Nothing is more inconvenient than your car's air conditioning going on the fritz at the height of summer. With temperatures on the rise you want to make sure that your air conditioner is working at its peak efficiency. When you need to replace an AC compressor it's something you want to look into right away. You can buy a brand new compressor at AutoZone for between $200 and $500 on average. You'll definitely have to check out what works with your make and model of car to know which one is right for you. And when you head to a mechanic to get the job done, you're looking at anywhere from $500 to $1,000 to get the job done, including the cost of labor.
It's hard to get an accurate price for replacing your AC compressor simply because it can vary so widely from one vehicle model to the next. Likewise, any repair job that you get done is going to have a potentially large range just depending on where you live, and which mechanic you choose to go with. As you no doubt know, one mechanic may charge you $100 for a job that a mechanic on the other side of town charges you $200 for.
Your best bet is to head to Google and do some research before agreeing to any major repair jobs. You should be able to find the number of reviews posted online to give you a more accurate idea of the kind of service you're going to get from any mechanic. it never hurts to be prepared and rely on the experiences of others to help you decide which mechanic is going to give you the best service for the best deal.
What is an AC Compressor?
In your car's air conditioning unit, the compressor is kind of like the engine that makes it all work. The compressor, as the name suggests, puts pressure on the coolant in the system. It puts it under high pressure and then forces it towards the air conditioner’s condenser, which is where it changes state from a gas into a liquid.
The compressor of your air conditioner is likely powered by a serpentine belt that's connected to your engine. Interestingly enough, the coolant that flows through the compressor is actually quite warm. When it gets pumped through under all that pressure into the condenser it strips the heat away and that's where the cooling begins to come into play.
After the condenser, the coolant needs to be depressurized in the expansion valve and then run through the evaporator where it becomes extremely cold and the air is blown into the car from that point. It is the AC compressor that starts this whole process off and powers the entire unit to keep the cycle going. If your compressor isn't functioning, then your air conditioner will not work at all. When you press the button, you'll start getting nothing, but warm air blown into the cabin.
Symptoms of a Bad AC Compressor
Some people will let a bad or failing AC compressor go for quite a long time without getting it replaced. The fact is you don't technically need air conditioning for your car to run, so for a lot of people this is a secondary concern, or not even a concern at all. The fact that it could also be quite a pricey repair job means it does get put on the back burner by a lot of people.
There's also the fact that if you live far enough north, your air conditioner is only a concern for part of the year. If it's not functioning during the winter, then obviously you're not going to care that much what it's incredibly cold.
When the heat comes around, you really will miss your air conditioning if you don't have it. The temperature in a car can rise over 20 degrees in just 10 minutes. And children in particular are at high risk of heat stroke in a sealed car in high temperatures. Cooling a car down can definitely be an important safety factor in the middle of a heat wave or on one of those oppressively hot summer days.
Because the compressor is the most important part of your entire air conditioning system, it tends to be under the most stress. Every time you turn on your AC, you're putting the compressor under a little bit more wear and tear. That's to be expected, that's just how machines operate. Your average air conditioner compressor is likely only to work for 60,000 to 70,000 miles. That will of course depend on how often you use AC, and how intense it is when you use it, but for frequent use that's a good rule of thumb.
There are some signs you can be on the lookout for when your AC compressor starts to go bad.
- High Temperatures: This one seems pretty obvious but it's also the clearest indication that something has gone wrong with your air conditioner. If you turn the AC on and give it a minute or two to start functioning and nothing is happening, the air blowing from your vents is still quite warm or even hot, then you've definitely got a problem in the system somewhere. The most likely culprit in this case would be the compressor since that is the heart of your AC unit.
- Compressor Clutch Doesn't Engage: The compressor starts working when the compressor clutch engages. When you're not using your air conditioner, then the clutch disengages so that the air conditioner turns off. If this wasn't a part of the system, then your air conditioner would either be on all the time or off all of the time.
If the clutch is seizing up on you, then your compressor can't start functioning, your air conditioner will not work. It's also possible to seize in the on position, so that you can't actually turn your air conditioner off any longer. Both of these issues are obviously not what you want and require repair.
- AC Compressor Noises: Under normal circumstances your air conditioner should not be making any sounds. At best you should hear the air blowing through your vents and not much else. When your AC compressor is failing, you may notice some loud grinding sounds or a squealing noise when you turn the AC on. This is a good sign that something has slipped or become misaligned in the system. It's also a good indicator that you only have a short time left before it fails completely as this problem will get worse through continued use. Anything that starts grinding or squealing cannot handle the stress of continuous use without exacerbating the problem.
- Fluid Leaks: This one is harder to identify, and certainly not what you'll notice just behind the wheel of your car driving as normal. But if your compressor is failing, the bearings may become worn out or damaged. When that happens, the compressor is no longer able to maintain a tight seal, and you could start leaking coolant. It's possible to notice this under your car, or in the engine compartment itself if you give the units of visual inspection.
What Happens if You Don't Repair Your AC Compressor?
Unlike a lot of the systems that exist under the hood of your car, the air conditioning system is not an integral part of the car's function. That means it can run perfectly fine with no air conditioning. After all, for many years' cars didn't have air conditioning and people just rolled their windows down, right?
If you don't repair your AC compressor, your car won't cease to function properly by any means. That said, it does make it much more uncomfortable especially if you live in a hot climate.
Dehydration is a serious risk factor in a car that doesn't have air conditioning on a hot day, however. If you must drive in hot weather without air conditioning, you need to make sure that you have adequate water on hand for you and your passengers. Small children, the elderly, and pets are all at high risk of this when sealed in a hot vehicle.
That's why it's recommended that you do get your compressor fixed whenever it's possible. Just because it's not vital to the functioning of a car does not mean that it's not important either. No one wants to be more uncomfortable than I have to be when in a car, and even if you feel alright, you need to remember that your passengers' comfort is important as well. You wouldn’t want a small child or a dog to have to suffer if they didn't have to.
Keep in mind that if you are driving without air conditioning, keep the windows down whenever possible so that you get adequate airflow and always have some water on hand to keep yourself and others in the car hydrated at all times.
Can I Repair My AC Compressor Myself?
The labor cost associated with replacing your car's AC compressor can be quite high, so you may be tempted to handle this repair job on your own. This is definitely the kind of job you can do yourself if you know what you're doing, but it's more intermediate to advanced in nature so you need to be sure you're confident in your skills before getting into it.
If you've never replaced a car AC compressor in the past, then you're definitely going to want to look up a how-to guide on the internet to walk you through the process. Better still, you can go to YouTube and check out videos that explain the process. The big problem with doing this is that the way an engine is laid out under the hood is very different from one vehicle to the next. For that reason, there isn't a standard guide to replacing a car's AC compressor.
You'll need to search for your exact make, model, and year of vehicle before you get started on this process. While the task is obviously going to be fairly similar from one vehicle to the next, AC compressors are usually hidden away in a car engine. That means you'll have to remove various parts to get to one. For instance, you have to take the alternator out of the way in some early 2000 model Volkswagen Golf’s to find the AC compressor. But that's not always the case in another vehicle.
If you know where your compressor is, then the process of getting it out from that point is fairly standard across the board. You also need to clear the system of coolant ahead of time with a recovery machine. This is a fairly specialized piece of equipment that is only used in air conditioning repair and maintenance. This isn't a typical thing that most people have in their shop, which means you'll need to track one down in order to get the job done properly.
This one step is the reason most people choose to not bother trying to replace an AC compressor on their own. You're going to need to take it into a shop that can remove the coolant safely ahead of time, so if you're there doing that why not get the entire AC compressor replaced at that time and save yourself the trouble?
The Bottom Line
Replacing your car's AC compressor can be a time-consuming task and also an expensive one. It's up to you to decide how much you value having a functional air conditioning in your vehicle. The fact is the summers can get incredibly hot and it can be extremely inconvenient and uncomfortable to be sitting in a car that doesn't have functional air conditioning.
Even though the price can be steep for repairing this, the benefits of air conditioning not being vital to your car’s functioning is that you have the option of saving up some cash to handle the repair over a period of time so that it doesn't take such a big bite out of your bank account all of a sudden the way some emergency repairs might.