Bad Air Conditioner Installation - Signs to Look Out For

Bad Air Conditioner Installation - Signs to Look Out For
Arne Jacobsen
Residential Sales Professional

I have been in heating and air conditioning trade for 44 years. In that time, I have installed, serviced, designed ductwork, sold, and sized thousands of residential heating and cooling systems.

About This Article

Air conditioner installation is complicated, and ideally each installation is unique and tailored to a home’s needs. This doesn’t happen a lot of the time, so let’s learn what to look for.

9 out of 10 air conditioning installations are performed incorrectly.

Sound high? It should. But it’s also backed by evidence.

The North Carolina Alternative Energy Corporation, a non-profit group, looked at A/C efficiencies that should occur with installations that are to manufacturer code, then compared those numbers to what they found after real-world installation.

The result? 90% of the air conditioners they tested had some problem that caused them to waste energy relative to their peak performance.

In the years since, other assessments have corroborated these numbers, which the industry keeps an eye on. Though it’s not always 90%, it’s well-known that there are problems with system efficiency compared to what they’re capable of.

This isn’t an equipment issue. It’s an installation issue.

There are a lot of reasons Fire & Ice has grown as a company over the last two decades. But arguably the biggest reason we’ve grown is that we do the little things in installation and service that other companies don’t. So this is a point of pride for us. No contractor is perfect all the time, but our processes are as thorough as anyone’s and more so than most, because we want to do what’s right for the customer.

In short: we always want to be in the 10%.

So how do we get there? Well, we’re going to talk through a handful of areas below where we generally see problems most frequently. It will help you assess your own installation, and help you ask the right questions for your next HVAC project.

Installing an air conditioner

Pulling Permits in HVAC

A permit inspection is one of the last steps of an air conditioner installation, but we’re including it first. Why? Because if you wait until your installation is done to see if your contractor is pulling a permit, it’s too late.

“Pulling” a permit refers to the process of obtaining a local permit for HVAC work. As part of this process, an inspector will come out and look at the completed installation.

Most municipalities in Ohio require a permit to do work. So why are we including it? Because not all HVAC contractors complete this step.

By skipping the permit, they skip the inspection. This means they can cut corners in the installation, and it’s likely that no one will ever call them out on it. This is both wrong and, often, illegal. But it does happen.

Questions to Ask Your Contractor:

  1. Do you obtain all the required permits for projects you complete?
  2. Are you licensed in the state of Ohio  (or whatever state you live in) for HVAC work, and can you produce a copy of the license?

Ductwork Installation Problems

So we’re talking about air conditioners, and these first two sections have had nothing to do with the air conditioner itself. I’m happy to explain why that is.

For an air conditioner to work properly, the ductwork needs to be sized, fitted and sealed correctly. If it’s not, the results can be disastrous. The study we referenced above found that 93% of installations have some duct leakage that could be avoided with best installation practices.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a small problem. If you’re lucky, you’re only losing a little bit of energy and comfort. But duct leakage can double the HVAC portion of your utility bills. That’s a staggering thought.

The other problem is that duct leaks get worse over time. If this isn’t dealt with properly during installation, it’s going to continually get worse for as long as you own the home. A well-maintained air conditioner can last you 15-20 years. Is it worth having leaks for that long?! I hope not.

Questions to Ask Your Contractor:

  1. Will you perform a Manual D calculation to properly size the ductwork for the A/C system?
  2. Do you check for and seal any leaks in the ducts?

Commissioning an air conditioner

Refrigerant Installation Issues

If ductwork is the most common problem, refrigerant is the second most common.

Refrigerant is contained in the coils and copper lines that run through the indoor air conditioning unit, then travel to the outdoor unit.

There’s also a very specific amount of refrigerant every system and every home should have, but it’s not a “one size fits all” situation. How much refrigerant you need is determined by a few factors:

  1. The size and power of your system, which relates to the cooling needs of your home. Square footage, window and insulation quality, and other factors contribute.
  2. The length of refrigerant line that runs between the indoor and outdoor units.
  3. The type of refrigerant and model you’re having installed.

Here’s the problem: most A/Cs come with a “standard” amount of refrigerant, and many installers never add or subtract from this amount to make sure it’s the correct amount for your home.

Will your A/C unit still function? Sure. But it’s not going to be nearly as efficient. This means it won’t control humidity as well in your home (say hello to humid summers!). It also won’t be as efficient. And it will probably break down years earlier because it will have to work harder than it would with the proper refrigerant amount.

Stated bluntly, it won’t be as good as it should be, and it will cost you in a lot of ways.

This should be easy stuff. But it isn’t, because contractors know they can get away with it and shorten their work time (and thus, increase their pay rate).

Questions to Ask Your Contractor:

  1. What type of refrigerant does my system use? Do you have this type to add it as needed?
  2. What adjustments will need to be made to the refrigerant level for my home?

A/C Electrical Problems

Remember how pulling a permit is required by law in most municipalities? Some electrical work legally requires a licensed electrician as well.

If you’re adding an air conditioner, generally a 220-volt electrical circuit will need to be added. Additionally, all circuits should be checked during installation to make sure they’re working properly and providing the correct amount of voltage.

To be clear, not all electrical work requires a licensed electrician. If it’s just hooking up new equipment to existing electrical lines, you’re usually ok without an electrician. But the larger work - like adding new equipment or running a new circuit - often does.

The culprit here is again money. It’s cheaper for an HVAC contractor to do it themselves, but you’re risking a lot in having this done.

Questions to Ask:

  1. Will the installation require any new electrical lines? Who will handle this and why?

An installed air conditioner

Installing the Main A/C Unit

Comparatively speaking, the central air conditioning equipment has less to screw up. But it still pays to be careful.

The biggest potential pitfall here is actually before installation day.

You see, much like how refrigerant has to be measured for a particular home, your entire system does as well. There’s no such thing as a “one size fits all” air conditioner, and if anyone ever tells you there is, they’re wrong.

The Manual J Load Calculation should happen BEFORE an installation, which is just a complicated way of saying that your contractor should be measuring a number of aspects of your home to determine what power level (or “size”) your unit needs to be.

If you don’t do that, you’re not working with a piece of equipment that’s going to be best for your home. It doesn’t matter if the installation itself is 100% perfect. It will still be a sub-par system.

Questions to Ask:

  1. What’s a Manual J Load Calculation, and will you be doing one?
  2. Is there anything I should know about my home that will change the sizing recommendation?

Checks, Tests and Follow-Through

This probably won’t come as a surprise: a good installer should be checking to make sure the job they did was as professional as possible.

To be clear, this is more than simply turning on the A/C to make sure it’s working. If that’s all your installer does before taking off, you’ve been fleeced.

We talked about refrigerant amounts earlier, but this refrigerant also has to be pressurized differently at various stages of the cooling cycle. You can’t “eyeball” pressures in refrigerant. You have to measure it.

We talked about ductwork problems, but doing a once-over for obvious leaks isn’t enough to ensure there are no leaks. You have to test the CFM (cubic feet per minute) of the airflow to make sure there aren’t hidden leaks. You also have to test air pressures at various places in the system.

This is called commissioning. It’s the difference between those 10% installations we discussed, and the other 90% that does one or more things suboptimally. There are other calculations in commissioning than those mentioned above, but each one relates to HVAC performance.

Questions to Ask Your Contractor:

  1. What metrics do you test during commissioning?
  2. Do you have analog gauges (ok) or digital gauges (much better) for commissioning?

Why This Happens, and How You Avoid It

The reason these things aren’t done properly is easy to answer: time and money.

A company can cut corners and charge you a little less, and most homeowners aren’t going to realize they’re getting a worse long-term deal. This becomes a sales tactic, but it results in worse outcomes for customers.

Stated differently: if it’s cheaper, there’s usually a reason. Do your best to figure out what that reason is, or you could fall victim to one or more of the bad practices outlined in this article.

So how do you avoid these bad HVAC installation practices? Asking the right questions helps. If you’re trying to get an honest answer, and you get a lot of avoiding the question or “oh, that doesn’t matter; it’ll be fine if we don’t do that,” they’re probably hoping you don’t know any better.

But now you do. So you have some knowledge to fight back with.

Want to know what other things you should be looking out for? I’ve put together a shortlist below of helpful resources that will get you even more prepared to make a great decision. Best of luck, and if we can help at any point, give us a call!

Prepare Further With These Excellent Resources:

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