Keeping your air conditioner running smoothly is a must in the Florida heat, and when it comes to avoiding problems, experts say regular maintenance is essential.

Homeowner Jim Krauss has had regular maintenance on his unit ever since he bought it five years ago.

“It’s like anything else,” Krauss said. “If you don’t take care of it, it’s not gonna last.”

When it comes to keeping your home cool, a dirty air conditioning unit is public enemy No. 1, according to Garry Simpson, owner of Simpson Air in Tampa.

“Dust, particulates, pet hair, dander, carpet fiber, lint from bed clothes all get trapped in the filter,” Simpson explained.

That compromises your unit’s efficiency.

“It slows down the air flow, and as the air flow slows down, the air conditioner works harder and drives your power bill up higher,” he said.

Experts recommend a yearly tune up — inside and out. Expect a good company to change your filters and clean the air handler inside. That includes a wipe down of the unit, spraying the coils with cleaner and pouring cleaner down the drain line. They should also tighten up screws, check the coolant, check for leaks, and test the amps for efficiency. 

Outside, they should vacuum out any dust, grass and leaves, and also spray-down the unit with a cleaner. Lastly, they should vacuum out the drain line to get rid of any slime and debris that could be clogging it up.

Your system can lose about 5 percent of its efficiency if it’s not cleaned yearly - more if you let it go a long time.

“Once it’s clean, it works like it’s supposed to.  It starts cooling well again and your energy bills go down,” Simpson said.

Having regular maintenance can also help you to avoid big problems and major repairs, by catching smaller issues early.

“In these five years, we really haven’t had any problems since the system was put in,” Krauss said. “Something could have broken down by now, if I had not done anything in the last five years.”

There are also things you can do as a homeowner to help keep your unit running smoothly. Changing your air filters regularly is one of the simplest things you should do.

Simpson air recommends changing it monthly and using a thick, spun, fiberglass filter. 

“Avoid those expensive long-term filters that some say can last three months,” Simpson cautions. “They’re in your unit too long and they get too dirty.” 

He said long-term filters get so full they don’t fit properly, so air and dust leak out and your unit won’t work at its optimal efficiency.

You can also pour vinegar in your drain-line every few months, to help keep it clean between tune-ups, but don’t use bleach, because it’s too toxic and corrosive.

“Keep the machine clean and you’ll get 10-15 years out of it, like it’s designed to be,” Simpson said.

The cost for a maintenance tune-up can vary-- depending on how often you do it.  If you’re on a yearly plan—expect to pay about $100 to $150.  Be wary of ultra-cheap offers. It could be a tactic to just get in the door — to sell you something else.

Fall and spring are the best times to set up appointments for regular maintenance. Companies are often so busy with emergency calls over the summer that it’s harder to get an appointment.