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Stay Cool and Save Energy


The Bottom Line A well maintained, properly installed air conditioner not only increases your comfort but also saves energy.
Taking good care of a window air conditioner and operating it properly can not only save a lot of energy and money but also ensure greater comfort throughout the summer season.
First of all, before beginning any type of maintenance or installation of an air conditioner, make sure the unit is unplugged.
Pre-season cleaning. Before the cooling season begins, remove and clean the unit's filter, which is normally located on the inside side of the unit behind the front decorative panel. Usually it is either a piece of foam secured by an elastic band, or a plastic panel that simply slides in and out of a track. If there is just a little dust on it a simple vacuuming will do fine, but if it is really dirty it can be carefully cleaned in cool water. Just make sure it's all the way dry before putting it back in.
Also clean the outside (condenser) coils with a soft brush attachment on a vacuum cleaner. Take care not to bend the fins surrounding the coils, for doing so reduces the air flow through the unit and compromises efficiency. A really dirty outside coil might need to be professionally steam cleaned, but this can be prevented with yearly use of the vacuum cleaner. It's not a good idea to attempt to use a garden hose to clean the coil due to the risk of getting electrical components wet, causing damage or a possible shock hazard.
Fan Motors. On most models the fan motor is maintenance free, needing no periodic oiling. Check the unit's owner's manual. If you do not have the manual anymore, peek through the vent holes on the side of the unit and look at the fan motor. Most motors that need periodic oiling will have a sticker saying this and also will have two small plastic plugs (usually yellow) at the front and rear of the motor. If the unit needs oiling, it will probably be a larger one with a slide out chassis. Use the oil called for on the sticker, but if there is no recommendation a straight SAE 20 or 30 oil like 3 in 1 usually works well. Make sure to observe the recommendations for the amount of oil to use -- too much is as bad as not enough. If oil runs down the side of the motor be sure to use a rag to wipe it off so it does not get into parts of the motor where it is not supposed to be. If you are wiping the motor off anyhow, go all the way around it and remove accumulated dust and grime, as these can keep the motor from dissipating heat effectively and shorten its life.
Installation. Putting the air conditioner in the window can be a big job depending on how large a unit it is. Units of more than 8,000 BTU capacity usually weigh 70 pounds or more and require two people. Make sure when the unit is installed it is either level or tipped VERY slightly down toward the outside. If it's tipped the wrong way moisture condensed from the air can run out of the bottom of the unit and into the room, making a mess. On the other hand, if you tip it too much toward the outside, the condensed water will run right out the back of the unit where it won't have a chance to be picked up by the fan blade's "slinger ring" and flung against the condenser coil. This slinger ring increases the efficiency of the unit by helping to cool the outside coil, so you do not want to defeat its function. (Some old models, or models that both heat and cool, do not have the slinger ring feature.)
After you expand the side panels out to fill in the window, be sure to use some screws to secure the unit to the window using the small holes in the mounting frame provided for that purpose. All units vibrate some, and if the window isn't secured it can work its way open, possibly allowing the unit to fall out. Even if it doesn't fall out, an unsecured unit can make the glass in the window rattle and create a noisy, unsatisfactory installation.
Don't forget to use a foam strip to fill in the gap between the two window sashes of the open window where the unit sits; otherwise you have an approximately one inch opening that's going to let in a lot of outside air and reduce the unit's efficiency. If you don't seal off that gap, you'll also have a problem with bugs getting into the room! If there are other gaps around where the panels fit against the window, seal them up with rope caulk, which is sold in rolls and can be shaped and pressed into place like clay. This is much better than conventional caulk because it's not hard to remove if you take the unit out at the end of the season.
Power. Small bedroom units can be plugged into a normal grounded outlet on any lightly loaded household circuit, but models that consume more than 7.5 amps (check the unit's specification label, which should indicate this) should be on their own circuit. Regardless of whether you put it on its own circuit or not, be certain that the outlet is properly grounded. Do not use one of the "cheater adapters" to fit the a/c unit's three prong plug into an old two-prong outlet. Not only is an old outlet likely to be wired with old wiring that is not up to the task of an air conditioner's high constant current draw, but the lack of grounding poses a severe shock hazard should there be a malfunction in one of the unit's motors (compressor or fan). Have an electrician put in a properly grounded outlet if you need to -- it could be a life saver.
Operation. Many different models are available with a range of controls, but here are some general operational guidelines that can greatly increase comfort and efficiency:
For maximum cooling on hot days, use a high fan speed. This improves heat transfer both on the inside and outside coils, maximizing the unit's capacity. It is not necessary to set the thermostat to a really cold setting to cool the room quickly. Determine what's a comfortable setting and just leave the thermostat there. Cranking it way down every time you turn the unit on will mostly likely cause you to over-cool the room at first, wasting energy, and it will not drop the temperature any faster.
If possible locate the unit on a shady side of the house, but not blocked by bushes, fences, other buildings, or other obstructions within a couple feet of the unit. The unit will be move efficient if it is in the shade, but it does need good airflow all around it.
To dehumidify a room effectively on humid but not so hot days, use a low fan speed. This maximizes moisture removal by allowing the room air to stay near the cold inside (evaporator) coil for a longer time.
At night, be sure not to use a thermostat setting which is so cold that the inside coil ices up. You will know that a unit has iced up if the airflow discharged from it decreases markedly even though it is still running at the same speed. In some cases they will even blow small ice chips into the room. If this happens turn the thermostat to the warmest setting and keep the fan running. This will de-ice the coil. Icing can be prevented by not using too cold a thermostat setting at night and during moderate weather. Higher fan speeds also keep the coil from icing as readily. If you experience icing often you may be running the unit when it is not really needed. If outside temperatures are below 70 degrees, most window air conditioners will have a tendency to ice up. If it ices up under other circumstances, it may have a refrigerant leak and will need to be checked by a technician.
Saving Energy. Some tips are pretty obvious, such as not getting the room so cold that people are huddled under blankets. Use a thermometer if necessary and see what thermostat setting corresponds to the temperature you want to maintain, such as 78 degrees. Some people like the "energy saver" setting. What this does is cycle the fan motor with the compressor, so that the fan no longer runs all the time. This does save a little energy but may not be advantageous because the room air can become stale if there is no air moving, and you might turn the thermostat to a lower setting to get it to start up again.
Since the compressor uses 80 percent or more of the unit's power, this would cause you to use more rather than less energy. One way that the "energy saver" feature can be useful is to keep an area moderately cool when you're away so it does not take so long to cool it back down when you return home. An even better strategy here is to buy a timer for the air conditioner and use it to turn the unit on an hour or two before you plan to get home. Some models have timers already on them, which is obviously better still.
Keeping the filter clean throughout the cooling season can also save a lot of energy and keep you more comfortable as well. As the filter gets dirty, airflow through the unit decreases, resulting in more energy usage and less comfort. In periods where the air conditioner is seeing more or less constant use, it's a good idea to check the filter every couple of weeks.
Finally, if you need to purchase a new air conditioner, consider a model that bear's the government's Energy Star seal. These models use far less energy than many other units, saving you money over the whole life of the appliance, and they usually also incorporate useful energy saving and convenience features like digital thermostats and timers.

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