Beat the Heat with Air Conditioning System Inspections

One sure way you can beat the heat this summer is to be certain that your air conditioning system and individual units are ready to go before the temperatures rise.

One sure way you can beat the heat this summer is to be certain that your air conditioning system and individual units are ready to go before the temperatures rise.

Not only is resident comfort a concern, but you also want to eliminate any reason for resident complaints. Residents who are unhappy or uncomfortable due to nonfunctioning air conditioning may withhold rent or deduct a portion of rent because you failed to ensure their physical comfort. Some health conditions can be aggravated by excessive heat, and you could put yourself in a position of liability if failure to maintain your air conditioning system compromises a resident's health. Furthermore, HUD requires you to meet certain physical condition standards at your site, which include a properly functioning air conditioning system.

Avoid Violation and Litigation

Proper inspection of your site's air conditioning system will help you avoid these potential problems:

Violation of HUD physical condition standards. HUD inspectors check both central air conditioning systems that cool the entire site and individual systems that cool individual units. The inspectors look for common problems such as inoperable systems, rust or corrosion, abnormal noise or vibrations, and leaks. If you conduct your own system inspections on a regular basis, you can spot such issues before HUD inspectors do.

Lawsuits for injuries. There are cases where residents have sued owners and managers for injuries that resulted from failure to maintain the air conditioning system. A Louisiana owner was found liable for injuries a resident suffered when she slipped and fell on water that had dripped from a malfunctioning air conditioner. Evidence presented in court showed that the owner rarely cleaned or maintained the air conditioner and had a duty to do so. The resident was awarded more than $200,000 in damages [Wexler v. Occhipinti, December 1979].

Eviction difficulties (if eviction is necessary). Broken air conditioning systems can give a resident or household ammunition to use against you if you go to court to try to collect unpaid rent. The resident could claim that your failure to maintain or fix the air conditioning system renders his or her unit uninhabitable, and thus violates the lease.

Follow Inspection Fundamentals

The number-one tip for air conditioning maintenance is regular inspections, says Paul Crosby, director of Maintenance and Safety for Indiana-based Gene B. Glick Company, which manages more than 18,000 units in 10 states. That way, Crosby says, you can spot common problems and deal with them before they become bigger problems.

Here's a list of tips for both central air conditioning systems and individual units. Regardless of which system your site uses, you will need to conduct both visual and physical inspections. Spring is a good time to do your inspections. Be sure your staff is well trained and follows safety procedures.

For central air conditioning systems with cooling towers:

  • Grease the motor bearings, the parts that make the pumps and motors turn, and check them for wear and tear. A good rule of thumb is to check the bearings at least twice a year.

  • Tighten electrical connections. Loose connections will cause a voltage drop, which will make the motors and relays run at a hotter temperature and reduce the life expectancy of your equipment.

  • Grease pump bearings and check that they're operating smoothly.

  • Drain and clean the cooling tower. Clean the inside and outside of the cooling tower using a pressurized hose.

  • Check the fan belt in the cooling tower. Make any necessary adjustments and replace the fan belt if it shows wear and tear.

  • Check and replace filters. Checking filters monthly is a good practice.

  • Clean evaporator coils. Make sure the coils are free of algae, dirt, bird droppings, and any other substances that may have accumulated over the winter months.

  • Clean drain pans. Clear out any debris and standing water that may have accumulated.

  • Check thermostat calibrations. If controls are out of calibration, your air conditioning system could run inefficiently, remaining on too long and overcooling.

For outdoor maintenance of individual units:

  • Visually inspect the outdoor portion of the individual unit. You can discover the majority of common air conditioning unit problems with a simple visual inspection. Check for leaves, bugs, bird nests, and any other accumulation from winter.

  • Test the electrical connections to the condenser compressor, and evaporator to be sure they aren't loose. Also check supply and return ducts for damage.

  • Clean debris from the condensers.

  • Clear condensate drains. Over the winter, moisture that remained in the drains may have dried up and formed clogs. Clogs would prevent condensate water from flowing into the drain, creating the potential for water to back up out of the drain pan and flood your residents' units.

  • Clean outside condensing coils. Use a coil cleaner and rinse thoroughly.

Over the course of many air conditioning system inspections, Crosby sees a few problems time and again. “A common problem is clogged condensate lines,” he says. “This problem can result in emergency calls not only because the resident came home to a hot apartment, but also because the condensation couldn't drain properly and spilled out on the carpet. Look for furniture blocking return air ducts. This will reduce efficiency considerably.”

Crosby also advises careful attention to coils. “Outside coils should be cleaned at least every spring,” he recommends. “In regions where trees, particularly cottonwoods, shed cotton-like fibers, you may need to do so more often. Anything that can restrict the air flow through the coil can overheat the compressor, thereby reducing efficiency and life span. Filters should be replaced a minimum of four times per year.”

Get Proper Access for Indoor Maintenance

For indoor maintenance of individual air conditioning units, you'll first need to have a plan to gain access to the units in each resident's apartment. The HUD model lease says that you must give “reasonable advance notice” of your visit and get the household's consent to enter. The lease also requires households to give you their consent to enter their unit to make reasonable repairs [Handbook 4350.3, App. 4a]. Some state and local laws also may apply regarding the notice you must give to residents, and you should make sure you know what laws you must follow.

“Different states and municipalities have different requirements on how much notice is required to enter an apartment for planned preventative maintenance,” Crosby explains. “Make sure you comply with whatever that may be. Make sure you know who has dogs and/or private alarm systems. The idea is to be thorough and efficient with your time.”

Here are steps to take for your inspection planning:

  • Schedule a visit by posting a notice with the date and time you plan to do the inspections for your site. Or call each household to set up a mutually convenient time. Ask the household to be sure someone is at home at the scheduled time or to give permission for your maintenance staff to enter with a passkey.

  • Follow up with any household that doesn't schedule a visit or that you can't reach by phone. Send a letter that includes an appointment time and a reminder that the resident's lease requires him to give you access for inspections and repairs. Invite the household to contact your office if the time you set isn't convenient for them.

  • Send your maintenance staff to the unit at the scheduled time even if the household doesn't respond to the letter.

  • Follow up with a warning letter if no one is home or the household refuses to let your staff member enter. Advise the household that it faces possible eviction for failing to cooperate.

Be prepared to follow through with eviction, if needed. By taking the steps above, you will be able to demonstrate to HUD or to a judge that you made an effort with the household, that the household knew you needed access, and that denying access was a lease violation.

At your scheduled indoor inspection of air conditioning units, do the following:

  • Change filters. Do this every spring, even if the filter doesn't look dirty.

  • Clean each unit's coils. A self-rinsing coil cleaner should take care of minor dirt buildup. For heavy buildup, conduct a more thorough cleaning.

  • Insert sludge tabs in condensate pans. Sludge tabs help melt the sludge and buildup that can accumulate in condensate pans over the winter.

  • Ask residents to test the unit. After the inspection and before the weather gets too hot, ask residents to turn on their units to make sure they work. Ask that they report any problems to you promptly so that you make can any needed repairs as quickly as possible.

Plan and Be Proactive

Crosby suggests taking steps to be sure your residents are well versed in how to use their air conditioning units and thermostats. “Leasing employees can help a lot, particularly early in the season and with elderly residents, by being able to explain how the thermostat works,” he says. “Educating residents at move-in is also a good time to address this.

“Make them aware, also, of the reasonable expectations of an air conditioning unit,” Crosby adds. “In most cases, you can achieve at most 18-20 degrees of separation between inside and outside temperatures. This means that even at peak performance, if it's 95 degrees outside, you'll do no better than 77 degrees inside. Beyond that you should make it clear whether or not you consider lack of air conditioning an emergency. Most do, but not all.”

Finally, Crosby cautions owners and managers about the important of maintenance. “Now more than ever it's critical to maintain existing equipment,” he says. “Several years ago, legislation was passed outlawing the manufacture of R-22 equipment. That often means that the rest of a split-system HVAC is incompatible with the 410a equipment that took the place of R-22. So where you could once replace the condensing unit if the coil went bad, now you'll probably need to replace evaporators, line sets, etc., in addition to the condensing unit. Neglecting equipment hastens the date when you'll face that dilemma.”

Insider Source

Paul Crosby: Director of Maintenance and Safety, Gene B. Glick Company, Inc., Indianapolis, IN; (317) 846-7373;

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