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Should I Cover My Outdoor Unit During the Winter Months?

There is a wide range of products on the market that are designed to cover or fit over your outside condenser unit in order to protect it while it is not in use. Are such coverings recommended or even advisable? This is a polarizing topic even among AC/Heat professionals, and the answer is often not a straightforward yes or no, which is where the challenge lies. Rather than take a stance on whether condenser unit covers are good or bad, let us present to you all the factors to consider in order to make that decision based on your unique situation. We also strongly encourage you to speak with your local AC/Heat professional in order to get his or her regional-specific advice on the matter.

External Condenser Units Operate in Extreme Temperatures

Overbuilt is a term often overused in marketing, but outdoor air conditioning equipment is a product where it actually applies—particularly when discussing units from industry leaders like Lennox and Trane. Not only are these units designed to withstand 15 or more years of heavy usage, but they are designed to withstand extreme temperatures in winter and in summer too. All of the aspects that are prone to damage or wear from the cold or heat are well insulated by design. One of the reasons homeowners consider a cover to protect their units is the cold, but this is definitely unnecessary. One potential exception is direct sunlight. If your unit gets a lot of it, then installing a sunscreen may be advisable since it will protect the evaporator fins and avoid superficial discoloration of the unit.

How the Elements Affect Your Outside Unit

As just mentioned, cold and heat are not a problem. You will, however, want to winterize your condenser unit, which is a topic we explore in the next section. Other concerns that homeowners may have are rain, snow and ice, but none of these three are real problems. In fact, the open nature of condenser unit design is that way in large part to encourage airflow and allow moisture to escape. That brings us to dirt and other debris, which are potentially damaging and perhaps the best argument for using some type of cover. Be mindful that you can hose out your condenser unit to remove debris.

Outside Units Require Winterization

Far more important than using a cover is winterizing your outdoor equipment in early autumn and on an annual basis. Using a cover does not remove the need to winterize, and winterization service should generally be performed by an AC/Heat professional. Earlier, we mentioned that the various electronics, wires and so forth were insulated to protect against extreme temperatures. In the process of doing its job, that insulation will break down over time and need to be renewed or outright replaced. During this inspection, your technician will also examine the components themselves looking for signs of wear.

Autumn and Winter Cleaning and Inspections

Winterization of your outdoor equipment is not just a service performed by your local AC/Heat company. There are responsibilities that fall to the homeowner as well. The first is ensuring a 2- to 3-foot perimeter around the condenser unit. Ideally, this should be done throughout spring and summer so that any upkeep in fall is relatively minor. A reason many homeowners surround their units with stones or wood chips is to make maintaining that perimeter easier. Even with such a bed, you will need to fight back the grass, weeds and other plant life that want to grow through that layer. Throughout autumn and winter, you will want to inspect the perimeter and unit at least once a month. You will also want to inspect them after any major storm in which the winds are strong enough to move large debris around.

Your Local Climate Matters

Generally, AC unit covers are not necessary in mild climates. It is for that reason that many AC technicians in such regions do not recommend them since they are an unnecessary albeit relatively minor cost. Since the investment is rather small, some homeowners have a “better safe than sorry” perspective, and as long as you choose an appropriate cover—which we discuss in the next section—that is all right too. If your winters are not mild, such as what is experienced in many northern states, then you can make a much better argument for a cover being necessary. Your unit getting pounded all season long by wind, rain, snow, ice and so forth means that it will be harder to keep debris-free.

Cover Characteristics Matter Too: Potential Cons

Why are condenser unit covers polarizing? Well, one major reason is that there are many products on the market, and some of those products are poorly designed. There are, in fact, unit covers for sale that cover the unit from top to bottom with a non-breathing material. Such a cover is terrible because it will trap moisture within the unit, which will then accumulate on wiring, wiring connections, circuit boards and so forth. It can also encourage mold growth and provide an attractive cover for pests.

Many technicians recommend a cover that simply shelters the top of the unit in order to prevent debris from accumulating inside, and if you do not care about appearance, even a sheet of plywood will do the trick. If you do want a cover that drapes over the unit and covers it from top to bottom, then it is very important that you choose a product specifically designed to facilitate the required airflow.

Should You Opt for a Cover?

As of this writing, you can purchase a high-quality AC unit cover for about $20 to $30. That includes top-only covers and draped breathable covers. The investment is rather small, so if you are inclined to do it, you probably should. However, make sure you do not choose a product that blocks moisture, and if you have any doubts at all, you should have your AC/Heat company come out and sign off on it.

Window and Wall-Mounted Units

This discussion thus far has focused on outdoor condenser units. The advice does not apply to window-based units. While there are window AC unit covers available, these are almost always a bad idea. Window AC units should be removed and stored for the winter. If you have a wall-mounted unit with an exterior connection, then you generally will want to buy a cover, which will block cold air and moisture from entering through the unit.

Your Local AC/Heat Company in Tucson

Rite Way Heating, Cooling & Plumbing has been serving homeowners in Tucson and throughout the surrounding communities since 1959. That means that we have more than 60 years of experience helping area residents make decisions like whether or not they should cover their outside units. We are a fully licensed and insured AC/Heat company, a Lennox Premier Dealer and a Trane Comfort Dealer. Our team installs, maintains and repairs all manner of home cooling and heating equipment. You can also count on us for all of your plumbing needs, including plumbing repair, drain unclogging, leak detection and correction and tankless water heater installations.