8 Steps to Prep Your HVAC System for Winter

exterior HVAC compressor in snow
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Winter is coming for you and your HVAC system, so be prepared.

What Is an HVAC?

If you’re new to the homeownership world, let's talk about HVACs. HVAC stands for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning.

The term HVAC simply refers to the systems that keep your house cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and well-ventilated all year round.

Your HVAC isn’t always actually cooling your air—that’s sometimes what a separate AC unit is for—but HVAC systems do help move that cool air through your home.

The HVAC does warm the air up, though, and the HVAC unit is responsible for pushing that warm air through your house like it does the cool air from the AC.

Knowing what the HVAC does and how it works helps you understand how to better care for your HVAC in the colder months of the year.

Knowing that your HVAC will be responsible for heating the air and circulating that are through your home makes it easier to understand why it may need a little special TLC before winter.

Where Is the HVAC Located?

Obviously, the HVAC system is going to be located in a different spot in every home. But if you're trying to track yours down, here are a few good places to look.

Firstly, if you have a heat pump dual system, your HVAC will likely be outside of your home.

If you do not have this type of HVAC, your system is going to be in the house.

Check inside the utility closet, in the crawl space, in the basement, or in the garage. These are the most common places where your HVAC unit is going to live.

Why Prep Your HVAC for Winter?

Preparing your HVAC for winter helps reduce the risk of having a major HVAC problem during the coldest months of the year.

No one wants their heating to go out during a snowstorm, getting all bundled up in blankets is all fun and games until it's two in the morning, and you can't feel your toes.

Preparing your HVAC for winter gives you a chance to make sure that everything is up to date and ready to run at full capacity during the cold months.

It also saves you money. When you prepare ahead of time, you minimize the risk of an HVAC disaster which requires a costly house call from a professional.

So take a little time now, to check on your HVAC, and save yourself headaches and money.

Power Off

Before you run any checks or maintenance on your HVAC, you're going to want to turn the entire thing off.

That means turning it off and waiting for the blower to stop. You run the risk of damaging your HVAC and your personal health if you don't wait for that blower to stop (you could get electrocuted or hurt).

Turning off your HVAC system is the simplest step on this list and the most important because most other steps on this list are predicated on this one.

As you turn off your HVAC, make sure that it doesn't take an inordinate amount of time to turn off and that the process goes smoothly.

You'd be surprised, but people can identify problems with their HVAC just from this step.

Filter Out the Filter

hands cleaning ac filter

Before winter, you're also going to want to replace the air filters in your HVAC. You actually want to do this every few months, but especially before winter.

Why? Because a dirty air filter means that your HVAC is working harder than it should. And an HVAC working harder than it should be means the system is costing you more money.

You can buy replacement filters for your HVAC at most large retail stores and home improvement places.

Not all filters are created the same. And you're going to want to make sure that you get a filter that is the correct size for your HVAC. There are tons of size options, it's overwhelming.

We like to take a picture of our current filter information before we head to the store so that we know we're not going to buy the wrong filter. We've done it before, and it's a horrible feeling.

People have very strong opinions on the different types of filters available for your HVAC, so do a little digging on the different types of filter frames and their reusability.

Listen Up

You're also going to run a sound check on your unit. Just like you listened for anything unusual when the unit was powering down, power the unit back up and see if you hear any weird sounds.

It can be difficult to know what's not a normal sound when it comes to working with an HVAC system for the first time.

It's hard to communicate through text on a screen but listen for sounds that clank, rattle, thump, or bang. Any kind of sound you wouldn't like to hear coming from your car.

And when in doubt, there's no shame in asking a professional to come and take a listen if you feel like something's off. It's better to be safe than sorry when it comes to preparing your HVAC for winter.

Thermostat Check Up

hand adjusting thermostat with screwdriver

Your HVAC and your thermostat are closely related, so you can use your thermostat to gauge how well your HVAC is working.

If your thermostat says one thing, but you're sure that the house is much hotter or much colder and the thermostat is reading, there could be a problem with your HVAC.

Similarly, if you feel like you're running your HVAC at full strength but you can't get the key temperature in the house to rise or drop, add another indication of a problem.

You want to make sure that your HVAC is working at optimal capacity before you ask it to heat your house all day for several months straight.

Check for Moisture and Mold

Your HVAC can accumulate moisture, which, as you may have suspected, is not a good thing.

Moisture leads to rust and more serious problems with the HVAC.

Rust, coincidentally, will be one of the first signs of moisture that's not supposed to be in your HVAC collecting in vent pipes. If you see rust or even dirt, that's not a good sign.

You also want to check for mold, because moisture breeds mold. And there is nothing grosser than mold infecting your HVAC and then getting blown throughout your whole house.

We've seen it happen in an old college apartment, and we would prefer that it never occur to anyone else.

If you do encounter mold, you're going to want to take the appropriate safety precautions and eradicated it immediately.

Test Run

hands near heat vent

If you are working with an old unit, you're going to want to make sure that I can still produce heat while it's mild outside. Don't wait to test it out until the first snowfall.

As a general rule, it's recommended that you test out your HVAC system two or three times before winter if you're working with an old unit.

Simply adjust your thermostat to a point where the heat kicks on, and let it run for about twenty to thirty minutes or until you can feel a difference in the home and you are sure that the heat is running.

Turn the HVAC system off and try the same process again in a week or two.

If you run into any problems at all during this process, you need to call a professional quickly so that the problem can be solved well before winter.

We recommend trying this out at the beginning of fall. Especially with supply chain issues and products still being out of stock, you're going to want to know if you need to replace something sooner rather than later.

Clear the Area

Maybe you're a little bit like us in the closet that your HVAC lives in has become filled with small storage items. This isn't safe, and it's not good for the unit.

When you're inspecting your HVAC, make sure that you're clearing space around the entire unit. It's recommended that you give the unit of birth of three to four feet on all sides.

This helps your unit run more efficiently and helps to prevent a catastrophe like a fire.

Your unit needs to breathe, seriously. Giving it the appropriate breathing room allows your HVAC system to work at maximum capacity without breaking down.

It also helps prevent compounding problems when several household units are stored in the same utility closet—for example, your HVAC system and your water heater.

Regularly Scheduled Maintenance

To keep your HVAC system working well all year round, we recommend that you have a service technician perform regular maintenance for the system.

Because your furnace emits dangerous gases like carbon monoxide, it's important that the unit we regularly checked and that you have a carbon monoxide detector close to the unit.

This can be a deadly gas, and it's not something to ignore or neglect.

During a professional tune-up, all aspects will be examined, and some will even be cleaned. We like to have our annual tune-up done at the end of summer so that we are ready for winter.

Duct, Duct, Vent

man working on HVAC vent

Now that your HVAC system is ready for winter, the work is almost done.

If it's been a while, now might be the time to have the ductwork in your house professionally cleaned. Getting your ductwork cleaned will increase the efficiency of the HVAC system.

It's really hard for hot air to reach you if your ducks are full of gunk.

And while it's pretty hard to DIY ductwork cleaning, you can definitely clean your vents and returns. These handy little grates are all over your house and should be cleaned regularly.

Dust and grime build up on these vents and then blow throughout your house. It's gross, and there's a quick and easy way to avoid the mess and the health hazard.

Grab a ladder and a screwdriver, and get ready to clean a few ducts and vents.

First, you're going to want to remove your vent covers with a screwdriver using a ladder if necessary. As always, remember that safety comes first, and have someone hold your ladder.

We have a return on the ceiling of our first floor, and because our ceiling is vaulted there, we rarely get to cleaning it. The resulting gunk is pretty nasty.

We have to be really careful when we go to clean the vent cover because it's all dusty, and there is a white couch directly under it.

If you are in a similar predicament, we recommend using a garbage bag to help collect the fallout before it destroys your white couch.

After you've removed the vent covers, you're going to want to dust and clean them thoroughly.

This is also a good time to examine the vent covers and make sure that they work well. Make sure that they open and close easily and that nothing needs to be replaced.

A vent that won't open keeps your room colder than you'd like it.

We wash our vent covers with a little powdered Tide and Dawn dish soap, then we dry them off and do not install them back into the walls, floors, or ceiling until they are completely dry.

Installing the vent covers back in while they are still wet can be a hotbed for mold growth, which then gets blown around the home when the air comes back on.

While the vent covers are off, you can do a little bit of duct cleaning. We like to vacuum around the duct and then dust it with a damp paper towel so that dust doesn't fall all over the room.

While you can't reach very far with a DIY duct cleaning, it is definitely better than nothing.

We recommend tackling this process while your HVAC system is not running because it's very difficult to clean anything out with air blowing in your face.