GIMME SHELTER-Keeping your cool: Maintenance is the key

Q: What can I do to get my air conditioning ready for the warmer weather?

A: After months of inactivity, your air conditioning will need some attention before you crank it up this year. You'll first want to inspect your air filters. Ideally, these filters should be changed once a month, but since most people forget about their cooling systems in the colder months, they can be forgiven for neglecting them.

However, the importance of clean filters cannot be over-emphasized. Dirty filters can hamper the performance of your air conditioning and eventually damage it. In fact, 80 percent of equipment failure is caused by dirt. If you have window units, the filters are right at the front of the air conditioner. Although it can't hurt to buy new filters, these are typically washable. You'll also want to check for dirt and debris around the coils in back of the unit. The best bet is to simply use your garden hose to wash them out.

If you have a heat pump, you'll want to check the filters in your return air grills. Some filters are located near the furnace, while others are scattered through the house. First off, make sure they're nice and clean. If not, you'll have to replace them. And remember, when it comes to air filters for your heat pump, cheaper is not better. Don't get those cheap little blue filters at Lowes or WalMart that cost about $1. They may be inexpensive, but they are basically worthless.

At a bare minimum, I recommend getting the pleated air filters that will run you about $13 or $14. Of course, you'll notice that there are all kinds of different filters, from the basic pleated ones to the ones they use in hospital emergency rooms. Although you may not need the air in your house to be as pure as the air in a hospital, if someone in the house has allergies, you may want to think about a more efficient filter.

As with window units, you'll also want to go outside and check your heat pump unit for dirt and debris...and critters! It's unbelievable what we find hiding in these systems: mice, bug, snakes, and other creatures like to nest around the warm coils in the colder months. And remember, the heat pump is a high-voltage piece of equipment, so be carefully cleaning it.

Ideally, your air conditioning should be maintained every year by a professional. For example, 40 percent of the maintenance calls we receive are for water leaks from heat pump systems that occur in hard-to-reach places in the attic, which can cause real damage to the home.

Although a professional maintenance call is an added expense, it could save money in the long run. For the most part, though, you can keep your air conditioning running smooth and cool yourself by keeping the dirt and critters out.

Ronnie Townsend