Breaking Bad HVAC Maintenance that Will Save You Money

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Like most parents I want my son to graduate high school and go to college. It doesn’t have to be an Ivy League school – a good state college or a university works well. My wife and I went to state schools and everything turned out just fine. I do believe there is value in higher education, especially if he can get a scholarship like his pops. But if for some reason my son decides not to attend college I think I’m gonna recommend that he looks into becoming an HVAC technician.

After dealing with AC issues at my rental condo and our house I must say it seems like a pretty sweet gig. How many other jobs let you charge $65-120 just for showing up? I guess a taxi in NYC is similar – you owe a couple of bucks as soon as you sit down and any actual miles after are a la carte. Plumbers and electricians come to mind too.

Sure, there’s an HVAC school and a learning curve, licensing, experience and competition… But none of the actual work seems difficult. For example, I was going to buy manifold gauges and add refrigerant to my two outdoor ACs myself after watching a couple of step-by-step YouTube videos. The process is similar to adding refrigerant to your car when the air stops blowing cold. I’ve done that and it’s very straightforward. While you can buy 134a refrigerant used in cars all day long, you can’t buy R22 for my AC condenser at home without an EPA certification. That necessitated a painful process of calling HVAC companies and hearing their sales pitches.

Lets see… The lowest price I found was $65 for showing up and then $65 per pound of R22. On two leaking AC systems that adds up fast.

And how about those margins? You can get a 30 pound tank of R22 refrigerant for under $350 or roughly $11 per pound. I wouldn’t be surprised if HVAC companies pay even less than that wholesale. And some companies were quoting $120 service call fee plus $115 per pound. Holy markup!

While I had the tech working on AC at my house he ran a couple of tests to see if anything else might be wrong. First he tested each capacitor – an easy task requiring only a voltmeter. I knew they were fine because I just replaced one and tested the other one recently myself. Then he hooked up the manifold gauges and it turns out that, besides being low on refrigerant, both units were not dissipating the heat sufficiently enough. Tech said that the most likely culprit was dirty AC condenser coil fins.

I told him that I just cleaned one of the outdoor units with soapy water and a brush and rinsed it thoroughly with water. While this is helpful, the tech said it’s not enough. This was news to me.

He offered to clean both units with a special contractor-grade AC condenser coil cleaner… to the tune of $300. I asked him to explain the process in detail and he did. Then, while he was busy with something else, I jumped online to see if you can get the same “contractor-grade” cleaner myself. Turns out – yes, you sure can!

There is NO way I’ll pay someone that much to clean my stuff! I can’t bring myself to pay $10 for a car wash – you think I’m gonna pay $300 to wash my two AC’s? Riiight…

After the tech left I ordered a gallon of the same exact cleaner that he was going to use. Under $30 dollars shipped to my door within a few days. One gallon is enough for several cleanings and I already had the other two things needed – a spray bottle and a hose.

An hour of my time with less than $30 in materials vs. $300 paid to HVAC company? I look at it as making $270 per hour or more, since I still have enough Hydro-Foam to do another cleaning in a couple of years.

The actual cleaning process could not be simpler. Spray the cleaner liberally on the fins, wait 5 or so minutes while it’s foaming and then thoroughly rinse the condenser with lots of water. That’s it.

Now, keep in mind that this stuff will eat through your skin and bones so treat it with respect. The reason Hydro-Foam works so well is because it has hydrofluoric acid (yep, the same acid used by Breaking Bad’s Jesse to dissolve a body in a bathtub) and phosphoric acid. Nasty stuff but according to the HVAC tech the other “green” products will simply not get the coils clean enough, especially on older systems like mine. So read the instructions and follow them to the T. I tried to minimize any exposed skin and wore rubber gloves and eye protection. Just basic common sense stuff. Oh, and turn off the AC while you’re spraying it. The last thing you want is hydrofluoric acid blow-back in your face. If you’re still not convinced please watch Breaking Bad Season 1 Episode 02 “Cat’s in the Bag..”.

Everyone likes good Before and After pictures so lets check them out.

Here we have two old AC condenser coils from the 1990s. The unit on the right is the one that I scrubbed with soapy water a couple of weeks ago. It really does not look any cleaner than the dirty one on the left, does it?

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Here I just sprayed Hydro-Foam on the unit on the left. It started foaming up nicely right away.

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After washing off Hydro-Foam the difference is clearly visible. No amount of scrubbing with soap could get these fins to look like this! Compare it to the unit on the right that was cleaned conventionally with soap and water.

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It might be placebo talking but I felt like the air coming out of the ducts was colder once the AC was turned back on. One thing for certain is that a cleaning like this will make our aging HVAC work better, longer and more efficiently. That’s all I can ask at this point since I have no desire to drop over 10K on a new system anytime soon. I’ve got a mortgage to pay off first.

I thought I was maintaining my AC by the book when I gave it a soapy bath once in a while but after seeing the problem explained by the tech I now know it’s not enough. Actually, using a product like Hydro-Foam is a lot easier anyway since there is no scrubbing involved. Just spray and rinse. If you have an outdoor AC condenser that has not been cleaned in a similar manner within the last couple of years you should really consider performing this simple maintenance task.

P.S. After looking at the pictures it’s painfully obvious how many fins are bent on the coil. The damage was much less visible when the AC was dirty. Just like dirty fins, bent fins will also prevent the heat transfer into the surrounding air causing AC to run inefficiently and putting more stress on that expensive compressor. I plan on getting a fin comb and straightening as many fins as I can soon. That’s another cheap and easy DIY project – just the kind I like best.

 

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