Homeowner's effort pays off in a really cool way

May 29, 1999|By ROB KASPER

I EXPERIENCED a rare moment of righteousness this week. It happened when I switched on the air conditioner. As I stood in front of one of the air-conditioning vents, I was shivering, but smug.

For the first time in my home-owning career, I had done what I was supposed to do on the air-conditioning front -- test the system in the spring, before the weather turned hot and sticky.

All the tomes on how to be a good homeowner tell you this. They point out that there are two good reasons to test your air conditioner in cool weather. First of all, if it doesn't work, you won't suffer. All you have to do to be comfortable is open a window or turn on a fan.

Second, in cool weather you probably won't have to wait very long for an air-conditioning repairman to show up. By contrast, in a hot spell you often have to swelter for days before a repairman makes it to your inferno.

My motivation to test the system was simple. Last year I fried. Last summer, in the middle of a horrible hot spell, I turned on the air conditioner and it didn't work. Last year I had to sweat until the repairman healed the unit.

Like Scarlett at Tara, I vowed "never again."

So one morning this week when the temperature was in the low 70s, I switched on the air conditioner and, with some trepidation, waited for the air to rush out. When the cool air hit me, it was a glorious moment. It signaled that the air-conditioning system had answered the bell and was ready to start another season.

I felt so self-satisfied that I made a classic homeowner mistake. Rather than leaving well enough alone, I tried to do more. Having finally performed one upright act -- testing the air conditioner in the spring, not the summer -- I tried to adopt the whole righteous-homeowner lifestyle. Before I could stop myself, I was trying to give the innards of my air conditioners the spring-cleaning treatment.

The treatment, outlined in "The Big Book of Small Household Repairs" by Charlie Wing (Rodale, 1995), describes procedures for two kinds of air conditioners, central units and window units. I have both. A central unit cools the lower floors of our rowhouse, window units cool the top floor.

I started with a window unit. The theory behind air-conditioner cleaning is that any dirt that sits on the air-conditioner coils reduces the efficiency of the unit and increases the electricity bill.

The idea is to remove the dirt. To do that with a window unit, I first removed the screws that connect the metal cover to its main frame. There were about 10,000 of these screws. According to the book, the air-conditioning unit was supposed to slide out of its housing. Then with the innards exposed, I would loosen dirt from the coils with a toothbrush and then vacuum them.

Unfortunately, this unit refused to show me its inner workings. It would not come out of its metal housing.

I pried. I jiggled. I pleaded. It wouldn't budge. I was able to lift up one edge of the metal and get a glance at the coils. They looked squeaky-clean to me. Nonetheless, I gave them a quick once-over with an old toothbrush.

After struggling with the air conditioner for the better part of an hour, I decided that the righteous life was not for me. If purification was going to be this much work, I could live with unclean innards. So I reattached the 10,000 screws that hold down the unit's cover. I put the air conditioner in the window. I gave it a pat of encouragement and switched it on. It might have been sullied, but it worked fine.

I considered cleansing the insides of my central air conditioner, but I didn't consider it very long. According to the repair book, the way you clean your central-air-conditioner innards is as follows: You shut off the power to the unit. You remove the metal cover. You use a toothbrush to loosen dirt on the coils and you vacuum or blow away the dirt.

You cover the entire air conditioner, except for the condenser coil, with a plastic drop cloth. Then with a garden hose and nozzle, you spray the condenser coil from the inside out, being careful not to spray any electrical components.

I might have considered going through this rigmarole if my central-air-conditioning unit sat in my back yard, close to the garden hose. Instead, it sits on the roof of my rowhouse, a long, long way from a faucet.

So instead of washing its innards, I treated the 20-year-old unit to a cleansing ritual. I sprinkled a little oil on its fan blades and recited an incantation. "Gimme one more year, baby."

Pub Date: 5/29/99

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