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updated 5/20/22

When Should I Repair or Replace My Air Conditioner?

While air conditioners tend to be pretty dependable and long-lasting, inevitably the time will come when you start running into problems with yours. A/C units are often fixable, but just like with any household appliance, eventually the cost of having it repaired will become higher than just replacing it with a new unit. Unfortunately, there’s rarely an easy answer to this question, so homeowners have to weigh all the factors and make the best decision they can. Both options have their own advantages and downsides, so it’s up to you to make the call.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the best way to make any decision is to stay informed on all the potential factors. Having some baseline knowledge of air conditioners and when they should be replaced is the best way to make sure you’re making the right call when the time comes. If you have a regular HVAC technician who you trust, you can always ask them for advice on your specific situation as well. Here are just a few of the things you should keep in mind when you’re deciding whether or not to spring for a new air conditioner or repair the one you already have.

HVAC 101 Everything you need to know

Common Signs and Symptoms of a Broken Air Conditioner

As a general rule, air conditioners are pretty durable machines, designed to work day in and day out for a decade or more. As long as you keep up with your regular maintenance and take good care of the unit, it should last you for around 10 or 15 years before you need to buy a new one. However, there are plenty of complicated parts inside an A/C unit, which means there are a ton of potential points of failure. It’s important to catch the signs early to increase the chance that you’ll be able to fix the problem cheaply and easily. Here’s a little information you might be able to use to spot issues before they become serious, as well as diagnose what the internal problem might be.

Unusual Noises Coming From the Unit

Strange noises coming from inside the air conditioner are one of the most common signs of a problem. After a little while, it becomes pretty easy to just tune out the sound of the unit while it’s running, but it’s worth paying attention to make sure nothing has changed. If you do notice unusual sounds coming from the unit, then you should turn it off and call an HVAC technician to come to take a look.

If your air conditioner is making a high-pitched squealing noise, then there’s likely a problem with the bearings inside the motor. This noise will typically emit from the outside unit if you have a split-system A/C, and can also sound more like grinding or scraping. This is potentially a serious issue, but it is fixable. It’s worth noting that, if you have an older A/C unit, a squealing or grinding noise could also indicate that the fan belt has slipped off. However, newly built air conditioners haven’t included belts for quite a few years now, so it’s unlikely that this is the problem if you’ve purchased the unit more recently.

Another common sound you might hear coming from the A/C unit is a buzzing noise. Air conditioners tend to vibrate whenever the motor is running, so a buzzing sound is an indication that two pieces of metal are touching when they really shouldn’t be. This could be from one of a few different causes. If you’re lucky, the outside unit has just slipped off one or more of its rubber isolation feet and is vibrating against the metal or concrete pad underneath. If this is the case, all you have to do is replace the foot and you’re all set. However, if that’s not the problem, then there might be a broken part vibrating around inside the unit itself. This is a more serious concern since even a single missing part will cause strain on the rest of the machine. We recommend turning the unit off immediately and calling a professional to take a look at it for you.

All of these potential issues will cost money to fix, so you should consider buying a new air conditioner if you decide it’s not worth repairing the new one.


Moisture Leaking From the Unit

Condensation is a central part of the cooling process used by air conditioners, so some moisture inside the unit is normal. However, if you notice water leaking or dripping from the A/C, that could indicate that something is wrong. Luckily, many of these issues are easily fixable and won’t usually require you to purchase a new air conditioner.

If water is dripping from the A/C unit, there’s a pretty good chance that you have a problem with the drain line. Usually, excess moisture from inside the unit collects in a drain pan before being diverted outside through the drain line. However, if the line is clogged or blocked, the water will just build up in the pan until it starts to overflow. This is a pretty common issue, which is why clearing the drain line is something HVAC technicians always do during yearly maintenance on a unit. If the drain line is clogged, you can actually just take care of it yourself with a wet vac. Just connect it to one end of the line and suck out whatever’s blocking the water. If this doesn’t work, you can also use a plumber’s snake or just call a professional to take care of it for you. Either way, a blocked drain line isn’t a reason to buy a whole new unit.

Moisture can also start dripping from underneath the air conditioner if the drain pan itself is cracked or otherwise damaged. You won’t be able to fix the pan, but buying a new one is significantly less expensive than buying a new air conditioner. If the pan is removable, you can even replace it yourself. However, some A/C units have two drain pans – a removable one under the unit, and a fixed one directly beneath the coils. If the fixed pan is damaged, then it’ll be a little trickier to replace it, although it is still possible to do so.


Ice Inside the Unit

If you see any ice forming inside or outside the unit, you should turn it off immediately and call a technician for help. There are a few different reasons why this could happen, but most of them require professional assistance.

One common reason ice forms inside an air conditioner is if the refrigerant levels are running low. When everything is working correctly, moisture inside the unit will condense on the coils as refrigerant runs through them. If there’s not enough refrigerant, that moisture will stick around instead of condensing and the cold temperatures inside the air conditioner will eventually cause it to freeze. Checking the refrigerant levels and replacing any that’s been lost is an important part of A/C maintenance, so make sure you’re having that taken care of about once a year.

A clogged or dirty air filter can also cause this problem. As the filter gets more clogged, it prevents air from passing through and traps it inside the unit. The excess moisture in that air will eventually freeze and turn into ice. This is a pretty easy fix – all you have to do is turn off the A/C, clean or switch out the filter, wait for all the ice to melt (don’t try to chip it off, you might damage the coils), and then just turn it back on. It’s generally recommended to clean your air filter about once a month or replace it if you use disposable ones.

Sometimes a fault in the wiring will cause the condenser coils will continue to run after the rest of the unit has stopped, creating ice. If this is the problem, a technician might be able to fix it. Faulty wiring is one of the scenarios where just buying a whole new unit is a pretty decent option.


Air Conditioner Won’t Turn On

If the air conditioner won’t turn on at all, then there’s a pretty good chance it’s just dead. However, there are a few things you can check before writing the unit off and buying a new one.

Sometimes the problem isn’t with the A/C itself, but with the thermostat. Before dropping a hefty chunk of change on a new air conditioner, make sure that the thermostat is working properly. If the thermostat isn’t detecting the temperature correctly or not sending signals to the A/C unit, then it won’t know that it’s supposed to be turning on. Buying a new thermostat is a lot less expensive than buying a new air conditioner, so if this is the problem then you’re actually in pretty good shape. In fact, the thermostat might not even be broken either – sometimes all you need to fix the problem is a fresh set of batteries.

Air conditioners use a lot of electricity, even when they’re running correctly, so it’s not uncommon for them to pull a little too much juice and end up tripping a circuit in the fuse box. If this is the case, then the only reason it’s not turning on is that it’s not getting any power. Double-check the fuses before calling someone in to look at the A/C. It’s worth noting that you should be fine if this happens a few times here and there, but if it becomes a consistent issue, then there might be something wrong with the unit after all. You can also try hooking something else up to the same circuit to see if the issue is with your electrical wiring instead of the air conditioner.


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When Should You Replace an Air Conditioner?

While many of the problems your A/C might experience are fixable, eventually the cost of all those repairs will start to add up. At a certain point, it’s smarter to just cut your losses and buy a new unit that will run for years without these issues. Here’s a little information you can use to tell when it’s time to say goodbye to your old air conditioner and pick up a replacement.


Age and Frequency of Repairs

Although we’ll go over a few factors you should keep in mind, this is absolutely the most important one and should override the others. Air conditioners are pretty dependable and should run for about 10 to 15 years, but once you hit that point they’re only going to continue to deteriorate. This is especially true if you’ve made full use of it and kept it running for long periods every year. There’s nothing wrong with using it this way – after all, that’s exactly what you paid for – but consistent use will wear the unit down just like any other machine. Keeping up with your yearly maintenance will go a long way toward extending the lifespan of your air conditioner.

If you’re having trouble telling when the machine is getting too old, there’s a pretty simple equation people in the HVAC industry use as a rule of thumb. Next time you get a quote for a repair, just multiply that number by the age of the unit in years. If the product is higher than 5,000, then the repairs probably aren’t worth it. For example, a $900 repair on a 2-year-old air conditioner is worth it because the product (900 x 2 = 1,800) is lower than 5,000. However, if you get the same quote on a 9-year-old unit, then you should probably just get a new A/C (900 x 9 = 8,100).

It’s also worth factoring in the frequency of the repairs. If your air conditioner has been working flawlessly for ten years before requiring any repairs, then it might be worth keeping it around even if the bill is a little higher. If the unit seems to break down at least once every year or two, that’s a good sign that its life is at an end and you should just go ahead and buy a new one.


High Power Bills

You can expect your power bill to fluctuate somewhat throughout the year, but it should generally follow a pretty consistent pattern. If it seems like your bills just keep getting higher and higher, that could be a sign that your air conditioner is on its way out. Every A/C unit will slowly become less and less efficient as the years go by. Keeping up on your yearly maintenance can go a long way towards slowing this process, but it will happen eventually no matter what you do.

As you run your air conditioner over a period of years, wear and tear gradually accumulates on all the little moving parts inside the unit. This is normal and it’s pretty much how every machine works, but it does mean that the unit becomes slightly less effective as you use it. The fan spins a little bit slower, the refrigerant doesn’t flow quite as smoothly, and the whole process breaks down just a little bit. It’s not enough to make the A/C nonfunctional, but over a long enough period, it does become noticeable.

The upshot of all this is that the air conditioner has to work a little harder to keep your house cool as it becomes less effective. That means staying on for a bit longer, making the motor spin a little harder, and doing other small things that draw more electricity than usual. This contributes to the gradual process of losing efficiency as the unit requires more and more power to function properly.

This is a big reason why it’s so important to stay up to date on maintaining your air conditioner. As a general rule, we recommend having an A/C unit serviced about once a year to make sure everything is running smoothly. This can significantly slow down the process we just described, and extend the lifespan of the unit for years. Yearly maintenance can also help to prevent some of the mechanical issues we discussed in the last section by catching any possible problems before they become serious. Finally, a technician will always refill the reservoir of refrigerant in your air conditioner, ensuring that it can function properly for the whole summer.


Outdated Technology

Air conditioner technology has continued to advance steadily over the past couple of decades, which provides an extra incentive when the time comes to replace your old A/C unit. Sometimes the promise of better features, increased energy efficiency, and other advantages can help tip the scales when you’re trying to decide if now is the right time for a new air conditioner.

Sometimes certain advances can sort of make the decision for you. For example, most air conditioners made during the 20th century used an artificial refrigerant called Freon to cool the air. However, in recent years, the US government has started phasing out that particular chemical because of its contribution to climate change. The result is that the cost of refilling a Freon air conditioner has risen, and will only continue to rise as the supply of existing Freon decreases. If your A/C unit was manufactured before 2020, there’s a chance that it uses Freon as a refrigerant. If that’s the case, you’ll probably want to buy a new one sooner rather than later.

Modern air conditioners are also significantly more energy-efficient than they used to be. Spurred in part by the adoption of variable refrigerant flow (or VRF) technology, today’s A/C units use much less electricity than the older ones. Buying a new, more efficient air conditioner can make a real difference in your monthly power bill, which is a great reason to replace your old one instead of having it repaired. Older air conditioners also tend to become less efficient naturally as the parts inside age, so you might be surprised how big the difference can be every month.

Besides the advancements in green A/C technology, there are plenty of quality-of-life improvements that have been made. Ductless mini-splits, improved zoning tech, and smart tech can all make controlling the temperature in your house a lot easier and more precise. Saying goodbye to your old air conditioner and replacing it with a new one can be an opportunity to upgrade your HVAC system for the 21st century.


Finding Professional Help You Can Trust

Having an HVAC repair and installation company that you can trust is your greatest resource when you’re trying to decide if you should replace your air conditioner or have it fixed. They’ll be able to analyze your specific situation more accurately than any online article can and give you personalized advice. Of course, if you do decide to have it repaired, then it’s important to have technicians you can trust to do the job properly without overcharging you. In the case that you have to replace it, they can walk you through the process, help you decide which unit is best for your home, and then install it for you when you’re ready.

If you live in Marin, Sonoma, or Napa Counties, Valley Comfort Heating & Air is always here to help. Whether you’re looking to have your existing air conditioner fixed, planning to install a new one, or you’re just looking for some advice before you make a decision one way or the other, we have more than enough experience to take care of anything you might need. You can get in touch with us here through our website, give us a call at (707) 664-7201, or just stop by our Santa Rosa location at any time during our business hours. No matter what it is you need, we’re more than happy to work with you and we’re confident that we can be a company you keep coming back to for years to come.


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