7 Tips for Winterizing Your Central Air Conditioner

by Lee Soren
A closeup of an outdoor air conditioning unit that has frozen over, frozen, freezing, freeze, ice, icy, frozen AC unit, frozen HVAC unit, frozen air conditioner, AC unit, air conditioner, hvac unit

When you wake to the first icy breath of winter, your AC may be the last thing on your mind — but it shouldn’t be. In fact, the change of season is telling you it's time to prep your air conditioner for the cold days ahead.

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So, grab a warm jacket and read on to learn how to winterize your AC unit, and discover some tips for keeping your equipment in tip-top shape during the cold season.

How Do You Prepare a Central Air Conditioner for Winter?

If you have central air conditioning, the condenser typically sits outside, where it’s exposed to the natural debris and the elements. That’s why it’s so important to winterize your AC before the first snow.

Things You’ll Need

Before you get started, it’s helpful to gather everything you’ll need, including:

  • AC unit cover
  • Replacement air filter
  • Garden hose
  • Cleaning brush
  • Small flat-head screwdriver
  • Flashlight
  • Bungee cords
  • Bricks
  • Your smartphone (if you have a smart thermostat)

Step 1: Adjust the Thermostat

When winter's on its way, take your thermostat off cooling mode. If you have a traditional thermostat, you’ll probably just need to flip a switch. If you have a smart thermostat, such as Nest, you’ll need to use your mobile app.

Step 2: Swap Out the Air Filter

If your AC’s air filter is clogged or dirty, swap it out, so you won’t need to remember to do so the next time you turn the unit on.

Step 3: Shut Off the Power

Before continuing the winterization process, turn off the power. Some air conditioners have a shutoff box near the unit. Others may be powered off using your home’s main circuit breaker.

Step 4: Remove Debris

Leaves, grass and other debris can accumulate on exterior AC components To clean them, manually pull off larger debris, such as twigs and leaves. Then, using your garden hose, gently wash away the rest. If necessary, use a brush or screwdriver to dislodge dirt that’s embedded into the grill. Make sure to wash your unit on a sunny day when the temperature is well above freezing, so ice doesn’t form, and let it dry thoroughly.

Step 5: Look for Damage

With your AC clean, it’s easier to inspect it for wear and tear, such as cracks or rust. Use a flashlight to illuminate dark corners, and make sure to check the pipes leading into your house, too.

Step 6: Address Problems

If you find problems, call in a professional technician. Simple issues can worsen in harsh weather, leaving you in the lurch when you’re ready to turn your unit back on.

Step 7: Cover the Unit

A proper cover can help prevent debris buildup, moisture trapping and rusting, particularly if you live in an area prone to snow and ice. Be sure your cover is made of breathable material and/or only covers the top of the unit, extending over the sides only a few inches and secured with bungee cords to the unit. Note: Covering the unit entirely could not only trap snow, ice and moisture, but provide an enticing place for critters to hole up for the winter.

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7 Tips to Help You Winterize Your Air Conditioner

Winterizing your AC unit using the steps outlined above can help it withstand a cold, harsh winter. However, if you want to go the extra mile to keep your unit in great shape, here’s how you can maximize your winterization efforts:

  • Schedule annual maintenance. Regular maintenance is crucial for keeping your HVAC system running smoothly. When you're getting ready to winterize, it's a great time to have your AC company perform routine maintenance tasks.
  • Insulate exposed pipes. If you want to keep your AC's exterior pipes from freezing, insulate them. Foam pipe covers can be purchased inexpensively at your local home improvement retailer.
  • Ensure proper drainage. Snowmelt can cause flooding, so make sure the area around your AC drains properly to reduce the risk of damage from standing water.
  • Wax it. A quick coat of car wax on your AC can add an extra layer of protection against rain, snow and ice.
  • Remove snow and ice. After each snowfall, brush any accumulation off your covered unit to reduce the risk of damage.
  • Check your unit regularly. Throughout the winter, monitor your equipment regularly to make sure the cover stays securely place and small animals haven’t nested beneath the unit. If any debris has accumulated, clear it away.

Safety Comes First

Safety should always come first when working with a major appliance. Check your manufacturer's instruction manual to learn about essential safety precautions before you begin the winterization process. 

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