What is an HVAC Float Switch

Basic Understanding of your Home Appliances

If you're a homeowner, it's always prudent to learn how some of the various systems around your home work. Of course, you don't need to spend countless hours studying the ins and outs of all your appliances—if you wanted that, you would have probably chosen a career working on them.

However, if you take the time to gain a basic understanding of how these systems work and what their different components do, you'll be more capable of being a responsible and proactive homeowner. For example, if you're knowledgeable enough to quickly identify a mechanical problem with your HVAC system, you may be able to save money and avoid a lot of hassle.

Preventing Thousands of Dollars in Damage

One appliance that's always worth learning about is your air conditioning system, and the drain line float switch is one of many important parts that help the AC system effectively do its job. Here, we'll provide you with a rundown of what float switches do, why they're important, and how they work. Then, if your AC float switch has a problem in the future, you'll have a better understanding of what the issue means, how you should deal with it, and why it isn't something you should ignore.

Aquaguard magnetic pan and rectorseal inline safety switches

Written by Jeremy James

Jeremy James is a veteran of the U.S. Navy who has grown his family's HVAC business into one of the most successful home service businesses in Knoxville, TN. More than 20 years of experience in the HVAC and Engineering industries and passion for what we do has translated into our customer service, professionalism, and quality. LinkedIn

What Is a Float Switch?

Essentially, an AC float switch is an electronic water sensor for your HVAC system. Sometimes, this air conditioner component is also referred to as a condensate overflow switch or an AC safety switch, and it functions as a safety net for excessive water buildup within the appliance. With the help of this float switch, your air conditioning unit can detect when it's experiencing a clogged drain line, which then allows it to shut itself down before serious problems can start to occur.

What Is the Purpose of a Float Switch?

Where does the water come from?

To understand the purpose of the float switch, it's important to understand why it's necessary. Although many homeowners are unaware that it's happening, air conditioners do more than simply provide cool air. As a byproduct of the cooling process, modern AC units also lower humidity levels by removing moisture from the air.

What is supposed to happen?

However, the water it takes from your home's indoor air doesn't just disappear; it has to go somewhere. When your HVAC system is functioning properly, that moisture accumulates in the air conditioner's drain pan, which is located within the system below the evaporator coil. Then, before it can overflow, the water in the drain pan is removed from your home through the AC drain lines and your household plumbing system.

How the drains get clogged

So, when this process is working smoothly, the float switch is sitting idle. However, that isn't always the case. Because the water that your air conditioner removes from the air can contain particles of dust, dirt, and other contaminants, it's possible for the condensate drain line to become clogged.

What happens when Condensate Water Overflows

When you encounter a clogged drain scenario with your AC unit, the system will continue to dehumidify the air, and the water in the pan will continue to build up. Eventually, the drain pan will overflow, spilling water out of the appliance and into your home, where it can cause issues like water damage and mold growth.

Many air conditioning units will come equipped with secondary drain pans, which are positioned below the primary drain pan. These pans have the job of catching any pan overflow to prevent the water from spilling into your household. However, if the air conditioner continues to run like everything's fine, that secondary drain pan will eventually overflow as well. That's why an AC float switch is so important.

The Safety Switch does its Job

When float switches sense that a certain amount of water has accumulated to a certain point in the system, it will recognize that something isn't right. As a result, the appliance is alerted to the fact that the drain line is clogged, and in response, it shuts the system down. Then, you have the opportunity to contact HVAC professionals to come out, inspect your system, and remedy whatever's causing the issue.

Where Is the Float Switch Located?

Pan Safety and Inline

Depending on the specific model of your air conditioner, there are several places where the AC float switch might be located. Specifically, the placement of the switch typically depends on the orientation of the air conditioner. If the appliance is a horizontal unit, then the safety switch will be found in the secondary drain pan. Alternatively, if you have a vertical unit or a horizontal unit without a secondary condensate pan, then the float switch will most likely be located on the drain pipe of the AC unit.

Condensate Pump

That said, AC float switches will have the same primary function regardless of where they're located on the appliance. If your AC unit is located somewhere in your home that's a significant distance from your plumbing system, then the system may be equipped with a component called a condensate pump. When the drain pan starts to fill up, this pump has the job of pushing that water through the drain lines and out of your home. Condensate pumps also come equipped with a mechanism that works similarly to a float switch so that the air conditioner can shut off when it needs to.

Why Are Float Switches Important?

AC float switches are important for several reasons. For one thing, having a safety switch on your AC unit will promptly alert you when the system needs to be repaired. If the appliance inexplicably shuts down, you should be able to determine right away that the AC float switch detected a problem with the drainage system. Then, you'll know that you schedule an appointment with local HVAC experts as soon as possible.

Having an AC float switch will also allow you to prevent pan overflow, which will in turn prevent water damage in your home. If your AC drain line is clogged, it won't take long at all for the system to overflow, as it will continue to collect moisture as long as it's running. If it's the middle of the hot summer, you'll most likely have the AC unit running frequently, and that means water damage could start to occur very quickly.

The longer this problem is ongoing, the worse the water damage, and the more money you'll have to spend to get it fixed. And that means that by preventing water damage, a float switch can also help you save a significant amount of money.

Another benefit of having an AC float switch is better indoor air quality. The fact is, water damage isn't the only negative effect that can come from overflowing air conditioners. If water is allowed to linger for a prolonged period and soak into your carpet or flooring, there's a very real chance that nasty mold will start to grow.

Eventually, that mold growth will spread, and you'll end up with an unhealthy amount of mold spores floating around your home. Not only can this lead to more mold colonies popping up around the house, but it may also lead to health issues for you and your family. By preventing these water leaks from happening in the first place, your safety switch can help keep your indoor air clean and healthy.

Finally, your air conditioner's float switch can help ensure that the AC unit has a long and healthy lifespan. When the safety switch detects that the system has a clogged condensate drain line, it gives the unit a chance to shut itself off before any serious damage can be done to its equipment or your home. In addition to preventing costly repair bills, staving off these mechanical issues can also extend the life expectancy of the appliance.

As you can see, having a float switch device is very important for many reasons. However, some air conditioners, unfortunately, lack this crucial component.

What Happens if You Don't Have a Float Switch?

Based on what you've read so far, you may be assuming that most AC units come standard with a float switch. However, that isn't the case. The opposite is true; most of the time, when you purchase a new AC unit, it will not come equipped with a switch mechanism. As a result, many homeowners find themselves dealing with very frustrating problems.

If your air conditioner doesn't have an AC float switch, a clogged drain line can easily turn into a massive issue. When the AC unit's drainage system starts to fail, the appliance will have no way of knowing that anything's wrong, and the condensate water will continue to fill up the drain pan. Eventually, it will overflow, and if there's a secondary drain pan below it, that pan will overflow as well, and there will suddenly be large amounts of leaking moisture. From that point, it won't be long before you have quite a bit of water accumulating in your home, which can lead to water damage, biological growth, flooding, and in some cases, even structural damage to your home.

The good news is that if you're proactive, you shouldn't ever have to deal with this kind of problem. Float switches are not only affordable parts, but they're also easily installed. Whether you've had your AC for a month, a year, or a decade, it will be no problem for HVAC professionals to install a quality float switch device on the appliance.

If you are having second thoughts about the price of installing one of these switches, think about this: The price for adding a switch will be far less expensive than the price of paying for home repairs, carpet replacement, or mold remediation services.

Is It Worth Investing in a Float Switch?

Simply put, the answer is yes. When it comes to an AC float switch, it's far better to have one and not need it than to need one and not have it. You may end up never experiencing any problems with your air conditioner's drainage system, in which case your safety switch will be idle. However, there's no way to know if a drainage problem might come up, and you don't want to be caught without a switch if one ever does. So, in addition to things like scheduled routine maintenance and other HVAC equipment upkeep, having a float switch installed is another effective way to keep your household functioning smoothly.

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