On average, roughly two hurricanes a year make direct landfall on the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Even unnamed storms can cause costly damage, however, and homeowners in Massachusetts need to safeguard their heat pumps and A/C condensers from these violent storms.
The Atlantic hurricane season runs June 1 through November 30, and the prime time for these violently windy storms begins in early August and goes to October. In New England, one of the most infamous hurricanes people remember is Hurricane Bob in 1991, and Bob is a great example for this article.
One of the top three most-costly hurricanes on record, Bob was only a Category 2 hurricane, which is not categorized as a “major” hurricane by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Still, Bob cost Massachusetts residents $39 million in damages and New Englanders, overall, $680 million, according to the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM).
The best way to ensure the safety of your HVAC system in a severe storm or hurricane is to protect it against flooding, high winds, and surges in the electrical grid. The closer you live to the coast, the more extreme your preparation may be. In general, here’s our professional advice for safeguarding your HVAC system in a hurricane or severe storm:
Keep your HVAC equipment above the flood.
FEMA refers to the anticipated floodwater line during a base flood as the base flood elevation (BFE). The BFE for your area is easily found on a Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) and at FEMA’s Flood Map Service Center (https://msc.fema.gov/portal). The agency recommends keeping such mechanical service equipment as heat pumps and condensers a minimum of one foot above the BFE for your area.
Raising your HVAC heat pump or condenser can be as easy as building a concrete or brick foundation to the BFE + 1 foot height. However, particularly on coastal properties, a cantilevered platform may need to be constructed on the side of the dwelling. This type of installation requires a licensed building contractor, who should work closely with your licensed and insured HVAC contractor.
2. Projectile proof your investment.
The reason people close hurricane shutters or nail up plywood over windows during storms is to provide a solid barrier of protection against flying debris. Even a Category 2 hurricane has sustained winds of 96–110 mph, according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale used by NOAA. Winds at these speeds are extremely dangerous and can cause roof and siding damage to well-constructed homes and topple shallow-rooted trees.
FEMA recommends covering your heat pump or condenser unit with a plywood enclosure or at least a tarp to protect it from flying debris. Tree limbs and branches are sure to come down in high winds, and at 100 mph, even relatively small objects can be a costly hazard.
PRO TIP: Make part of your hurricane preparation cleaning up the yard of any objects that could become projectiles.
On the flipside, you also don’t want your HVAC equipment going airborne! Hurricane rated metal tie-downs can be used to fasten heat pumps and condensers to the concrete footing or platform they’re mounted on. Local HVAC contractors can provide free quotes for installing hurricane tie-downs on new energy-efficient air conditioners as well as retrofitting them to existing units.
Shield your HVAC system from electrical surge.
Every category of hurricane is expected to knock out power for anywhere from a few days to several months, depending on the severity. Lightning strikes and power flickering on and off can cause damage to HVAC equipment and other household appliances. There are two good ways to protect all your appliances from electrical damage:
- Turn off the power to your HVAC equipment and other major home appliances at the circuit breaker. If you have gas heat, you may want to turn off the gas as well, but contact your natural gas heating service providerfor more details on how.
- Install a whole home surge protector. This convenient device is like the individual surge protectors you plug into your outlets only it protects your home’s entire electrical system.
Either way, plan to be without your heat and air conditioning when the power inevitably goes out by setting the atmosphere in your home beforehand. Many HVAC and storm experts suggest cooling your home down a little colder than you likeso when the power goes out, your family can be comfortable longer.
Always visually inspect your heat pump or condenser before turning it back on after a hurricane. Obvious signs of physical damage need to be addressed. However, often internal damage can happen that isn’t apparent, especially in cases of severe flooding.
Schedule an inspection with your regular HVAC service provider before turning your unit back on. If you aren’t on a regular maintenance plan, hire a nearby HVAC contractor to send a factory-trained, fully insured HVAC technician to perform an inspection.
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