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11 Ways You’re Shortening the Life of Your Air Conditioner

As temperatures rise, you're going to want to read up on these tips to keep your air conditioning cool without blowing a gasket (literally!).

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young man and woman resting on yellow sofa under air conditioner at home
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T.G.F.A.C.: Thank God for air conditioning!

In the dog days of summer, the days are hot, the nights are humid, and the weather can be a little unpredictable to say the least. There’s only one thing that can combat the nasty heat of these dog days, to which we say “T.G.F.A.C.”: Thank God for air conditioning! But be careful, as there are many seemingly harmless actions and oversights that can actually end up shortening the life of your air conditioner. And with the dog-day weather in full swing, a broken and run-down AC is something none of us can afford. After, read up on the 10 air conditioning mistakes you can’t afford to make.

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replacing clean air filter for air conditioner maintenance
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Forgetting to change the filter

Forgetting or neglecting to change the filter in your AC unit was the mistake most quoted by HVAC experts. As Bob Baroca, blogger at homerepairninja.com, explains, “All the gunk and junk that gets built up inside makes your capacitor have to work harder. The harder [the AC] works, the faster it will burn out.” Mark Dawson, chief operating officer at One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning, agrees. He notes that you should be changing your filter every one to three months per the manufacturer’s instructions and sometimes even more often if living with pets or a smoker. Not only will regularly changing the filter help your AC live longer, but it will also make the air that blows out cooler and stronger. Win-win! And once you learn the (unfortunately) disgusting reason your air conditioning smells bad, you may end up wanting to push up the date of your filter change.

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White air conditioner on a brick wall of a building outside among the leaves of trees
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 Hiding your HVAC system

We’ve all seen it before (possibly even in our own side- or backyard): an outdoor system hidden behind some trees and other shrubbery so it doesn’t look like such an eyesore. While this may seem like a good landscaping solution, it actually ends up becoming a major HVAC problem. “Surrounding [the AC system] with plants or shrubs could block proper ventilation and clog the system, which results in more wear and tear. Always make sure there’s plenty of open space,” explains Dawson. In fact, Dakota Hendrickson of Filti says that there should be at least 12 inches of space around your outdoor unit in every direction. So don’t be overbearing: Give your unit some space so you can come off as cool (literally). And while we’re on the subject of the AC…this is why you shouldn’t use your car’s air conditioner.

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USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Young woman setting air conditioning
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Raise your hand if you’ve ever left your air conditioning on even though you’ve left the house (my hand is raised…and I think yours may be, too). While this may seem smart as you’ll be coming back to a cool house, it can actually end up causing a strain on your unit. Albert Lee, the founder of Home Living Labs, recommends using a programmable timer to combat this issue. “Most air conditioners have [a programmable timer] now and homeowners can utilize it to turn on the air conditioner just before they return home. Some newer models even have remote access and can be switched on via WiFi using the mobile phone. There is simply no reason to leave the air conditioner on while you are away now,” he explains. And in case the worst happens and your AC breaks down, fear not: Here are a few tips on how to survive the hot summer days without the AC.

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Man uses a mobile phone with smart home app in modern living room
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Placing appliances near the thermostat

The AC is meant to cool down the naturally occurring hot temperatures of the summer. But what happens when the system picks up on unnatural heat? As you may already be able to guess, the answer involves higher prices and lower productivity rates. “Make sure that no lamps, TVs, or other heat-emitting appliances are too close to the thermostat. Your thermostat can register the rise in temperature and respond accordingly, leading to higher bills in the summer and a colder home in the winter,” says Dawson. No one wants higher bills: Here are 11 genius ways to save on every household bill.

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Residential HVAC Duct Cleaning with a Power Brush
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Skipping duct cleaning

Changing out the filter isn’t the only regular maintenance your AC needs in order for it to live longer. Dust and other allergens can easily build up in the ducts of the AC which may end up obstructing the air flow from your unit. “Professional duct cleaning lets technicians reach deep into your ductwork with special vacuums and spray gentle disinfectants that can help keep your ducts clean for months to come,” notes Dawson. Anthony Perera, the founder and CEO of Air Pros USA, agrees on the importance of having ducts cleaned professionally at least once a year. Perera also suggests that you use a damp cloth to wipe off the ducts every so often. “This simple AC maintenance tip not only keeps your home looking cleaner, but it also prevents dust from being spread throughout the home again through your AC system,” he says.

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Multi-ethnic team of blue collar air conditioner repairmen at work.
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Overdue servicing and maintenance

We may hate to admit it, but we can’t do everything on our own. This sentiment clearly applies to maintaining our air conditioning. It’s important to get an expert to service your system occasionally to make sure everything is in good working order. “There are a few small electronic parts (such as a capacitor) on an AC system that may need to be prematurely replaced during its lifespan. But if [those parts] are allowed to completely fail, they can cause more damage to other, more expensive parts of the unit. Having an AC serviced by a licensed technician once every few years can help prevent that from happening,” Bradley Stroot, an HVAC technician from Bloomington, Indiana, explains. Jeremy Adams, general manager of Airbusters Heating & Cooling Service, suggests scheduling an inspection and routine maintenance every six months for the spring and fall seasons. Installing and conserving an HVAC system is one of 31 home improvements that will double the value of your home.

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air conditioner cooling fresh system saving energy on white wall
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Installing an HVAC that is too big

This is one case where bigger doesn’t necessarily equal better. Although a bigger air conditioner may initially cool off the space more quickly, the method will actually end up backfiring. “When an air conditioner cools a room too quickly, it will cycle on and off more frequently. This can put much more wear and tear on a system compared to one that is appropriately sized,” says Dawson. “Plus, you’ll spend more on maintenance and repairs.” So, it seems like installing a larger unit ends up being the opposite of a bang for your buck.

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USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Mature man adjusting room temperature, while woman is sitting in background
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Kicking up the temperature

It can be extremely tempting to slowly but surely move the thermostat lower and lower during the hottest of days. But at a certain point, this will end up doing more hot harm than cooling good. Setting your thermostat too low during the summer can actually end up shortening the life of your AC. “If it’s 90 degrees outside and you’re setting your thermostat to 65, the unit’s pretty much never going to catch up. If it does, it’s only going to shut off for a minute here and there,” says Adams. The standard rule of thumb is to not set the thermostat any more than 20 degrees lower than the temperature outside. Instead of drastically lowering the temperature, here are 7 more viable air conditioning tricks to feel cooler.

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Woman Operating Air Conditioner With Remote Control
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Not taking it slow

It’s also important to moderate the temperature of the air conditioning when it’s your first time using the unit for the season. “When you first turn on your heat or air conditioning for the season, it has a pretty big job ahead of it. It takes some time to completely heat or cool a home,” explains Craig Russell, founder of The English Contractor. “The English Contractor team recommends setting your system a few degrees lower for heat or higher for air conditioning, depending on the season, so it doesn’t have to work that hard out of the gate. There’s no reason to overtax a system that’s likely been sitting dormant for a few months.” Give your AC the time and space (and temperature) it needs to succeed.

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Cropped Hands Of Man Cleaning Air Conditioner On Wall
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Neglecting to clean

Yep, another cleaning tip (have you been noticing the trend?). But in order to get the most out of your AC, not just the inside ducts and filters have to be sparkling; the outside of your unit should be pretty clean, too. This isn’t just to make it look pretty but rather to increase its productivity and lifespan. It’s especially easy for that outdoor unit (the one no longer covered by shrubbery!) to get clogged. “As the unit is outside, it’s easy for debris and foliage to clog up the exterior of the unit, which can make it more difficult for the fan to work properly and the heat to escape the unit,” Perera explains. He also notes that vines can grow on the unit, making it more difficult for the system to expel heat. And even if your unit doesn’t have an outdoor component, it’s important to clean off any dirt and dust from the blades, compressors, and other interior parts. Your AC is only one of 31 things you probably haven’t cleaned in a long time.

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Low Angle View Of Compressor Hanging On Building Wall
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Not investing in an energy-efficient unit

Think of your air conditioner like your car: Wouldn’t you want the vehicle with the best gas mileage? The same idea applies to your AC unit. In the long run, an energy-efficient air conditioner will end up saving you money as well as lengthening the amount of time you can hold on to a single unit. “You can save an average of up to $576 on energy costs each year by upgrading to a more energy-efficient HVAC system,” explains Clint Robertson and Luke Caldwell of the Boise Boys, an HGTV design duo and American Standard Heating & Air Conditioning partners. “Focus on efficiency (ENERGY STAR appliances) and wellness-focused changes (air purification) through the introduction of HVAC technology. It provides more control over the comfort system and makes it a tool to remove airborne pollutants from your home.”

Next, check out the best portable air conditioners to keep you cool in any space.

Lucie Turkel
Lucie Turkel is a cultural journalist, researcher, and digital producer specializing in social justice, history, and lifestyle pieces. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society's Key Reporter journal, the University of Connecticut Daily Campus, and UConn Communications.