You know that your air conditioner keeps your home cool and comfortable all summer long. Just how it accomplishes that, though, may be a bit of a mystery. After all, the only thing you have to do is set your thermostat to the desired temperature and, before you know it, there is cool and refreshing air flowing through your vents.
Though there are several components in a central air conditioner, one of the most important is the compressor. Without a compressor, the rest of the cooling process can’t happen. If you think you might be experiencing problems with your compressor, here is some basic information on what you can expect throughout the diagnostics process and replacement process.
In an air conditioner, the primary way that heat is removed from your home is through the refrigerant. This refrigerant is a substance that changes from a liquid to a gas at a predictable temperature. The way the temperature in the refrigerant is changed is by changing the pressure of the refrigerant to a specific level.
That’s where the compressor comes in. Sitting outside your home, the compressor’s job is to increase the pressure of the refrigerant to a point where its temperature is higher than the surrounding air. When this happens, thanks to thermodynamics, the heat is expelled from the refrigerant and into the outdoor air.
Then, because of this difference in pressure, the refrigerant, as a gas, moves to the condenser coils. As air moves over the condenser coils, the pressure and temperature of the refrigerant begin to drop, which eventually causes the refrigerant to turn back into a liquid.
When the pressure is low enough, the refrigerant moves inside your home, replacing the higher-pressure refrigerant that has been busy removing heat from your home. This process continues until the thermostat senses that your home has reached the desired temperature and shuts the system off.
Given their high-intensity job, compressors are generally built quite tough. However, there are a few conditions that can cause your compressor to burn out.
One common cause of compressor burn-out is the loss of lubricating oil on the moving parts of the compressor. Similar to motor oil in a vehicle, lubricating oil in a compressor will often work its way out of the small gaps or cracks in the body of the compressor. Over time, these small leaks can leave your compressor with a lack of adequate lubrication, resulting in excess heat that will cause your compressor to fail.
Another condition that can cause your compressor to fail is a blocked expansion valve. Though the refrigerant line in your air conditioner is a closed system, the expansion valve is so small that it only takes a tiny amount of sediment or acidic buildup to cause a problem. If the valve becomes blocked, it will cause too much pressure to build up behind it, leading to an overworked compressor.
A third problem that can lead to compressor failure is a buildup of heat in the compressor housing. If the exhaust fan on your compressor stops working, or if there is an excess amount of debris around the compressor, too much heat may build up in and around the compressor, leading to its failure.
When compressors fail, they don’t always fail in the exact same way. That means there are several symptoms that could indicate a failed compressor. At the same time, some of these symptoms may also indicate other issues with your air conditioner, which is why it’s important to have your system inspected by a qualified technician.
One symptom you may experience is your air conditioner blowing warm air. Since the compressor is crucial to the cooling process, it makes sense that this would be a symptom of a failed compressor. However, it’s important to note that many other air conditioner problems can cause this specific issue, so don’t automatically assume that your compressor is the culprit.
Another sure sign of a problem is if your compressor doesn’t kick on at all when your system activates. If a compressor has totally burned out, there are circuits in place that will prevent any other components in the compressor housing from turning on to prevent damage to the rest of your system.
Finally, if the circuit your air conditioner is on starts to trip every time the system turns on, it’s probably a problem with your compressor. If the compressor begins to fail, it tends to push harder to try and overcome the problem. As it works harder, it draws more power, leading to the problem with a tripped breaker.
The good news when it comes to many air conditioner compressors is that they may be covered under warranty. This can help to limit or eliminate your out-of-pocket costs if your compressor fails.
Of course, many compressors fail after the warranty has expired, meaning you will be responsible for the full cost of replacement. Depending on the size of your unit, an average replacement cost typically runs anywhere from $900 to $2,400, including installation. This is due to the types of materials that a compressor is made from and the amount of labor involved in replacing the compressor.
Given the relatively high cost of replacing a broken air conditioner compressor, the inevitable question becomes whether you should only replace the compressor or if you should replace the entire air conditioning system.
Obviously, if your compressor is still under warranty, it makes the most sense to only replace the compressor. If your system is older, though, it may make sense to go ahead and replace the entire air conditioner to prevent other failures from happening right after you replace your compressor. Ultimately, the decision whether to replace one component or the entire system is something you’ll have to think over based on your budget, your home comfort needs, and the age of your system.
The best way to prevent a compressor failure is to have your air conditioner maintenanced annually. This allows a technician to check over each system component to ensure they’re working well together to avoid putting excess strain on the compressor or any other component. This is one case where an ounce of prevention is certainly worth the investment into keeping your air conditioner running optimally.