When the weather turns cold, everything you see from HVAC companies focuses on heating. We’re no exception here at Fire & Ice. This is because our customers become more interested in new furnace systems, or getting service on their existing heating systems.
However, we still install air conditioners in the fall, winter, and early spring months. And occasionally, we talk to people who need to run their A/C during these months.
So this article is going to talk through a handful of topics related to wintertime cooling, including:
- What considerations are there when installing an air conditioner in the winter?
- When might someone need to run their A/C in the winter?
- What should you do to protect your equipment in the coldest winter months?
- Is there a “right” time to install or schedule maintenance for HVAC equipment as you head into the coldest time of year?
The answers to some of those questions will depend on things like the state of your system, your budget for a new HVAC project, and the climate you live in. However, we can provide a lot of general guidance that should help any homeowner in their next big decision.
The Holiday Party - Cooling a Home When It’s Cold
Have you ever been to a large holiday party in the winter, one with dozens of people in a home? You’re wearing a sweater and long pants, and eventually you find yourself sweating due to all the people in the enclosed space. Opening some windows might help, but it will also just create drafty pockets of cold air, rather than cooling evenly.
The question is: can you run the air conditioning in this scenario?
For most systems, the answer will be no, but the most important question to ask is about temperature. What’s the outside temperature? Standard air conditioners can generally cool down to 55-60 degrees. But if it’s lower than that, you’re running several risks by operating the cooling unit.
Technically there are kits that can be attached to some systems that can help with this. These are known as low ambient kits. They aren’t common in residential homes. More often, you’ll see them installed with commercial air conditioning units. However, with these kits, some units can cool when it’s as low as 20 degrees outside.
Some modern equipment is beginning to push the envelope on that 55-60 degree rule I mentioned above. We recently reviewed the XV20i variable-speed air conditioner, including how it can cool at temperatures below 50 degrees.
The reason it can go below 50 degrees is because of its advanced moisture control. The fear with cooling in low temperatures is that your outdoor unit develops frost on it. That frost can lead to ice bubbles that will eventually shut down a system or damage its internal components. The XV20i, and other units of similar sophistication, are able to better maintain lower levels of moisture buildup in order to mitigate this risk.
That said, this is still far from the norm, so the best general advice is to avoid using your A/C unit when it’s colder than 55 degrees outside.
What About Heat Pumps?
The same cooling limitations apply to most heat pumps. However, your heat pump will also be heating in the winter.
Heat pumps used to shut off when temperatures approached freezing, and your home’s heat would come entirely from the furnace at that point. Modern heat pumps are beginning to improve, though. The best ones will continue to provide efficient heat down to as low as 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit and have a defrost cycle to prevent them from building up ice.
There are exceptions to this. While a traditional all-electric system will feature a mix of heat pump and furnace heat at lower temperatures, the two can’t operate at the same time when a heat pump is paired with a fossil fuel furnace (natural gas, oil, propane). These instances are rare, but do occur in some homes that have a hybrid electric/gas HVAC system.
Installing an A/C in the Winter
Can an air conditioner be installed in the winter? In a word, yes.
There’s nothing stopping an HVAC contractor from doing a great job on a new A/C installation during the colder months of the year. The only minor step that will be missing is actually running the A/C if the temperature is too cold. However, all the steps needed to test and install an air conditioner are doable at any time of year.
In particular, proper pressures on the refrigerant at all stages of the cooling cycle are important to maintain. An air conditioner comes from the factory with a certain amount of refrigerant in it. This amount is based on a certain length of refrigerant tubing running from inside your home to outside and back. If the tubing length is different (which will depend on your home), the refrigerant amount may need to be altered.
Without being able to run the unit at colder temperatures, the way you ensure this is by precisely measuring the amount of refrigerant added (which will be particular to that make and model).
It’s possible to “eyeball” this process, but that opens your system up to a ton of risk. A good contractor will use an electronic scale to measure the amount, to ensure the system is installed to meet state and local codes.
Otherwise, we almost never say no to some hot chocolate when it’s offered on a cold day for outdoor installation. But the installation itself is no problem, even in freezing weather.
Freezing Temperatures & HVAC Equipment
Regardless of when you have your system installed, if you live in an area with harsh winters, you’re going to have to navigate the cold weather. But what does that mean for your HVAC equipment?
The first thing to keep in mind is that the elements can definitely have an impact on your equipment. The second thing to keep in mind, though, is that with proper preparation, you’re going to be fine.
Over time, moisture in and around your outdoor unit (from snow, rain, etc.) may start to rust the outward-facing components. This is fine. Many systems come with a rust-resistant coating, but even this will eventually give way to rust. The good news is, this is almost always cosmetic and won’t affect the operation of your system. With a well-coated unit, this can also take 10+ years to begin to see at all.
Some worry about snow accumulation. Again, you’re probably ok here, unless it’s a heat pump that will be operating more regularly in the winter in addition to cooling in the summer. In those cases, removing large piles from around the unit is safest.
A related fear is icicles, and here we’ve actually seen some damage. Large icicles can form on the edges of your house, and if they fall onto (or into) your outdoor A/C, damage can occur. The solution here is a cover. Some, like many Trane units, come with a Weatherguard top that will protect against this. Other times, you may simply have to place a wooden or plastic board over the unit, then remove it in the spring before using it.
Most important is to have yearly maintenance, which we’ll talk more about in the next section.
RELATED: HVAC Installation and the Weather
Maintenance, Upkeep and Use in Cold Temps
Scheduling regular maintenance is probably the most important thing you can do, outside of choosing the right company to install and service your system.
Some people will see ice bubbles on their refrigerant line or elsewhere around their system and assume it’s weather-related. This is actually more likely to be a problem internally with the system. In other words, it’s a maintenance issue. There might be a leak in the system, there might be skewed pressures at various stages. Heck, it might just be that your filter is hopelessly clogged. Something as simple as this can affect the entire heating and cooling system.
Otherwise, cold weather doesn’t change the general recommendation that you’ll get from any reputable contractor: you should have your heating equipment serviced in the fall before use, and the cooling equipment serviced in the spring before use. Some homeowners will combine those two into a single maintenance visit per year, and this is fine too. The only poor choice is not to schedule it at all.
Finding “The Right Time” to Install
One of the myths that we’re happy to bust is that there’s a “best” time to install a system. The best time is the one that’s right for you, your home and family.
However, there are a few items that may determine when the best time is for you:
- HVAC costs don’t go down. Whatever it will be this year, it will be at least that much next year.
- Off-season installations (like air conditioners in winter) aren’t better or worse mechanically, but you’ll benefit from the extra attention of having it done during downtimes for many HVAC companies. Want next-day installation? You probably won’t get it in
- Your system is most likely to break down when it’s in use, which means it’s when you need it the most. If your system needs to be replaced, being proactive can save you the hassle of having to scramble
Given all of that, there’s never a bad time to have an initial conversation with an HVAC contractor. They’ll be able to assess your home and current system, provide options and pricing, and answer any questions you have about the process.
When you’re ready, we hope you’ll choose Fire & Ice to provide an estimate and walk you through all of your options. And if that time is now, plug your zip code into the tool below to start the process and schedule your free, in-home estimate. We’re looking forward to meeting you!