There’s no getting around it: Winter weather can be a real downer. Shoveling the driveway, supermarket running out of milk, building a snowman … ok, so it’s not all bad. But, one thing you may not consider is how it can affect your HVAC system.
If you’ve got an outdoor heat pump, it makes sense that snow and ice could damage it. But, if you have central air conditioning, there’s a compressor outside. The elements can take their toll on that during it off-months.
Of course, we’re pretty much used to that here in Upstate New York. Places like Rochester, Buffalo and all the towns between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario can see upwards of 80+ inches of winter precipitation per year.
It’s a good idea, then, to keep an eye on your outdoor components in the winter. You don’t want to suddenly have a problem with your AC as the temperatures rise in a few months. And, even worse than that would be suddenly going without heat in the dead of winter.
Or, the problem could also be a subtle one. The elements may not damage your HVAC system to the point where you know you need a repair. Sometimes, the furnace or AC just doesn’t work as efficiently as it should.
When that happens, you're paying more on your monthly energy bills. The system is using more power but giving the same, or weaker, results.
So, get a blanket, make some hot chocolate, and let’s look at the ways severe winter weather can affect your HVAC system.
How snow and ice buildup damages your outdoor HVAC components
Winter weather can damage furnaces and AC’s in quite a few ways. Unlike rain, snow and ice don’t evaporate right away. Instead, they build up and cause a host of problems.
AC condensers are especially vulnerable. Most of the important parts on them are exposed. Take a look at your condenser. You can see the aluminum fan right through the top. And, there are all those slotted fins on the outside.
Those coil fins are especially easy to damage. When moisture gets in between them, you run into trouble when it freezes over. The ice expands and can bend those coils.
When that happens, air can’t flow through the system as well. You’ll start off hearing some weird loud noises from the unit. Eventually, it’ll just get more damaged.
Elsewhere, icicles can be a big problem. That depends a lot on how close the unit is to the house or gutters. You’d be surprised how much damage falling ice can do.
We’ve seen the coils and the guard on top of condensers all bent out of shape from impact like this. Sometimes, the ice even manages to ding the fan pretty badly. Then, you get the problem of the ice getting inside the unit.
Eventually, it melts and seeps further inside the unit. When it re-freezes, it can wreak having on those inner components.
In fact, rust and corrosion is a big problem from winter weather. All that precipitation means the unit is exposed to a lot of moisture for a long time. That takes its toll.
Winter weather affects HVAC air flow
We’ve looked at how the elements can ding up your outdoor HVAC components. But, there’s another problem that’s harder to spot: air flow.
When ice and snow build up around, on, or in your HVAC system, they make it harder for air to flow through them. Once this happens, air can’t circulate as well as needs to. That’s when you end up paying more money every month.
How does this happen? Basically, you’re looking at ice buildup at the intake vents and exhaust. We’ve seen some cases where a massive block of ice formed in the piping that leads from the condenser to the system inside.
Maybe a little more commonly, we’ll see it on the exhaust ports. That’s where air from inside the house gets circulated back outside.
In both these cases, what you get is restricted airflow through your HVAC system. That means it needs to create more pressure to push the air through the house. To create more pressure, it uses more energy.
And, that’s more energy you end up paying for. Whether your system uses gas, oil or resistive electricity to warm your house, it’s going to need more to get the job done.
Meanwhile, there’s an added problem when it comes to exhaust: carbon monoxide. This poisonous gas is created when the system burns fuel.
When everything’s working properly, it gets sent right outside through the exhaust. But, if that channel is clogged, then it can build up in the system and eventually the house.
Now, when it comes to the heating unit, things work a little differently. Remember, it attracts thermal energy that’s outside and sends it into your home. The pump draws heat from all four sides. Any area that’s covered can’t do that as well as parts that are clear.
So, now that we’ve gone through all the ways your outdoor HVAC equipment can get damaged by winter weather, let’s look at some ways to prevent it from happening.
Protect your heat pump and air conditioner from snow and ice damage
Here are some easy steps you can take to protect your heat pump and air conditioner from snow and ice damage:
Make sure the defrost cycle works on your heat pump
NEVER cover your heat pump!
Cover your air conditioner condenser during the off-season
Create a wind barrier around the unit
Regularly shovel away snow
Inspect your gutters for ice buildup
Let’s circle back to the heating components again: As we mentioned, it’s okay to see a little bit of white frost on your system. What you don’t want is a significant buildup.
Fortunately, these systems can run defrost cycles to prevent this. Usually, the system will do this on its own when it gets really cold. But, keep an eye out for accumulation. That could mean there’s a problem and the unit can’t run the cycle.
As for your air conditioner, a vinyl cover can go a long, long way. When you cover the condenser, you’re preventing precipitation from getting on or inside the unit. It also works for trash, yard clippings and other debris that can damage the machine.
And, in general, it’s a good idea to create some sort of wind barrier for your outdoor equipment. This could be a hedge or small fence around it. That blocks a lot of debris and precipitation.
On a similar note, make sure you get rid of any winter precipitation that builds up near or on your HVAC equipment. Do it just as you would shovel or driveway or sidewalk. And, check your gutters for ice. That’s where you’ll end up with icicles forming and eventually falling.
Finally, call a professional sooner rather than later if you think there’s a problem. Once winter rolls around, the best in the business will be busy. It could take a few days before a tech can get out to you.
With that in mind, you want to have someone take a look at your system before it shuts down completely.
Is your home not getting as warm as it should? Are your energy bills suddenly spiking, or weird noises coming from the system? Contact us, and we’ll take care of the problem quickly and efficiently.