it’s improbable we’ll live to see another freeze as we had in February 2021, making sure your home is ready will give you some peace of mind…just in case the experts are wrong. 

Tips for Preparing Your HVAC System for the Next Freeze.

Change Your AC Filters.

If there were a single, most important step a homeowner could take toward extending the life of their HVAC system, it would be changing the system’s filter(s). Most modern HVAC setups utilize a single, large air filter that is installed just before the main blower fan. Measuring in at a hefty 20″ X 25″, with a 4″ or 5″ thickness, there’s a lot of surface area available to capture all kinds of airborne debris. Dust, pet dander, pollen, lint, dirt, mildew, cooking smoke, and hundreds of other assorted nastiness would be floating freely in your home if not for the work of the air filter. 

As air filters age, they collect all the contaminants above within their fiberglass and paper sheeting layers. Any filter that looks discolored or has visible dust and debris in the sheeting requires your HVAC system to work twice as hard to pull air through it. Dirty air filters can be responsible for low airflow situations at your HVAC vents and cause fan motors and other components to fail prematurely.

The dustier the home, the more often you’re going to want to change your air filters. Instead of waiting a whole year to change out air filters, start swapping them after six months and see if the dust situation improves. Your sinuses will be grateful! 

Clean the Heat Exchanger

As part of a regular HVAC maintenance schedule, you should have your heat exchanger cleaned and serviced annually. The heat exchanger is physically part of the furnace assembly but is used during both heating and air conditioning operations. So, unlike the furnace or the outdoor AC equipment that catches a break with the change of seasons, the heat exchanger sees use year-round. 

The heat exchanger draws heat from inside the home during the hotter summer months as the HVAC system circulates air. As air flows around the heat exchanger, liquid refrigerant absorbs the heat and changes from liquid to gaseous. This gas is then directed toward the outdoor AC unit, where the now frigid gas is used to cool the recirculated indoor air

The heat exchanger is in use year-round, and as it’s subjected to all forms of contaminants, irritants, and varying temperatures and humidity levels, a whole lot of crud sticks to your heat exchanger. When it’s sweltering and humid outside or chilly enough inside to fog your windows, the added moisture in the air creates condensation on the heat exchanger’s surface. The damp surface attracts dust and dirt particles that get wet and turn to mud, often followed by mildew growth and the forming of rust. Once the layer of “yuck” is thick enough, the heat exchanger cannot effectively transfer heat, creating a house that’s sometimes a little too hot, sometimes a little too cold, and constantly way too humid. 

Check Your Insulation!

It’s easy to visually determine if there’s adequate insulation in your attic, especially if the space is unfinished. Sheetrock and other wall materials make it impossible to see how much insulation is installed behind them, so we use different methods. HVAC technicians carry infrared-imaging equipment that can take a peek inside your walls to locate any overly hot or cold spots, find air leaks around vents, and determine if enough insulation is present. 

Since most folks don’t have access to a FLIR thermal imager, you can try performing “touch tests” of the walls. Just feeling around your walls can help you discover potential problem areas that may feel too hot (on a hot day) or too cool (when it’s cold). Walls that feel damp to the touch could signify a lack of insulation, but it could also mean that the insulation is saturated due to a water leak. 

Homes without adequate insulation pose a challenge to our air conditioning units in the summer months. Rooms that stay warmer than others in the home can lack proper insulation of their exterior walls, and drafty areas indicate outside air is leaking into the house, often around windows and doors. 

The most common type of insulation in homes is the fiberglass batt-and-roll variety, made up of soft layers of glass fibers with an adhesive paper backing. The insulation rolls out at the perfect width for installation between standard-spaced studs and roof beams. Batt-and-roll insulation is usually stapled in place before drywall is installed in new homes and renovation projects and is impossible to install post-construction without replacing most of your sheetrock walls. Loose-fill or blown-in insulation is easily installed into existing walls, as it is made of small fiber particles, bits of foam, recycled newspaper, and other light, breathable materials. Currently, most new construction homes have loose-fill insulation in their attics, as it fills in gaps and corners thoroughly and is relatively inexpensive. 

Is the Thermostat Working? 

Waiting until the first frigid winter morning to determine whether your furnace is ready for the winter is a terrible idea. Before the genuinely chilly weather sets in, run a test of your thermostat and furnace by running them through a heating cycle, and allow it to run for at least a half-hour or so. Please don’t assume that it’s ready to wake your furnace up because the thermostat worked all summer for the air conditioning. Additionally, running the thermostat through its pre-winter paces gives the homeowner a chance to check the furnace’s functionality. 

Call Nick’s Today; We’re on the Way! 

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