Bundle Up: How to Prepare Your HVAC System for Winter

by Michael Franco
A closeup of an outdoor air conditioning unit that has frozen over

When it comes to HVAC system upkeep, you may already be familiar with the basics: Change your filters regularly, make sure outside units are free of debris and keep an ear out for any weird noises or activity that may signal a problem. But how much thought have you given to making sure your HVAC system is prepped and ready for winter?

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The truth is, HVAC systems function best with seasonal maintenance to help prevent problems before they start. So how do you best prepare your HVAC system for winter? Here’s what you need to do this fall.

Why Is It Important to Prepare Your HVAC System for Winter?

An HVAC system that’s been prepped for winter can benefit you in more ways than one. Preventative HVAC maintenance can boost your system’s performance, save you money from lower energy costs and reduce the likelihood that your system will bite the dust in the middle of a blizzard. Seasonal HVAC tune-ups, along with a bit of cold-weather prep work, can also increase the lifespan of your system.

How Do You Repair Your Central Heating and Cooling Units for Winter?

Clean Your Unit

While you want to keep your unit free from major debris like leaf pile-ups and weed growth year-round, giving it a nice clean in the fall can help boost performance and prepare your HVAC system for winter. Power off your unit and use a hand broom to remove debris. Then, depending on how much dirt has built up, you can either wipe the unit with a damp cloth or gently clean it with a hose, taking care not to damage internal parts with too forceful a spray.

Check Your Air Filter and Vents

Your unit is not the only thing that needs seasonal cleaning. Now is a good time to check your filter and dust your vents. Filters should be changed every three months on average to boost airflow and keep your system functioning at its best, so go ahead and replace your filters now if you’re getting close to that mark or if they look ready to be thrown out.

Do a Sound Check

After cleaning, you can power your system back on and listen for any odd noises that may be a cause for concern. A banging or rattling sound that continues after the system has been up and running for a bit could signal a problem that warrants further investigation.

Check Your Room Warmth

It’s wise to check to see how well your system is warming up the entirety of your house, so why not go ahead and test this before temperatures plummet? This step is pretty straightforward: Just turn your heat up, wait a bit and then do a whole-home walk-through, checking each room for warmth. This will help you notice if some vents are closed that you want open, or vice versa, and can help you to better understand airflow in your house. Rooms that aren’t warm when the rest of the house is may lack insulation or may have an obstructed vent that can be fixed by simply rearranging some furniture.

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Cover Your AC Unit

Some folks advocate covering your AC unit during the winter for added protection from the elements, while other sources say this is a definite no-no as any trapped moisture beneath can foster mold growth.

If you’re unsure about how to proceed here, a reasonable middle-of-the-road option here is to simply make sure you stay diligent about removing any snow from on and around your unit throughout the winter. You might also consider adding a wind barrier if you live in an area with a particularly harsh winter climate. Building a simple fence around your system can act as a wind barrier and, as a bonus, can also reduce the unit’s sound — just make sure to leave enough space between the unit and fence to allow for proper airflow. A fence that’s too close to the unit might be a fire risk.

Schedule a Tune-up

If any of the above steps reveal areas of concern, you should call in a professional to take a closer look. That said, a seasonal tune-up can be helpful, even if nothing seems to be amiss, as it can still improve performance or identify hidden areas of concern.

Prepare Your Furnace for Winter Use

Furnace maintenance is especially important to attend to before winter sets in. Winter is a furnace’s time to shine, and there’s nothing fun about a furnace that’s on the fritz right when temperatures start to drop. Checking air filters and running a heat test will help ensure your furnace is ready for winter. Cleaning the blower motor and heat exchanger can also help prepare your system for winter use. If you have a gas furnace, you may also want to test the ignitor switch and relight the pilot light.

Prepped and Ready

Preventative furnace maintenance and seasonal HVAC care can boost performance, save on energy costs and help your heat run smoothly throughout the winter, keeping you warm and relatively worry-free — at least where your HVAC system is concerned.