Your air conditioner uses some fascinating physics to do its job, but the basic concept behind its operation is relatively easy to understand. The critical component is your refrigerant, which travels between the indoor (evaporator) and outdoor (condenser) units in a loop. Along the way, it picks up heat from inside your home and moves that heat outside.

The coils at each end make this heat transfer possible. The evaporator coils allow the refrigerant to absorb your warm indoor air, while the condenser coils help the refrigerant cool down so it can repeat the process. Maintaining your condenser coils will help ensure maximum efficiency for your system, and these three tips will help you keep yours operating at peak performance.

1. Never Use Pressure Washers

You don't need to pressure wash your coils. Any debris or dirt stuck in the coils should be relatively loose, and the thin aluminum fins are fragile and easy to damage. Even the low-pressure nozzle on a pressure washer can potentially cause substantial damage. Using this approach to clean your coils is likely to do more harm than good and possibly even damage the fins beyond repair.

Instead of using a pressure washer, use a regular garden hose either without a nozzle or with a nozzle that doesn't create a high-pressure stream. This approach will allow you to remove debris from the fins gently without risking damage. If you notice the fins bending, stop using your hose immediately and switch to a less intense nozzle.

2. Always Start As Gently As Possible

You want to avoid using anything harsh on your coils, including inappropriate cleaning solutions. In most cases, you should be able to keep your condenser clean with water alone. Avoid the temptation to start your maintenance process by hosing the entire coil assembly down in soap. You'll rarely need a chemical cleaner to remove dirt, and the residue may be hard to remove.

If you have difficulty cleaning your coils with water alone, try to limit chemical cleaning to areas with severe amounts of dirt or mold growth and rinse thoroughly. It's also critical to only use cleaners approved for use on air conditioning coils. In general, you should only use soaps or foaming cleansers when necessary since these products can corrode metal over time.

3. Don't Ignore Bent Fins

Bent fins can come into contact with one another and reduce the surface area available to dissipate heat. You can straighten bent fins yourself using a specialized tool or, if you only have a few bent fins, any tool thin to push them back into shape. Remember that your coil fins are highly delicate, so perform this task slowly and carefully.

If you have a large number of bent fins, you'll probably want an HVAC professional to inspect your unit and suggest the best course of action. Too many bent fins can significantly impact the efficiency of your HVAC system, and it may not be enough to bend them back into place with a coil comb or butterknife.

Contact a local HVAC technician to learn more about air conditioning system maintenance.