The Secret to Avoiding Heating and Cooling System Breakdowns: Maintenance

Because heating and cooling costs can easily make up half of a household’s energy bill, it makes sense to have a regular maintenance program to keep the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) equipment operating at peak efficiency.
Outside tech looking at AC

The normal wear and tear makes equipment work harder to provide the levels of comfort we expect, making it less efficient, which translates to higher heating and cooling bills. Even relatively new equipment can lose about one percent of its efficiency per year if it is not properly maintained.

More Reasons for Maintenance

In addition to keeping energy costs down, there are other reasons why it helps to maintain your HVAC system on a regular basis.

  • Fewer Breakdowns. Regular maintenance can help prevent minor problems, like that worn belt that makes that odd noise from your unit. It can also help you avoid major breakdowns that take the system out of operation completely. These major problems always seem to happen at the worst possible time, such as in the middle of a major blizzard or during the hottest days of the summer. Unfortunately, those are the times that HVAC contractors are at their busiest, which means you may have trouble getting someone to fix the problem.
  • Longer-Lasting Equipment. Properly maintained equipment tends to last longer than equipment that is ignored. Household budgets take a major hit when you need to replace HVAC equipment or even make a major repair. Even minor problems can affect the life of the system.
  • Safety Concerns. Some HVAC problems can be dangerous, such as a short circuit on equipment that runs on electricity, or a cracked heat exchanger that leaks carbon monoxide into the air. Regular maintenance can help identify and avoid such problems.

Setting Up a Maintenance Routine

HVAC maintenance consists of two components: The simple tasks you can perform, and the more complicated checkup and tune-up that requires a professional HVAC technician. The actual work performed during the call will depend on the equipment you have. Arrange for routine maintenance

Work in partnership with your technician, and take these simple steps to extend the life of your system.

  • Hire a technician to check the conditions of hoses and belts, how well the controls work, and whether all of the electrical connections are tight. The technician will also check the entire system for leaks.
  • Follow the equipment manufacturer's recommendations for changing filters on forced-air systems, usually about every three months. Ask the HVAC contractor for advice if you are not sure how to change the filters.
  • Check around the house to make sure that heating and cooling vents, baseboard heaters and radiators are not blocked by furniture. Vacuum the face of the vents to remove dust and other debris.
  • Central air-conditioning systems have an outdoor component that houses the compressor and condenser. This part of the system dumps the hot air from your house to the outside as part of the cooling cycle. Keep leaves and other debris off of the top of the unit, and clear a two- to three-foot space around the unit to help it work properly.

Keep Your HVAC System at Optimal Efficiency

Schedule time for a technician to perform an efficiency test. The annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) rating measures how much fuel a furnace or boiler converts to heat and how much is wasted. It is not unusual to find old furnaces with an AFUE below 70 percent, which means that over 30 percent of the fuel is wasted. High-efficiency furnaces available today can achieve AFUE ratings of above 98 percent.

The seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) measures the energy efficiency of cooling systems—the higher the number the more efficient the equipment. Federal regulations require a SEER of 13 or 14, depending upon where you live, but systems that are much more efficient are also available on the market.

You can compare the efficiency of your system with Energy Star products. Energy Star is a voluntary program of the Environmental Protection Agency that sets standards for energy-efficient items, including residential heating and cooling systems. See current Energy Star requirements in the table below.

Energy Star Requirements for Heating and Cooling Equipment



Energy Star Requirements




Northern States: ≥ 95% AFUE

Southern States: ≥ 90% AFUE



≥ 85% AFUE



≥ 90% AFUE



≥ 87% AFUE

Central Air-Conditioners


≥ 15 SEER for split systems

Air-Source Heat Pumps


≥ 8.5 HSPF/ ≥ 15 SEER for split systems

AFUE: Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency; SEER: Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio; HSPF: Heating Season Performance Factor.

Keeping up with proper HVAC maintenance will reduce your risk for emergency repairs at peak seasons. Taking the time to ensure your equipment is operating at its most efficient will help prevent your air conditioning from breaking down in the middle of summer or your heating system from seizing up in below-zero weather.

Fran Donegan is a home improvement author who writes on heating and air conditioning topics online for The Home Depot. Fran is the author of the books Pools and Spas and Paint Your Home. To research HVAC home services available through Home Depot, you can visit the Home Depot website here.

AHS assumes no responsibility, and specifically disclaims all liability, for your use of any and all information contained herein.

See more in: 
HVAC Professionals
Consumer Affairs Icon
Home Warranty Awards Icon
Women’s Choice Award Icon
Need help?
Talk to our Shield Agents 24/7.