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The salt air effect

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The salt air effect

Kim Madden shows how brittle fins that surround the coils of a heat pump become after being exposed to salt air.

Most of us who live in the Lowcountry love the saltwater environments of the Atlantic Ocean and its local tributaries and marshes.

After all, there’s a natural lure of salt. The concentration of salt in the human body is generally equivalent to that in seawater. We need salt to live, even though the American diet generally has too much of it and can contribute to disease related to hypertension.

The salt air along the Lowcountry and other coastal communities also can take a costly toll on something else: your home and garden.

Salt can wreak havoc on heat pumps, exterior paint and, in locations immediately adjacent to beaches, creeks and marshes, on non-native landscape plants.

Live here long enough and odds are you’ll have your heat pump, aka HVAC (heating ventilation and air conditioning), conk out on you in the heat of summer.

The salt that’s carried in the heavy, humid air often plays a key role in corroding the metal fins and coils (both outside and inside) of heat pumps. The problems are not limited to those who live on the barrier islands, either. Those who live near tidal creeks and marshes also have issues.

“Salt water makes a huge difference when it comes to HVAC,” says Jesse Erbel, the quality assurance and technical training adviser for the nonprofit Sustainability Institute’s CharlestonWISE program. “Outdoor units should be good for 12-15 years, but we often see the fins on units on the beach or marsh corroded by year five or seven.

Erbel says regular maintenance, including getting coils cleaned twice a year makes a big difference in extending the life of those costly parts, which can run in the thousands of dollars.

Convincing homeowners to do that can be difficult, according to Kim Madden, vice president of Custom Climate Heating and Air Conditioning.

“The public often lumps heating and air people in with used car salesmen and they think the maintenance service is just a way to get their (HVAC companies) foot in the door and find some things wrong,” says Madden.

She adds that most homeowners, however, forget about their HVAC system until it’s broken.

But there is a legitimate point to doing maintenance. “It’s just like your car and getting oil changes. You do need to do a certain amount of maintenance. It’s not going to get its fullest lifespan if it’s never touched.”

Custom Climate President Tom Madden adds that along with maintenance, homeowners can periodically rinse off their outdoor unit coils themselves. He suggest turning off the unit at the thermostat and using a garden hose to rinse off the coils.

He says another key to prolonging the life of costly heating and cooling units is placement.

In beach communities, those units located on the ocean side and on the side of the house, will “rot” faster than those placed in areas protected from the predominant wind directions. The same goes for those units placed in an enclosure or under the house, because that prevents rain from washing the salt off the systems.

So how far inland does salt affect HVAC systems?

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A call to the local National Weather Service yielded no answer. A meteorologist who didn’t want to give his name says, “I don’t know. It’s not something we track.”

Kim Madden says Trane used to provide a “seacoast warranty” for systems within two miles of the ocean, tidal river or creek. Tom Madden says the old-school thought were homes located east of U.S. Highway 17.

They say that there’s a notable difference in a system’s lifespan from Charleston to Summerville, and even more from the coast to areas well inland.

“If you go by the national average, the life span of a heat pump is 15 to 18 years. In coastal areas, its 12 to 15 years. In Atlanta, they can get 20 to 25 years out of a new system.

When it comes to wood, salt is rubbed into the wounds of the challenging elements of heat, humidity, wind and baking sun on painted homes.

Again, beach communities bear the largest brunt, but the problem of having to repaint houses is getting worse because of the trend to spray ing on paint, according to longtime local housepainter George Martin.

The 63-year-old solo painter with 35 years of experience has witnessed the shift from painting with brushes, which takes longer but lasts longer, to spraying on paint.

“Most will say they backbrush (over the spray) but they don’t,” says Martin. “They (most painting contractors) spray everything these days. I don’t think they know what paint brushes are anymore.”

Martin says the keys to making a paint job last include a thorough cleaning before painting, using brushes and high quality paint and regular washings, using a small power washer, to remove mildew, dirt, soot and salt.

Salt also can impact plants, though its primarily in areas bordering water bodies and after high-wind events such as hurricanes and tropical storms.

“Plants that do well in salty conditions typically are native,” says Kim Counts Morganello, the co-coordinator of the Ashley Cooper Stormwater Education Consortium and a local water resources agent for Clemson Extension.

Salt tolerance is such a factor in local landscapes, in fact, it is among the 10 questions asked in a plant database for South Carolinians to use in determining what vegetation they should plant in yards. That database can be accessed at

Morganello says those living on the barrier islands and along the marsh should be particularly mindful of salt tolerance of plants. Those along the marsh may be able to let plants, such as sea oxeye daisy and groundsel tree (aka “salt bush”), propagate naturally by not mowing along a strip adjacent to the marsh.

She says the groundsel tree is a favorite of monarch butterflies, a species of concern in recent years.

Other native plants that are salt tolerant include sweetgrass, spartina bakeri, goldenrod (which does not cause allergic reactions), gaillardia, rudbeckia, coreopsis, beauty berry, dwarf palmetto and yaupon holly.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or dquick@postand

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