Sometimes, serving customers properly can mean delivering an inconvenient truth. Audrey Monell, president of Forrest Anderson Plumbing and Air Conditioning, gives clients that kind of advice when the conversation turns to dust storms.
“The most important thing they can do is to shut off their air conditioner,” Monell said.
Of course, the idea is to prevent a home’s HVAC from sucking in all that dust and distributing it through the house and system. Likewise, it takes a little courage to tell people in Arizona in the summertime to cut off their cooling in any circumstance.
Between dust storms and monsoons, Arizona has encountered extremes on both ends of the wet and dry spectrum this year. Several contractors in that state have taken the initiative to offer advice to customers on how to handle their HVAC both before and after such extreme weather. A few common themes crop up, but each also offers some distinctive insights.
“Dust storms are notorious for plugging filters until there’s no airflow left,” posted Precision Air & Plumbing on its site. All these firms joined the Chandler-based firm to preach vigilance in this area.
Precision mentioned that a washable electrostatic filter may save customers a considerable amount of money. If that sounds surprising, consider that Isley’s Home Service in Mesa advises that while it depends on system use and the amount of dust in the vicinity, “In the summer, you should change the filter every 30 days or so.”
An actual dust storm can and should move up that schedule. Clogged filters lead to strained systems that can lead to pricey results like a failed compressor.
“We’ve seen homeowners cause severe damage to their systems by failing to replace $5 systems after dust storms,” Monell said.
Even if a customer takes Forrest Anderson’s advice and toughs out a dust storm without the air conditioning on, more special attention is needed when it is gone.
“Though the outdoor unit is tightly closed and can handle a dust storm,” wrote Service Smith, LLC of Tempe, “you’ll keep it running at optimal capacity if you give it a good clean after the storm passes.”
Precision Air recommends turning the equipment’s power off and rinsing the outdoor unit with a garden hose. Isley’s Home Service does extend that line of thinking, telling customers to check fan blades to see if any are bent or damaged.
However, the fan blades often do not face as much risk as the coils can from a post-dust spray. Forrest Anderson’s Monell emphasized using low-pressure water once the power is off. She has seen coil damage from homeowners using something like a power washer.
“Also, we’ve seen homeowners use improper cleaning products like drain cleaners and laundry detergent, which causes corrosion and leaves behind a residue that attracts dust and dirt,” she said.
The opposite problem can also get out of hand.
“In one case,” she continued, “the buildup of dirt and debris became so severe that the only solution the technician could determine was acid washing the unit.”
Much more expensive for the homeowner, of course, which is why Forrest Anderson tells customers that the best remedy is simply low-pressure water — applied when needed.
Dust storms often mean heavy winds, and that combination has consequences for more than just outdoor equipment.
“Depending on how hard the wind blew,” Precision Air advised, “your ducts may have worked themselves loose.”
Homeowners or contractors need to check for even tiny openings, these contractors advised. Service Smith recommended having a technician check, while Precision did offer some DIY guidance.
“Seal any open ducts you find by either screwing them back together or taping the same — if ducts are hanging, make sure you tie them back up to reduce the pressure on their connections.”
Contractors have to evaluate their own customer bases and decide whether to offer DIY advice. Forrest Anderson took the whole-house view, warning customers to remember to include doors and windows in that search for leaks to seal.
A system’s condensation line is doubly vulnerable.
“Drain lines can create another headache if not properly maintained,” said Monell. “During monsoon season, they get clogged with dirt and debris, and this can cause the water to be backed up until it begins to leak,” she said.
DUST STORM = DRYWALL DAMAGE?: It may sound unlikely at first glance, but for a home with the outdoor unit on the roof, a condensation line blocked by dust and debris can open the door to water intrusion, with gravity taking care of the rest. (Courtesy Ed! (CC-SA 3.0))
Monell’s firm has seen this sequence of events get ugly for customers who have a rooftop unit, where the clogged line can translate to a leaking roof and even drywall damage.
That’s a tall price to pay for a seemingly minor oversight.
“Flushing your condensation may be optional” depending on where the air handler is located, wrote Precision Air & Plumbing, “but it only takes a few minutes.”
This is another area where a contractor or homeowner may need to make a judgment call about whether a given job is best left for a technician or a homeowner.
The bottom line: If it isn’t dripping water, Monell said, it may need to be cleared.
That said, the situation may offer one other opportunity to protect a customer’s investment.
“With the dust storm issue in Arizona,” wrote Service Smith, LLC, “homeowners should have a clean-out installed on condensation lines that are not designed to pull out easily.”
The evaporator coil is yet another component to watch after extreme events. Service Smith makes sure customers know that their technicians can check the evaporator coil for dust accumulation and vacuum as needed to ensure better performance and IAQ.
Precision again allows for the more motivated or able-bodied customer in its dust-related advice. The company reminds customers that many air handlers are designed to prevent homeowner access, but adds that “if you can get to yours, check it for dust accumulation while you’re flushing the condensation line.”
Precision does take the opportunity to market its own solution, a “Monsoon tune-up package” that starts at $159.95 and includes vacuuming that coil as needed.
Back To That Advice …
Telling Arizona residents to shut off their air conditioning in the hottest stretch of the year … that surely meets with some resistance. People understand the rationale, but in the heat of the moment, it can be harder to hit the “off” button. How can a contractor make the case in a way that sticks?
Forrest Anderson’s Monell has used two lines of persuasion. The first is simple: indoor air quality is important, not just for the system’s performance but for occupants. Those with asthma or allergies are that much more susceptible to real health problems later if a unit is left on through a dust storm.
But an “ounce of prevention” rationale offers customers a little more comfort if they can stay alert and ready to respond before the worst hits.
“We recommend the supercooling technique during monsoon season” to those who balk at shutting down cooling when the outdoor temperature is 100°F or more.
The customer would bring the home down to 68 or 70° earlier in the day, Monell explained. When the user does shut down the system later in the day before the dust storm, the house will feel better for longer.
“Not only does it keep the house cool for hours and prevent dust from coming in,” she said, “but it will also significantly cut energy use and make bills cheaper.”
Between reducing dust in the home, protecting health, and even saving money, even the most skeptical customer may be able to get behind the preemptive strategy eventually, if the benefits are laid out well enough.