HVAC Hacks: Energy-Saving Improvements You Can Make Yourself

A pair of hands reaching up to an air conditioner vent.

You didn’t give up and call a plumber that time the toilet started leaking, right? So why call a heating and air conditioning specialist for HVAC maintenance work you can do by yourself? Just like any good machine, HVAC equipment needs its wheels greased from time to time to keep it working in peak condition. And when your HVAC unit is humming smoothly, you’ll save energy since your systems won’t have to churn as hard to bring heated and cooled air to your home. In fact, projects like air sealing and insulating your unit can save you upwards of 30 percent on your heating and cooling bills - that’s a pretty nice return for a few hours’ work.

Before we jump right in, though, a few caveats. First, always disconnect the power to your HVAC system before you do any kind of work on the internal components. Second, the projects below represent small maintenance tasks. For a major repair, it’s best to call in the pros, unless you have a background in heating and air conditioning. A repair made by an inexperienced homeowner can throw off the whole home’s air pressure or air quality, or create problems that end up costing a lot of money on monthly energy bills. However, regular maintenance can prevent these kinds of repairs - so a little effort now will go a long way.

Ready to get started? Here are a few weekend projects that even a novice handyman can tackle with confidence.

1. Change Your Furnace’s Oil Filter

man working on a furnace

An oil-fired furnace is just like a car - its working parts get a little gummed up from time to time if you don’t change the filter. In fact, to keep your heating unit running efficiently, you should plan on changing it about twice a year, once right before it gets cold, and again about midway through the heating season.

Luckily, changing the filter is a task most home improvement enthusiasts are well-equipped for. On the majority of units, the oil filter sits in a base that drops right off after loosening the bolt. You just shut off the oil supply using the valve further up the line, pull the base off, clean it out, and insert a new filter. After you do it the first time, you’ll be able to get a new filter on in less time than it takes to fix dinner.

2. Seal Leaking Ducts

High performance units are nice to have, but a home’s heating and air conditioning is really only as efficient as its ductwork. However, over time leaks and gaps can form in ducts, particularly at the joints and seams. You’ll usually feel the effects, too - a stuffy room that never feels quite comfortable, or spaces in your home that are always too hot or too cold.

Sealing these leaks reduces heating and cooling demand by about 20 to 30 percent, according to the Department of Energy. That’s a potential savings of several hundred dollars a year on your utility bills. And closing up leaks is really just a matter of feeling them out with your hands, and then applying mastic sealant or metal tape (ironically, not duct tape) over the gap. It’s a very simple fix, especially for the energy you stand to save.

3. Clean Your AC’s Condenser and Evaporator Coils

repairman working on an air conditioner

Even though your AC unit’s cover does a pretty good job of protecting it, after a while dust, grit, and other foreign objects can find their way onto the internal parts, which slows unit performance. In particular, dirty condenser and evaporator coils limit air flow through your system, so your home doesn’t stay as cool. When that happens, your likely response is to pump up the AC, bloating your energy bills.

To clean lightly soiled coils, just pop off the access panel and dust them with compressed air, a light bristle brush, or a cloth dipped in soapy water. Allow them to dry fully, and then turn the unit back on and power it up. Keep in mind that you may want to contact a service repairman if your coils are especially dirty.

For the most part, these fixes are all on you—and with all the money you’ll save, you can buy yourself some new tools so you can really tinker around the house.

About the Writer

Erin Vaughan is a blogger, gardener, and aspiring homeowner. She currently resides in Austin, TX, where she writes full time for Modernize, with the goal of empowering homeowners with the expert guidance and educational tools they need to take on big home projects with confidence.