Is it time to repair or replace my air conditioner?


A/C pros say you should consider age and the frequency of repairs.

Angie’s List member Nancy Thomas says she’s had enough with her old air conditioner.

Thomas paid an HVAC technician to top off the refrigerant in 2012 and, when her A/C unit broke down again recently, she wondered if it was time to repair or replace it.

But after receiving quotes of $4,000 to replace the 15-year-old unit and $300 to $600 to repair it – which came with no guarantee – Thomas says her best option was to leave it be.

“I live in Orange County (California), and I use my furnace and air conditioner, maybe, a grand total of six times a year,” she says. “I can suffer through the cold and heat for those few times.”

For many people, though, it’s not as easy to survive summer without A/C.

Consider the age of your A/C

The age of the unit plays a critical factor, highly rated HVAC technicians say.

“We use a 5,000 rule,” says Brad Wentz, owner of highly rated Buckeye Heating & Coolingin Worthington, Ohio. “You take the age of the equipment and multiply that by the repair cost. If the number is more than $5,000, then you should consider replacement. For example, a 10-year-old unit with a $350 repair equals $3,500. It’s OK to repair.”

Energy Star recommends upgrading to an energy-efficient unit if your current A/C is 10 or more years old. Many highly rated HVAC technicians say it’s typically recommended to replace units if they are 15 years or older, while Jeren Hamlin, owner of highly ratedAirtech Heating & Cooling in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, says the average lifespan of an A/C unit is about 14 years.

In Thomas’ case, HVAC experts say she should replace the unit because of its age and cost of the repair. (She decided to buy a fan, by the way).

R-22 issues

If an A/C unit requires additional refrigerant – as Thomas’ did in 2012 – it signals there’s a leak.

Topping off a system with R-22 refrigerant costs as much as $40 to more than $175 per pound – which may also include the cost of the service call. Fixing the leak and putting in several pounds of refrigerant can cost $550 to $1,000, HVAC pros say.

For more on R-22: What is a fair price for R-22?

“A unit that takes R-22 that develops a leak should probably be replaced,” Hamlin says. “Once you get a leak, the compressor (which can cost up to $2,000) will usually go out eventually.”

Repairing a leak, adding refrigerant and replacing a compressor can cost about the same as buying a new, low-end unit, Hamlin says.

R-22 prices, meanwhile, have soared in recent years due to the EPA’s eventual phaseout. HVAC manufacturers stopped making units “charged” with R-22 in 2010. Production of R-22 will end 2020.

R-410A, a more environmentally friendly refrigerant, will replace it.

Other factors

Aside from the unit’s age, there are a few other signs that signal it’s time to replace your A/C, according to Energy Star. Consider how frequently you make repairs, whether your energy bills are rising or if your home is too hot in the summer.

“How long are you going to live in the house, and what are your utilities like?” Hamlin says. “If the unit is older and the repair is a couple hundred dollars, it may not be worth fixing.”

If you do buy a new, energy-efficient unit – which costs $3,600 to $7,200 – Energy Star estimates a 20 percent savings on heating and cooling costs.

On the other hand, some HVAC technicians say if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. If there are no leaks and your energy bills are low – Hamlin sees no reason to replace it.

To gauge the condition of your existing A/C, schedule an inspection with a highly rated HVAC technician.

For more A/C advice, check out the Angie’s List Guide to Air Conditioners.