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Heating and Cooling Emergencies 101: What to Do When Your Comfort System Breaks Down

Hey there, homeowners!

Picture this: it’s the middle of a blistering summer or a freezing winter night, and your HVAC system suddenly decides to take an unplanned vacation. Panic sets in, right? Well, don't worry—you're not alone. Heating and cooling systems can and do break down, often at the most inconvenient times. But with a little know-how, you can manage these emergencies like a pro and keep your cool (or your warmth). Let’s dive into what you should do when your comfort system breaks down.

First things first, it’s crucial to stay calm. It’s easy to get flustered when the temperature inside your home starts to match the extreme weather outside, but keeping a clear head will help you tackle the issue efficiently. Whether it’s your air conditioner during a summer heatwave, or your furnace in the dead of winter, your immediate actions can make a big difference.


What to Do in the Summer

When your air conditioner quits working on a scorching day, your primary concern is to stay cool. Check your thermostat setting. Make sure that it’s set to 'cool' and the temperature is lower than the current room temperature. It might be time for a quick battery swap or reset.

If the thermostat isn’t the issue, head to your circuit breaker. A tripped breaker can halt your air conditioner. If you find one, reset it and see if that restores power. Should the breaker trip again, it’s time to call a professional, as this indicates a potential electrical problem.

Take a look at the air filter. Just like with heating systems, a dirty filter can wreak havoc on your AC. A clogged filter restricts airflow, causing the unit to work harder and potentially overheat. Swap out a dirty filter for a new one and give your system some time to cool down.

Check the outdoor unit. Sometimes, debris like leaves, dirt, or ice can obstruct the condenser unit. Clear any visible obstructions and ensure the area around the unit is clean. If the unit is iced over, turn off the system and let the ice melt before restarting it.

While waiting for repairs, keep your home as cool as possible. Close blinds or curtains to block out sunlight, use fans to circulate air and avoid using heat-generating appliances like ovens or dryers. Staying hydrated is crucial, so drink plenty of water, and if it’s unbearably hot, consider visiting a friend or family member with a working AC or spending time in a public, air-conditioned space like a mall or library.


What to Do in the Winter

Now, what if your heating system fails in the winter? The primary concern is staying warm. The first step is similar, check your thermostat settings. It sounds simple, but sometimes the fix is as easy as adjusting the settings or replacing the batteries. Ensure the thermostat is set to 'heat' and the temperature is set higher than the current room temperature. If it’s not responding, a simple battery replacement or reset might solve the problem.

Next, inspect the circuit breaker. Heating systems often have dedicated circuits, and a tripped breaker could be the culprit. Locate your electrical panel and see if any switches are in the ‘off’ position. If you find one, switch it back on. If it trips again, there might be an underlying electrical issue that needs professional attention. (Please don’t try to troubleshoot electrical problems without the help of a professional.)

While you’re checking the basics, look at your furnace’s air filter. A clogged filter can cause the system to overheat and shut down. Replace the filter if it’s dirty and see if that helps. Additionally, make sure the furnace door is securely closed; some models won’t operate if the door is ajar.

In the meantime, keep yourself and your family warm. Layer up with extra clothing, use space heaters safely, and gather in one room to conserve heat. Block drafts by placing towels at the base of doors and windows and keep the oven door open after cooking to release some heat into the kitchen. Remember to never use ovens or stoves as heating sources, as this can be extremely dangerous.

At this point, if you’ve checked everything and your system still isn’t working, it’s time to call in the professionals. An HVAC technician can diagnose and fix issues that are beyond DIY repairs. Be prepared to describe the problem in detail and let them know what troubleshooting steps you’ve already taken. This information can help them diagnose the issue more quickly and accurately.

While waiting for the technician, keep an eye on the weather forecast. Knowing when the temperature will rise, or fall can help you plan accordingly. For instance, you might decide to wait out a mild evening without heating or cooling, but you’ll need a faster solution if extreme temperatures are expected.

Preventative maintenance is your best friend when it comes to avoiding these breakdowns. Regularly scheduled HVAC check-ups can catch potential issues before they become emergencies. Change your air filters every one to three months, keep the area around your outdoor unit clear, and have your system inspected by a professional at least once a year.

If you haven’t already considered investing in a programmable thermostat, now might be the time. These devices can optimize your system’s performance and energy efficiency, reducing the strain on your HVAC equipment and prolonging its lifespan. Smart thermostats even allow you to monitor and control your home’s temperature remotely, giving you peace of mind and control no matter where you are.


We know that a breakdown of your heating or cooling system is never fun, but with a calm approach and the right steps, you can manage the situation effectively.

Remember, if your heating or cooling system is showing some problems, try the following troubleshooting steps.

Check the basics like the 

  • Thermostat
  • Circuit breaker
  • Air filter
  • Clear any debris around your outdoor unit

Keep yourself and your family comfortable with temporary measures while waiting for professional help.

Most importantly, prioritize regular maintenance to prevent future emergencies. Stay warm, stay cool, and stay prepared!


HVAC Riddle:

I cool you in the summer and warm you in the cold,

When I break down, my troubles often can be told.

A filter here, a breaker there, sometimes a thermostat’s care,

What am I, that in your home, keeps the perfect air?

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