There are two times each year when we should put the most thought and effort into ensuring that our HVAC system is in good working order: the winter and summer, when the temperatures change dramatically. An efficient HVAC unit not only provides you with a comfortable home but also reduces your energy consumption and helps you save on your monthly utility bills.

If you are taking steps to create an energy-efficient home, your HVAC unit is just one small part of the big picture. It is, however, an important part. Here are eight things you can do to maximize the efficiency of your HVAC equipment and keep it operating at peak performance all year long:

1. Keep your ducts clean and free of debris and damage. Clogged and damaged ducts can lead to more demand on your HVAC system, from having to force air through dirty ducts to constantly having to replace heated or cooled air lost to cracks. You should have your ducts inspected twice a year, once before winter and once before summer, to make sure they are contributing to the overall health of your HVAC system.

2. Change the filters as often as required by your HVAC unit's manufacturer. Keeping filters clean improves the efficiency of your HVAC unit and also improves the air quality inside your home. If you have pets or seem to have an unusually significant amount of dust and small particles entering your home, replace your filters with HEPA filters that reduce particle distribution.

3. If you have a larger home, consider separating it into zones. This allows you more precise control over the heating and cooling of specific parts of your house, such as those that see the most use versus those that are used rarely or seasonally. Climate zones in your home can be accomplished with separate thermostats to control each zone and duct dampers to close off or open up air flow to each zone as needed.

4. Make sure your home isn't losing air to cracks and gaps around doors, windows, the chimney, and other locations where air may pass through from the inside to the outside. Air loss is the number one enemy of an energy-efficient home. Some places that you can check for unnecessary air loss include places where plumbing and electrical wiring pass through walls, dryer chutes, electrical outlets, and in areas where your insulation may need to be upgraded or replaced.

5. Keep the area around your HVAC condenser clear to allow for proper air flow, and provide shade and rain protection for the unit. Protecting your HVAC equipment from the elements can improve its overall efficiency and prevent premature repairs from weather damage.

6. Stop adjusting your thermostat every time you feel chilly or sweaty. Constantly changing the temperature on your thermostat makes your HVAC unit have to work continuously to keep up with your demands. Set it at a reasonably comfortable temperature and leave it alone. As an added boost to efficiency, set the thermostat a few degrees higher in summer and lower in winter, and take other measures to keep your home's interior temperature comfortably warm or cool.

7. Have your equipment inspected at least annually by a professional HVAC service technician. The technician can check and clean coils, replace hoses and other parts that are showing visible wear or damage, and perform other duties to ensure that your equipment continues to operate at peak capacity.

8. While this step may require a bit more long-term planning due to budget concerns, you may need to consider replacing your HVAC system with a new unit. If your equipment is too big or too small for your home or it's starting to show its age, it may be time to upgrade. An inappropriately sized unit is not going to heat or cool your home efficiently, and it will suffer wear and tear more quickly due to the heavier workload. If your unit is outdated, you can replace it with a new unit that is highly rated for energy efficiency and is the perfect size for your home's living space.

These steps will help you do your part to ensure that your HVAC unit operates at peak efficiency for as long as possible. There are many ways to make your home more energy efficient and reduce your family's personal energy use, so start taking a proactive stance today and help your HVAC equipment work smarter, not harder.