Your plans are changed, however, when the HVAC technician tells you that the air conditioner needs a major repair.
When this happens, you have a big decision to make: repair or replace your existing air conditioning system? How do you know which is the best decision for you and your home?
We’re going to help you decide by walking through several important factors that should go into a decision to repair or replace an A/C unit. By the end, you’ll have the confidence that comes with understanding your options, as well as costs and risks associated with them.
How Long Do Air Conditioners (and Parts) Last?
First up, your air conditioner may have broken down just a few years after it was installed, or 30 years after it was installed. Knowing not just the unit’s age but the average lifespan of a system is important.
A typical A/C system lasts about 15 years. We’re fond of saying that a well-maintained system should last you 20+ years, and it should! But the first key to that longevity is keeping it well-maintained with regular service. It’s also true that the average lifespan of individual air conditioner parts can be different from the system as a whole.
Let’s break those down for a closer look, before discussing how much each major component costs to repair.
Air conditioners don’t just die, but there are certain components of every HVAC machine that will have a higher failure rate, given normal operating conditions. As an air conditioner gets older, these parts will begin to weaken and fail. These tend to be some of the larger components that are more labor-intensive. A good HVAC technician will be able to discuss the condition of each of these components.
The major components of an A/C unit are:
- The compressor
- The evaporator/indoor coil
- The condenser/outdoor coil
The electrical system is also a large part of any HVAC system, which helps other components like the capacitor, contactor, and fan motors do their jobs.
Depending on the equipment, there may be other control parts as well that play a major role in the functioning of a cooling system.
The compressor sits inside of the air conditioner and pumps the refrigerant to and from the heat exchanging parts, the indoor and outdoor coils. It has both electrical and mechanical parts to it. Compressors can last anywhere from 12 years to 20+ years.
I’ve been an HVAC field technician for over 15 years. I’ve even seen compressors that were over 40 years old and still pumping! They typically fail in one of two ways: they get an electrical short or they internally lock up. Most last between 15-20 years. Air conditioning compressors can rarely be repaired.
The evaporator/indoor coil sits either on top of a furnace or on the inside of an air handler. It absorbs the heat from the house and then sends it on to the compressor. Most evaporator coils today are made of copper, aluminum, and steel. They will typically begin to leak refrigerant as early as 12 years, but most times between 15 and 20 years.
The condenser/outdoor coil makes up the outer wall of the air conditioner. It gets rid of the heat that the evaporator absorbed inside. Condensers historically have a very low failure rate, and therefore have a longer average lifespan. Having to replace an outdoor coil is rare, but the cost is roughly the same as an evaporator. We’ll talk about specific costs later in the article.
The smaller components still play a big role in how the air conditioner runs. The contactor turns the system on and off. In residential homes, 240 volts pass through it. It tends to get burned over time and the metal gets pits on the surface from the operation, which can inhibit electrical flow.
The capacitor helps to regulate the electrical flow. The electricity comes through as a single line, but the pace isn’t regular. The capacitor acts as a second line to which the incoming electricity can pace itself, like a running mate. The troubles that you get with these are often tied to other problems that cause the air conditioner to run for long periods. Extreme heat, dirty coils, and low refrigerant are common culprits.
The fan motor draws air across the condenser coil. They can lock up, or the fan blade itself can get bent or damaged. Dirty condenser coils are very hard on these motors. These components typically last around 10-12 years but can last much longer with proper maintenance.
One final part that must be taken into account is the refrigerant itself. Older units (10+ years) may contain R22. R22 is a refrigerant that has been made illegal to produce in the United States as of January 1, 2020, and has become quite expensive as reserves dry up.
Any unit that contains R22 refrigerant should be seriously considered for replacement. You may only have a simple repair on your hands at the moment, but as soon as it begins to leak, you will likely not be able to repair it.
Availability of parts varies. At Fire & Ice, we can find most parts for furnaces that are 30 years or older. Air Conditioners are occasionally more difficult, though, especially the refrigerant components. Anything over 25 years is difficult. A good HVAC company should be able to educate you on the availability of parts for your system, no matter how old the system is. Overall, the average lifespan of air conditioners is around 15 years, though many can last longer with good maintenance.
How Much Does it Cost to Repair an Air Conditioner?
Tell me if this sounds familiar: A mechanic tells you there’s a problem with your car, and that it may fail before long. If you’re anything like me, you’ll ask if it needs to be taken care of right away.
The answer to this question is often “no,” but the mechanic can’t guarantee how long it will last. The same is often true of HVAC repair.
So you leave the car shop (or HVAC repair appointment) without having to pay a lot extra right now. The problems with this approach vary, though:
- The repair will now be in the back of your mind, and can be a source of worry.
- Every time there is a weird noise, bump, or grind, you’re likely to be fearful.
When this happens with my car, I turn the radio down, shush everyone in the car, and drive in complete silence for about 30 seconds.
On the flip side, when I get it repaired, I feel like my car is now invincible and I can drive it like it’s a race car.
This situation is different when I have a breakdown. The experience of not having my car, something that is essential to live my life, is bad enough to where I’m going to do whatever I can to not have to go through it again.
If there are other issues with the car at that point, I will decide on one of a few options:
- Get them all taken care of and have a much lower chance of problems in the near future.
- Take care of only the most prominent issues and deal with this again when necessary (kick the can down the road).
- Decide to replace the whole thing.
Much like that example, there are considerations when deciding to repair or replace your air conditioner. Cost is a big one. For reference, here are the average costs of many of the components listed above:
- Compressor replacement: $2000+
- Evaporator replacement: $1500+
- Condenser replacement: $1700+
- Smaller components: $300-$800
Failure of any of these A/C parts can lead to a repair vs replace dilemma. Next, we’ll look at another factor in the cost equation: air conditioner efficiency.
How Efficient Is My Current Air Conditioner?
Your energy bills will be a thorn in your side if your air conditioner is either old or in disrepair. While cleaning and maintenance by a licensed technician can help, some signs of age, including efficiency, cannot be fixed without a full replacement.
Air conditioning efficiency is measured by what’s called a SEER Rating, or Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio. It’s a calculation of heat removed relative to the energy consumed by the system.
Think of it like miles per gallon in a car. The more efficient it is, the better the mileage.
SEER ratings start at about 8 and go up from there. While there is no maximum, the most efficient whole-home air conditioners generally run in the 20-25 SEER range.
In the 1990s, it was required that new A/C systems be at least 10 SEER. This went up in 2006 (13 SEER minimum) and again in 2015 (14 SEER minimum, or 14.5 in the southwest region of the country).
What this means for you is that the older your current system, the more likely it is to be inefficient relative to a new cooling system. This has a direct effect on your electrical usage and utility bill.
Importantly, SEER isn’t the only element of efficiency. The frequency of professional maintenance, proper amount of refrigerant, and condition of the electrical parts all contribute to your system’s efficiency as well.
Proper sizing also plays a large role in the energy usage of the system, the air conditioner must match the need of the home as closely as possible. If the system is too large, you will draw more electricity than you should when running and will not properly dehumidify. If it is too small, it will run much longer than it should and will have a hard time maintaining the set temperature. Sizing issues should nearly always lead to a replacement. A good HVAC contractor will properly size your home, doors, and windows to ensure that any new system is the correct size for your home.
If your electric bill is higher than you want it to be, replacing the system can certainly help. It is important to have a sense of how much it can help, though, so that your expectations are close to accurate. A knowledgeable HVAC representative will be able to quantify your savings over a period of years, based on the efficiency compared to your current system.
Below is a chart that compares this, based on a 10 SEER system, which was the base SEER rating from 1992 to 2006. Here is another online calculator that can help you to calculate potential savings.
A good HVAC company will tell you all the information on your current air conditioner, how you can optimize its efficiency, and about higher efficiency units, even if you aren’t looking at replacement just yet.
How Long Will You Be Staying in the House?
The chart above looks great, right? But what if you’re only going to see those savings for a year or two? The savings you see as a result of efficiency might not be enough to justify a new purchase if you’re looking to sell your home.
If you plan on being in the house for a long time, say three or more years, most people tend to lean towards a replacement for several reasons:
- A new system means your bills will decrease immediately.
- You won’t have to worry about repairs any time soon.
- New systems generally come with a warranty of 10 years. Often, these are transferable to a new owner if you sell the home.
This doesn’t mean a replacement is without cost, even outside of the cost of the new system. Warranties tend to cover parts, but not labor, though extended labor warranties are also available through most HVAC contractors.
Conversely, if you are not planning on being in the house for very long, then a repair might be a better option. It’s almost a certainty that you’ll spend more on the installation of a new air conditioner than you would be able to get back on an increase of the home sale price because of it. If your system is very old, however, it may be worth the replacement, since home buyers will often point to the age of an A/C system and ask for a reduction in your home’s price.
There’s no “one size fits all” solution, as you can see. Which is why the decision is ultimately a personal one. A good HVAC contractor can help you, though, which leads to our next topic: your comfort needs.
Does My Current Air Conditioner Meet My Needs?
Beyond cost and age, ask yourself these questions:
- Does my air conditioner dehumidify the house well?
- Is the A/C noisy or does it vibrate?
- Is the air conditioning unit too close to a deck or other feature in the yard that is preventing other projects or is generating noise?
- Is the A/C unit an eyesore?
These might not always be pertinent factors in a repair v. replacement decision, but they can be depending on your situation.
The answer to those questions can lead to different solutions. For example, if your home is too humid, a new air conditioner might be the solution. However, you may be better off with a whole-home dehumidifier. As with any of this, a knowledgeable HVAC representative can walk you through your options, but it’s also important to know about each beforehand.
Noise is another issue. Nearly any component can affect noise levels. It could be low refrigerant, a slightly bent fan blade, noisy electrical components, or a loud compressor. Each of those parts can be replaced, but the cost must be weighed against the other factors listed in this article.
If it’s just a single part that’s causing the noise, a repair might be your best bet. If it’s system-wide, however, newer systems tend to run much quieter than their older counterparts.
I’ve even had customers tell me their new system isn’t running properly, only to find out that it’s simply a LOT quieter than their old system!
Location can affect noise as well, especially if the A/C unit is near somewhere you gather, like a deck or patio. Sometimes, a new system that’s moved even a few feet around a corner, away from a deck or other feature, and the noise subsides significantly. Moving a system can be a challenge and a risk, especially with an older system, but it’s yet another option for a thorough HVAC company.
Lastly, years of rust and wear can make your system a sore sight to look at. Many homeowners take pride in their entire home, and want HVAC equipment that matches the care they take with their yard and home. While this is an aesthetic consideration, not one related to the operation of the air conditioner, it can still matter.
Benefits of Replacing My Air Conditioner
Though there are plenty of times that it makes sense to repair a system, the benefits of replacing should be taken into consideration as well. These benefits include:
- Less stress from the old system
- Higher efficiency, and thus reduced cost, from your air conditioner
- Your house will be more comfortable
- You’ll have a long-term warranty for parts and potentially labor
- The system will likely run quieter
- A new system will look better
These benefits may help you make your decision. Either way, though, they’ll be there when you do decide to replace the air conditioner.