Condenser Units: When to Repair and When to Replace
HVAC contractors share how they help homeowners decide when to replace outdoor units
With warm weather officially settling over much of the U.S., some homeowners are firing up their air conditioners for the first time since the fall only to discover they no longer work. While making the decision to replace a condensing unit instead of repairing it may be a difficult one, some contractors have guidelines in place to help homeowners make such a decision a little less difficult.
CAUSE OF FAILURE
Many things can cause an outdoor condensing unit to stop working, the most common of which are compressor and coil failures.
“Both are extremely expensive to repair,” said Dave Dombrowski, manager of ARS/Rescue Rooter in Raleigh, North Carolina. “You must also take into consideration that older units operate on R-22 and not R410a, so the indoor coil must also be addressed.”
“Compressor failure is, by far, the most expensive component to repair,” echoed Denny Turlin, comfort advisor at Welsch Heating & Cooling Co. in St. Louis. “The compressor is the engine or heart of the system. The actual cost of the replacement compressor and the labor to install will often exceed the cost of a brand new a/c unit. This holds true on most residential units.”
Scott Merritt, owner of Fire & Ice Heating & Air Conditioning in Columbus, Ohio, also said the compressor and coil are often what break in a condenser, adding that fan motors frequently cause problems, too. “The compressor takes the longest to repair and is the most expensive part,” he said. “Most of the time, customers choose to replace the entire unit when the compressor is bad.”
Denise Webb, service manager for Welsch Heating & Cooling, said capacitor issues are often the cause of condenser unit failures. “Usually, the cause is that, in an older unit, the compressor is starting to draw a large amount of electrical amperage on the startup cycle, and, over time, this causes the capacitor to fail.”
Lack of preventive maintenance is often the underlying cause of condenser unit failures, said Kory Burgess, service account manager with Pleune Service Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Maintenance can be an inexpensive way to prolong unit life and help provide energy savings.”
Matt Marsiglio, operations manager for Flame Heating, Cooling, Plumbing, and Electrical in Warren, Michigan, also stressed the importance of regular maintenance for outdoor condenser units. “The failures we see are generally due to lack of maintenance, and dirty condenser coils seem to be a large contributor to failure,” he said. “Failures can range from as catastrophic as a compressor to a failed run capacitor, and the capacitor is a common repair. Compressor replacement is by far the most expensive, especially if the unit is an R-22 system.”
CALLING TIME OF DEATH
When determining whether a unit is on its last legs, most contractors agreed that run time and operating conditions are the most important factors to consider.
“A heat pump runs all year long, whereas an a/c unit operates limited hours depending on the area of the country,” Dombrowski said. “Air conditioning in Miami is a 10-month proposition, where in Maine, it is two months. Age, electrical issues, and corrosion — especially in a saltwater environment — all affect the life of the unit. If one of these parts is out of the warranty period, it is logical to consider replacing the entire unit.”
Butch Welsch, owner of Welsch Heating & Cooling, said age is a factor, especially since many older units run on R-22, which is currently being phased out of production and importation in the U.S. due to its high global warming potential (GWP).
“Seventeen years is the average life span [for an a/c unit],” Welsch said. “With the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] discontinuing production of R-22 [by 2020], the customer needs to be very careful putting money into that style of a/c.”
Webb also said age is a factor due to the impending R-22 phaseout. “Also, incentives and rebates often apply to older systems that can be replaced with new or more efficient systems,” she added.
For older units experiencing compressor failure, Merritt said it’s often not worth it to repair the unit, especially since “there is usually a reason it went bad,” he said. “So, not only do you have a very expensive compressor, but you also have another problem you cannot diagnose until you replace the compressor.”
THE BIG DECISION
Once the cost of a repair is more than 40 percent of the total price of a new install or system, or the unit is more than 10 years old, then it might be good to explore the option of replacement, Burgess said.
“Changing technology may be the deciding factor for equipment 10 years old or older, since the energy savings, possible rebates, and the warranty of a new system can be more relevant,” he said. “Some customers prefer to avoid an emergency situation altogether, and this is one way of doing so.”
Marsiglio said his crews inform the customer of the repair cost, as well as the refurbish cost, and then lets them choose the option that best suits them. “We will also talk about replacement as an option,” he added.
Steve Moon, owner of Moon Air Inc. in Elkton, Maryland, said his team considers a variety of factors when helping homeowners make the decision to replace an a/c unit. “The client needs to understand the life expectancy of a systems,” he said. “Do they want to spend money repairing something that’s really old?”
Future repair costs, energy usage, and the customer’s budget are all factors Moon considers. “Often, just the thought of waiting on repair guys will cause them to upgrade,” he said. “Their time is very important to them these days.”
Dombrowski said he firmly believes it is not the role of the HVAC professional to make this decision for the customer but to instead present him or her with detailed, logical, and honest information showing the pros and cons of each. “Just as a typical consumer does not wait to replace his or her car by having it towed in to the dealership but instead acts proactively, the homeowner must also be shown that the HVAC system has a hidden cost by not updating the unit to a newer system,” he said. “This is all about education and offering options. The technician/salesperson cannot take an absolute position since each answer must be tailored to the needs of the homeowner.”
Turlin said his company likes to let customers know about the current rebates available to them. “Show them the monthly/yearly savings of a higher-efficiency system and explain the warranty with a new system,” he added.
Burgess said he always gives the option of replacement with a major repair and then leaves it up to the customer to decide. “Customers have different strategies and processes, so it’s important to give them all of the options, information, and advice and allow them to make an informed decision,” he said. “Sometimes, it is not always about the cost, but rather the comfort of avoiding an unexpected failure.”
A CHANGING MARKET
During the Great Recession, many homeowners put off the decision to replace equipment and opted instead to repair. That is starting to change, however, as homeowners are not only choosing to replace more often, but also to upgrade to higher-efficiency equipment with more options.
“As the economy improves, people seem to purchase systems with more bells and whistles,” Welsch said. “For example, staged a/c units, Wi-Fi-compatible systems, quieter a/c units, etc.”
Customers are also more willing to spend money on system warranties, Burgess said.
“If offering a mid-grade system that carries a good warranty, the customer will more than likely find a way to replace rather than repair,” he said. “We have to be more consultative in all of our customer interactions, and we need to better understand what criteria a customer will use to make a decision and provide the options and advice to support that.”
In the end, customers just want honest and good work, Merritt said.
“They’re willing to pay for it if you can prove that is what your company is all about,” he said. “Just do it the old fashion way: Earn it.”
Publication date: 6/6/2016