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AC Compressor Care: Everything There is to Know

AC Compressor Care

Turning on the car’s air conditioning is a luxury some cannot afford. When the AC blows hot air, the AC compressor might be to blame. This is a pricey repair in many cases, especially in older cars. Owners could drop as much as $2100 by time the project is said and done.

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An AC compressor isn’t common watercooler conversation these days; most people drive newer cars that don’t have AC problems. At worst, they’re chatting it up about an AC refill before summer hits. However, if the AC blows hot air, it could be the AC compressor that’s gone bad.

Perhaps the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff said it best when it comes to summertime: “Think of the summers of the past. Adjust the base and let the alpine blast. Pop in my CD, and let me run a rhyme, and put your car on cruise and lay back ‘cause this is summertime.” 

There is nothing like cruising down Lake Shore Drive with the AC on full blast in the summer. Put on your favorite tunes, and the world is your oyster! 

Then again, if you crank up that AC, and nothing comes out except hot air, it could suddenly feel more like an inferno out on the streets.

The car’s AC compressor does the work to turn hot air cold, and if the part is damaged, you could kiss your cool and calm ride goodbye until you get it repaired.

Knowing more about this finicky part, the signs that it’s gone bad (and why), as well as the costs will help you make an informed decision as to how to proceed should your AC compressor be dubbed faulty.

A Car’s AC Compressor: What it Does

Knowing what the car’s AC compressor is all about will help drivers manage the situation should they find themselves in need of paying for such a repair.

The AC compressor doesn’t act alone. It’s part of an entire system, in fact. Other parts include the condenser, the evaporator, and even the switch within the cabin that puts the driver in control. There are a lot of things that could go bad within the system, especially in old cars. The AC compressor is one.

This is bad news because the AC compressor is one the most important parts of the operation. It receives the refrigerant, compresses it (as the name implies), and sends it to the evaporator.

The part looks like a pump and perhaps like it’s one whole piece. However, inside, there are other small parts that can break, come undone, or deteriorate over time. If that happens, little pieces may bust and debris could end up in various parts of the mechanism and the AC system in general.

For this reason, the AC compressor isn’t always an easy one and done swap out. Often, there are secondary parts that will be replaced as part of the repair. And yes, this will drive up the cost.

Signs the AC Compressor is on the Fritz

Knowing when the AC compressor is bad is one of the easiest diagnostic tests a car owner can perform. Knowing the specific part is bad, or why, is a different story. However, if the car AC system doesn’t work, it’s most certainly a fault related to the AC. Take the car to a mechanic for further advice.

Here are the signs that the AC compressor is broken:

  1. Weird noise coming from the AC system is an indication that all is not good under the hood. The noise might sound like a grinding gear. If the sound only occurs when the AC is switched to on, it’s the AC.
  2. Hot air comes from the system. AC shouldn’t send out hot air. That’s the most obvious sign that the mechanism is not working as designed. The good news is that this doesn’t always mean that the compressor is bad. It could be time for a refrigerant refill. 
  3. Refrigerant might leak if the compressor is bad. This is the result of busted seals or worn bearings. 
  4. Some mechanics will reference that the AC’s clutch (to get power from the engine) is stuck. This is pretty hard for the average Joe to check out for themselves. If the mechanic says this is the problem, they’re probably right. By the way, it means the whole AC compressor will be replaced.

Repairing AC Compressors is a full-time job for some mechanics. There are garages that specialize in AC repair, and that’s because it’s big business. In cities that get as hot as Chicago does, people are not usually willing to go without Alaska-like climatization in their vehicle.

The repair for the AC compressor could run as high as $2100, but if you hate showing up to work drenched in sweat in mid-July, the repair will be worth it. 

How an AC Compressor Breaks

Besides the normal wear and tear of the moving parts within the AC compressor, other causes may be to blame.

  • The seals could be bad. This is fairly common. Within the compressor, there are seals that keep everything together. If they bust, crack, dry up, or go brittle, the seals will allow AC oil and refrigerant to go where it shouldn’t, shutting the compressor down.
  • A belt drives the clutch within the machine when it’s operating. If these parts fail, then the entire AC compressor will need to be replaced. Most of the time, it’s not worth it to open a compressor and repair. Once it’s broken, it’s done. 

This price fluctuates depending on the part, the make, model, and age of the car, and where you live. Replacing the AC compressor can cost from $300 to $1500 in parts alone. Adding labor brings the grand total to anywhere from $1000 to $2100. 

How long does it take to replace AC compressor in car?

Luckily, the AC compressor repair, if it’s straightforward, should be done in about two hours. Most of the time, the mechanic doesn’t not take apart the compressor to figure out which little parts or seals have gone bad. Instead, the whole part is swapped out.

Is it Okay to Drive a Car with a Bad AC Compressor?

If you can handle the heat, you can definitely use a car without a functioning AC compressor. In fact, the most basic of new cars may be sold without AC, just heat. This goes to show that the AC is a luxury option.

However, it isn’t an option for everybody. Many people wear suits and ties to work; they need AC in the car if they’re going to survive the summer. Other people have small children, pets, or elderly relatives who rely on a climate-controlled cabin for comfort and safety. 

If you have a health concern that requires you to avoid high temperatures, then driving a car without working AC is a major no-go. The temperatures inside a car can even be hotter than they are outside. When traffic stops on the expressway, you’re going to sweat!

Professional standards may also come to mind. In some parts of the world, where heat is extremely common and people just “live with it,” AC is just a nice perk. In the USA, however, customers expect the air conditioning to work in busses, ride sharing vehicles, taxi cabs, trucks, and the like. 

The choice to drive with or without a working AC system in the vehicle is a rather personal one. Be prepared to let down your copilots if they’re expecting some relief on a hot summer day, though.

Can the Car’s AC Compressor be Repaired?

AC compressors are tricky little devices. They look like a cartridge part that can be replaced quickly, but on the inside, there is a lot going on. Moving pieces, oil, refrigerant, and seals all work together to make sure the air blows ice cold.

In short, yes, they can sometimes be repaired. However, AC compressor replacement is far more common than cracking that little machine apart to make a repair. An exception might be in a very rare vehicle where a new compressor would be difficult to find.

Opening that device to figure out what’s going on is the job of a specialist, and often, the machine is beyond repair. For this reason, most people just replace the AC compressor altogether. Doing so costs up to $2100.

Is Replacing the AC Compressor Unit Worth It?

Unlike a wheel, a spark plug, or a head gasket, the car can operate just fine without it. It’s the driver’s comfort and budget that mandate whether the investment in a heft AC Compressor repair bill is worth it in end.

Replacing the AC Compressor is worth it if:

  • Your car is new
  • It’s the only thing wrong with the car
  • You don’t want to buy a new car and can afford the repair
  • You require climate control within the car’s cabinet for personal, business, or safety reasons

Replacing the AC compressor is most likely not worth it if:

  • The cost of replacing the unit will exceed the value of the vehicle
  • You don’t care about having AC in your car
  • There are many other problems with the car

Sometimes the problem isn’t just the AC compressor. Replacing the whole system could cost as much as $4000. In older cars, which are more prone to having problems with AC system, the damage can be brutal. For this reason, it might be better to send that old car to the junkyard once and for all.

Some cars, however, will get a better selling price if you fix the AC, especially if you’re selling it in the summer. If the car’s AC compressor is on the fritz, perhaps the owner might consider waiting until the late Fall to sell. People might be willing to drive a car without AC until the spring warms us up again.

If you’re on the fence about getting a new car or trading your old car in for a bus pass, consider the situation in economic terms. If the AC system in your current vehicle is not worth the investment, you can save the car for cooler weather, sell it, gift it, donate it, or send it in for automobile recycling.

Keep Cool on Your Daily Commute

There is some general advice that floats around the city: Never turn on the air conditioning in an old car.

What’s an old car these days? The average lifespan of a vehicle is about 12 years. The average refill for the car’s AC refrigerant should occur on seven-year intervals on average. In hotter climates, this may be necessary more often.

The fact that the air conditioning system is blowing hot air in your face doesn’t automatically mean the compressor needs repair. It could be that an AC recharge is in order; this cost is about $100 to $150. Look for specials in the summer. Sometimes oil change facilities also offer the service.

A recharge will do a car no good if it’s actually the compressor or some other part of the system that isn’t functioning correctly. Sometimes it’s electrical. Sometimes it’s the compressor. Other’s, it’s the fan! Only a certified and licensed mechanic will know for sure.

The trip the shop is worth it in the end if you must have icy AC breezes all summer long. Then again, maybe you have a convertible, and a little wind in your hair is just what the doctor ordered. Either way, make a plan, set a goal, and get it done. 

Some people like it hot. For the rest of us, let’s enjoy summer with a little AC relief.

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