After enduring a long summer pumping cold air through your home, your central air conditioning system is finally enjoying a much needed respite this fall. Out of use shouldn't mean out of mind, however – there are some important steps you should take to protect your AC unit over the winter so you know it will be ready to go when the weather warms up again. Read on to learn what you need to know about keeping your central air conditioning system safe during the cold winter months.

Built to Beat the Cold

Central air conditioning systems are actually built to be able to survive exposure to tough weather, and some people find that their units work fine even if they don't take any protective measures at all. However, the outdoor components of the system can be damaged by debris, moisture build-up and repeated freeze-and-thaw cycles, so it is wise to take at least some action to keep the equipment safe.

The first thing you should do when you shut your central air conditioning system down for the winter is to turn off its power. This will save you some electricity lost to phantom loads – and also prevent you from accidentally turning the unit on during the winter, which could create a big problem if it starts cycling water through the system and that water freezes.

Clean the Unit

Remove Debris

When you shut down your central air conditioning system for the winter, take some time to clean it thoroughly. Remove any fallen leaves, bird droppings, twigs, nests, garbage, grass clippings, dead bugs, dirt, and dust that may have accumulated on or around the unit during the warmer months. 

Gently Hose Wash

In the fall, it's a good practice to wash the exterior of the AC unit with a garden hose. Be sure to do this before nighttime temperatures drop too low. A gentle stream of water can help remove any remaining dirt or grime. Avoid using high-pressure water, as it may damage delicate components.

Vacuum the Filter

Carefully remove the air filter from your central air conditioning system. Use a hose vacuum attachment to gently clean the filter's surface. Be cautious not to damage the filter, as a damaged filter can reduce the efficiency of your system. Clean filters help maintain good airflow and indoor air quality.

Professional Cleaning & Maintenance  

One of the best ways to prepare your AC unit for winter is to have routine maintenance performed by a trusted professional. This will allow you to have peace of mind and spare you any worry about damaging your unit while attempting to clean and prep it for colder weather. Having an HVAC technician visit in autumn is a great opportunity for you to have your furnace professionally inspected at the same time so all your systems are prepped and ready for wintertime.

Keep Water Away 

Sweep Away Puddles, Ice, and Snow

Anytime you notice water puddles forming on your unit, it's a good idea to sweep the water away. Snow and ice that accumulate on or around the unit can potentially cause damage or rust. Make sure there's good drainage around the unit so water can flow away during heavy rainfall or storms. 

Check On Unit After Storms

After winter storms or snowfall, it's a good idea to inspect the AC unit for damage or snow accumulation. Heavy snow or ice falling from the roof may also damage your unit. 

Be Aware of Water Sources 

Be attentive to the areas around your unit for any potential water sources. If there has been a recent storm, be sure to check above the unit for damaged gutters to make sure nothing is dripping onto the unit during a thaw. Damaged or clogged gutters can cause water to overflow and potentially create moisture issues for your HVAC system.

Install Shrubs 

Consider planting shrubs strategically around your central air conditioning unit to provide protection from strong winds and blowing snow during the winter months. Well-placed shrubs can act as a natural barrier, reducing the direct impact of harsh weather conditions on your AC unit.

When choosing and planting shrubs, it's essential to be mindful of the clearance needed for proper airflow around the unit. Airflow is crucial for the efficient operation of your central air conditioning system. Check the manufacturer's recommendations or consult with a professional to determine the required clearance for your specific unit.

On the Dangers of Tarps

While the cold itself won't hurt your AC compressor, debris that accumulates over the season can. Before you stow the system for the winter, clean it up and remove any leaves or other gunk that has built up. From there, some people just cover the unit with a piece of plywood to keep icicles, branches, leaves and other things from falling in the top.

An air conditioner cover can also be a good idea, particularly for lowering the risk of damage to the metal from repeated freezing and thawing, but it comes with some caveats of its own. It's a very bad idea to just cover the central air conditioning system with any old tarp and leave it at that. For one thing, moisture can accumulate underneath some coverings. Furthermore, animals might find the tarp to be an attractive shelter and make themselves at home. The trick with AC covers is to get one that leaves a foot or more open space above the ground so air can still pass in and out – a cover specifically manufactured for your AC model is best.

Don't Blow Your Cover

Once you've covered your AC compressor for the winter, it's a good idea to check on it periodically to make sure the cover is still in place and to clear out any debris that has blown underneath. Other than that, you should be all set. If you need help securing your central air conditioning system from harsh winter weather, contact your local qualified HVAC technician today.