You would be the exception among homeowners if you budget for heating and cooling failures. Mostly, you adjust the thermostat as needed and forget about it. Until catastrophe happens and your air conditioner breaks down. In the middle of a heat wave. And this happens when HVAC companies are at their busiest.
Might it come back to life with a simple repair? Or, if it’s 15 years old, might it be time to move on? You need to weigh the costs and benefits.
While you contemplate your misfortune, your family can gather around a window AC, or find some relief if you have a whole-house fan.
First things first. It’s almost always worth it to have a service technician come out and assess the damage. A minor fix might be all that your air conditioner needs to provide relief again. At least then you can take the time to do some research on brand names, seek and find a company you trust, and get three or more estimates.
We’ve talked to hundreds and hundreds of homeowners who have faced this scenario, and the conversation can be difficult. And we’ve seen the warning signs often. Some are big and some are subtle, but they can signal that the end is near.
We will go over a few examples.
1. Your Air Conditioner Is Blowing Warm Air into the House
This warning is usually easy to detect and is one of the most significant messages that something is amiss. You’ve been cozy and cool all summer, but on a sweltering day, you don’t feel as comfortable as you used to.
Something’s not right. It’s still cool indoors, but it’s not comfortable anymore.
This is more than “It’s 95 degrees out and your AC can’t get the temperature down to 68.” Even the best, newest, most expensive unit will struggle in conditions such as that. We’re talking it’s 85 and you’re sweating indoors for no discernable reason.
If your system is older - 10, 15, 20 years old - you might as well schedule a service call. A technician might be able to perform an inexpensive repair to get you comfortable again. The bad news is that a lot of the time it’s going to be expensive repairs if the system is that old.
Especially with plate fin coils on the condensing coil outside, the microwelds can break. (If the surfaces of two objects are forced together, the surfaces tend to “weld” or stick together. The place where this sticking occurs is called a microweld.) When these break, it creates microscopic leaks in the coil, and that’s an extremely expensive repair. This is a naturally occurring phenomenon because over time they wear down and break due to the air conditioner’s vibration.
(That’s why when we install an air conditioner, we set it on a pad instead of on the ground; we try to minimize the vibration.)
2. It Takes a Lot Longer to Cool the House
This is probably a sign of low refrigerant. Nine out of ten old ACs I see have a refrigerant leak. It’s usually at the evaporator coil at the thermostatic expansion valve. A pinhole leak is plenty wide enough to do damage.
A refrigerant recharge without fixing the leak can last you three years or more. But over time, that leak will get worse because it’s under high pressure.
Leaks must be repaired such that the leak rate is brought below the applicable leak rate. Owners must submit reports to EPA if any appliance leaks 125% or more of its full charge in one calendar year.
And R-22 isn’t being manufactured anymore and costs hundreds of dollars per pound. Efficiency goes way down if the air conditioner is leaking refrigerant.
If there is a leak and it’s an old system, the best thing to do is replace it. A technician can add some refrigerant and keep you going while you shop for a new air conditioner.
3. There’s a Buildup of Moisture in the Indoor Unit
This might happen due to a couple of reasons. A fan motor not working at the correct speed can cause a lot of condensation in the ductwork and inside the coil.
The usual cause is a rusted-out drain pan inside your evaporator coil. Water will leak out of or into the furnace.
It’s not an easy fix to remove the drain pan. Most companies will replace the entire coil because something else will probably have gone bad if that part is old enough to be rusty.
4. Strange Sounds Usually Come from the Outside Unit
Grinding, loud hums, vibrations, shaking, banging… we hear them all. The other day I heard one that sounded like a shotgun when it turned on. Strange sounds are definitely a symptom of something wrong, even if it’s just age.
You should hear it running because it is a mechanical piece of equipment, but it shouldn’t be louder than a typical conversation. You shouldn’t have to yell to be heard over it. If you hear something weird, you should have someone come out and check what’s going on.
5. The Air Conditioner Is Simply Old
“How much longer will my air conditioner last?” We get asked this all the time.
If it’s brand new, I tell people it should last 10-12 years, which is the industry standard. With proper installation and regular maintenance, it should have a lifespan of 13-15 years. Some last longer. Others shorter.
Anything 10 years or older is a candidate for replacement. If it’s over 20 years old, even more so.
We stress the importance of a good install. Day one is the most important day of an air conditioner’s life. If a technician cuts corners - and there are plenty of examples - the unit is set up to fail. You might not even notice how poorly it's functioning until the repair bills start adding up. It needs to be commissioned for it to last as long as it should, meaning your technician should take the time on installation day to set it up to the manufacturer’s standards.
Read more: The Importance of Commissioning in HVAC
ACs tend to not last as long as furnaces because they’re outside in the elements. Snow, ice, pine needles, and the occasional bump from a lawn mower will shorten its life.
And, by the way, we don’t recommend covering your AC in order to keep snow and ice out of it. All you need is that one 75-degree day when you forget to remove the covering and turn on the AC. If you don’t remove the cover before turning it on, it will fry due to the lack of air. That’s not covered by your warranty.
And if you cover it, you’ll also be creating a windbreak for critters. If you’re out in the country or next to the woods, you may wind up with an unwelcome guest or two.
If anything, a heavy piece of wood over the top only will keep some of the sleet and snow out of it.
6. The Cost of a Repair Might Not Be Worth It
Pricey fixes? New evaporator coil. New compressor. New fan in the outdoor unit. Replacing the condensing coil. Replacing the evaporator coil could cost thousands of dollars. Compressors can be $1000, $2000. You’ll essentially be creating a new air conditioner without replacing the outdoor unit.
We’re not saying the repair can’t be done. It can. But if we have to replace the condensing coil, we need to disassemble everything to get at it.
And it’s impossible to predict what else might go wrong down the road.
No one knows how long it will last. We’re HVAC experts, but we don’t know how much longer a unit will run after a repair.
It might not last the summer; that’s when it gets used the most and when it’s most likely to have problems.
You’ll have to weigh the cost of a repair versus biting the bullet and getting a new air conditioner. We suggest paying someone to diagnose the issue. But a technician shouldn’t pressure you to buy a new unit. That’s a decision only you should make.
7. Your Air Conditioner Is Too Big or Too Small
I will tell the homeowner that, even if it’s a two-year-old system, I’ll alert them that it’s incorrectly sized. Especially if it’s considerably wrong. A half-ton won’t make a huge difference.
If there are no major issues, we’re not going to try to force them to make the change right then. But we do want to educate them as to why the right-sized unit will make a difference.
So what’s wrong with an air conditioner if it’s incorrectly sized?
For starters, it means that the HVAC “professional” who sold you the air conditioner was lazy and didn’t perform a Manual J load calculation, which takes all of ten minutes.
A unit that’s too small will waste energy because it will run too long to cool things down.
A unit that’s too big will start and stop too often. It won’t circulate the air properly, will run up your energy bill, and create incomplete comfort.
Repairing or Replacing an AC in Columbus, Ohio
Almost everything about a broken or malfunctioning air conditioner can be fixed, but it can be very costly. It would affect your comfort level. It might make sense if it’s a temporary fix until you can get a new one. It will need to be replaced eventually.
If you’re looking for some relief from the summer heat, we have repair technicians ready to go. Or if you’ve decided to invest in a new unit, we can do that too. Fill in your zip code below to see if you are in our service area.