Heat and Air Repairs: Decisions, Decisions…

Not quite six months ago, I wrote about that fact that our central air conditioning was having trouble keeping the house cool. Cleaning the filters didn’t help, so we called for service. Unfortunately, the A/C repairman couldn’t find anything obviously wrong, aside from the fact that it was low on refrigerant. Since he couldn’t find an obvious leak, he recharged it, added a dye so they could find the leak in the future, and then handed us a bill.

Things were fine over the remainder of the air conditioning season. The weather finally cooled down, and we were able to stop running our A/C for a month or so. But this week it turned cold, so we flipped on the heat. Unfortunately, it wasn’t working very well — it was pushing plenty of air, but it wasn’t pumping out much heat. Given that we have a heat pump, which basically means that the A/C runs in reverse to produce heat, I figured we were suffering from the same problems as before.

This time around, we called the heat and air guy that’s been running duct work for our new addition. He came out and not only verified that we were once again low on refrigerant, but he also found the leak. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the coil is cracked, and it’s going to cost about $1, 000 to replace it.

Normally, it would be a simple decision to repair it. But right now, the situation is a bit more complex… Since we’re adding on to the house, it’s possible that our current A/C unit won’t be able to handle the additional load. We originally decided to take a wait-and-see approach — if the A/C unit couldn’t handle the additional space, we could always replace it later. Our current quandary is whether we should: (1) roll the dice and pay for the repair in hopes that the unit will be able to handle the additional space, or (2) bite the bullet and upgrade to a larger system (which will probably cost around $8k).

A bit of background:

Our current system is 4 tons which, based on most rules of thumb, was already on the small side for our house (3000 sq ft before the addition). That being said, it never really had trouble keeping up, and it’s better to have an undersized A/C unit than one that’s oversized. With the addition, we’re now up to 3300 sq ft. While that’s just 10% more space, it might just be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

The other consideration is a newer A/C unit would be substantially more energy efficient, although I haven’t had a chance to run the numbers.

So… We now have to decide between spending $1k to fix a heat and air system that might not be sufficient to heat/cool our house, or cut our losses and replace it with a larger system that would definitely handle our needs.

16 Responses to “Heat and Air Repairs: Decisions, Decisions…”

  1. Anonymous

    Shouldn’t the biggest factor be how long you plan on staying in your house? Given the remodel, it seems like you’re going to be there for a while, so why not do things right, as it were, and spend the money now? Or at least come up with a not-so-expensive contingency plan in case you do end up needing more capacity, like a smaller unit in the addition.

    As for the home warranty thing, we needed a new air conditioning unit a year after we moved into our house and figure it would have cost about $10K if we’d had to pay for it ourselves (my in-laws had to do a similar installation at around the same time and that was their out of pocket cost). So it can be worth it, but it probably depends a lot on the condition of the house (we knew when we moved in that air conditioner would need to be replaced soon, we just didn’t realize how soon).

  2. Anonymous

    Carrier has some pretty cheap product down at the bottom of their product line.

    It isn’t really a matter of the compressor running more due to lack of refrigerant, it is more a matter of improper lubrication due to poor oil return, improper pressures, and potentially contaminants getting into the system.

    I wouldn’t worry about the 10 seer/13 seer argument. You can mix and match parts of differing efficiency without total doom and gloom. Sure it may not be as efficient as it could be, but it will cool.

    Don’t bother with a home warranty. They will first attempt to deny the repairs, then they will send out a bottom of the barrel contractor to make the repair, who will invariably repair it the cheapest way possible.

  3. MITBeta: You’re right that we won’t make back the cost difference by upgrading, but we will save something (though it’s hard to predict exactly how much) so it’s another factor to consider. I’d be surprised if we couldn’t get a replacement coil, but stranger things have happened…

  4. Anonymous


    INSIST!!! on a Manual-J heat loss/gain analysis from your HVAC contractor. If he cannot/will not supply one, find one who will. Long gone are the days of guessing whether a particular system will be up to the task of heating or cooling a particular space. A heat loss/gain analysis should take about 30 minutes to complete and takes all of the guesswork out of sizing equipment. The vast majority of HVAC equipment out there is oversized, and I’ll bet your current system is as well. I may be able to run one for you if you want to contact me off-line. But like I said, a good HVAC contractor should run one for you.

    I don’t think you’ll ever see a return on the money spent upgrading just for the sake of efficiency ($7000 buys A LOT of cooling). But one problem that you may run into into is this:

    Last year the government mandate for A/C efficiency went from 10SEER to 13SEER. If your old compressor is 10SEER, you will probably not be able to buy an A-Coil that is 10SEER. A 13SEER A-Coil will not work with a 10SEER compressor.

    Good luck…

  5. Anonymous

    That’s a tough argument… We insure lots of things we *could* afford.

    I could afford to replace/repair my 2007-model car, but I prefer to pay insurance just in case (for full coverage). I could afford to pay for the birth of my son last year – even with unexpected complications I had that brought the total to 7x what we’d planned – but I’m happy our insurance foot the bill.

    Usually, health insurance is a losing proposition for us, 2006 being the exception. Car insurance has always been a losing proposition – until I rolled my truck in 2005 to the tune of $11k.

    It’s these once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) expenses that make up for the “losing” in previous years. That’s why most people still carry these types of insurance. I look at the home warranty in a similar fashion. The big hit might not come this year, and may instead be next year. I’m glad I”m covered, whenever it comes.

    Of course, it’s an individual decision, and our having a home warranty is based on the shoddy construction of our home and our own lack of technical know-how were we to need to fix anything ourselves. Those are clearly two factors that make our situation unique.

    But to say that it’s a losing proposition and therefore not worth it kind of negates most other insurances.

    On average, we lose on insurance in general – otherwise the insurance companies wouldn’t be in business.

    Now, I won’t buy the “extended warranty” on electronics I’m offered at checkout. I’m no sucker. 🙂

  6. Michelle: Warranties are, on average, moneymakers for the companies that sell them. You yourself admitted (on your site) that you haven’t yet broken even on yours. Rather, you referred to it as good insurance. I’ve said this elsewhere, but I’m a firm believer in insuring that which you cannot afford (life insurance, LTD, etc).

    Given that we can afford to repair (or even replace) our heat and air, and given that warranties are (on average) a money-losing proposition, I’m not going to pay someone else a premium to bear the risk.

    Sure, we might’ve come out ahead had we bought a warranty (in this case) but, on average, we’ll lose out. Given this, I don’t think it’s the right move for us, though I can understand why people might purchase this sort of warranty.

  7. Starkeshia: It’s six years old, and it’s a Carrier, so I probably wouldn’t label it as builder-grade crap. Compressor stress is a good point, though, given that it’s likely been working extra hard due to the low rerigerant.

  8. Colin: No, we’re not borrowing for the addition. We’re paying cash. And whether we repair or replace, we’ll pay cash for that, too.

    Even if we were using our HELOC (we have one, we just don’t ever tap it) I don’t see how that would (or should) factor into whether or not it’s a good idea to replace our system.

    Just because someone *can* borrow money for something doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea.

    But good point on the tax credit. That would save us a bit.

  9. Anonymous

    Ouch, that’s defintley a bind I wouldn’t want to be in. I had the same problem with my heater and obviously I wanted to get it repaired, haha.

    An A/C unit is completely different but I remember when it was extremely hot out around me, it was too hard to focus, let alone relax. Good luck with the repairs!

  10. Anonymous

    I just posted on home warranties… If you had one of those, it’d save you the $1k and make your decision easier.

    As it stands, I’d probably upgrade (and get a home warranty).

  11. Anonymous

    I had a similar problem: my furnace quit working and we could replace it or replace both the furnace and AC. My AC unit was 13 years old, and so would probably need replacing soon anyway. And it’s much cheaper to replace the two at the same time. And new units are more efficient and you can get a rebate, blah, blah, blah.

    I replaced everything. (After waiting one year. We have mild winters.) And I may have made the wrong decision. I have seen no difference in my electric bill with my new super-efficient unit.

    So that’s my bias. I recommend you get someone unbiased, like maybe the kind of inspector people get when they’re about to buy a house, and ask what they think about this quandary. Is the coil the main thing that breaks and once you replace it, it’s all smooth sailing? Or is this a sign that one by one things will be falling apart now?

    Also, I kind of like the idea of two systems. Then if one breaks, you can live in the other part of the house while you’re saving to fix it.

    Here’s another idea. Repair the unit. If it turns out not to be big enough, get window units and use them until your big unit breaks again. I mean $1,000 versus $8,000? That’s a huge difference. Window units are not cheap to run, but you might have to run them only occasionally depending how much you use the far away parts of the house.

  12. Anonymous

    I too say replacement over repair. I work as a dispatcher at an HVAC co, and no matter how good the tech is, when we fix big leaks, the system is never the “same” and the customer is never happy.

    The pro about waiting though is that you will get to live in your space and get a feel for if it is enough air flow or not.

  13. Anonymous

    $8K yikes. That’s the HVAC budget for the past 3 houses I’ve renovated. Either your looking to install the highest of high tech heat humps or your guy is hosing you (or both).

    Get some prices on off brand units (Ducane made by Carrier is my favorite) you could save a fortune on the units. As far as energy efficiency, you’ll never recover the added cost of high tech units (sort of like buying a Prius) On top of that the two-stage units are maintenance pigs, so you’ll need a guy named Gunter to fix it; he’ll want $200/hour plus expensive parts.

    Consider the KISS method and like everything else, shop around and compare prices.

  14. Anonymous

    How old is the current unit? Is it a reasonably efficient unit, or builder’s grade crap? If it is builder’s grade crap, and around 5 years old, replace it. Builder’s grade crap tends not to last over about 10 years. If it is a decent unit, but between 5 and 10 years old, then it gets more iffy. If it is over 10 years old then replace it regardless. The compressor has more than likely been subjected to undue stress by being run low on refrigerant, and possibly contaminants have gotten into the system, so if you choose to fix, you may well be looking at a dead compressor in another 2-3 years. If you decide to get a new unit, make sure they do a Manual J load calculation to determine the correct size for the new unit.

  15. Anonymous

    Don’t rule out a zoned system with 2 smaller units. Can often be cheaper than 1 large and much more efficient to run. As well as keeping the house more comfortable when you have that much space.

    Oh, and it’s not totally about the square footage. There are some detailed heat loss calculations that go into it. We were on the cusp of a 4 or 5 ton system with our 2300 square feet due to the number and type of windows in the house.

  16. Anonymous

    I’m not familiar with your financial situation, but I imagine that you have either a home equity loan or HELOC for your addition. If you have any funds available from such a source, go ahead and upgrade to a good, two-stage, 92% efficient, energy-star furnace / AC unit. With the tax laws in 2007, you may claim a tax CREDIT, based on 10% of your energy-efficient home improvements, up to a total of $500.00. I know is stinks to pay $8,000 now instead of $1,000, but since you know you’re going to upgrade soon anyway, why not just do the upgrade in the first place?

    Also, shop around for the best deal; and if you don’t already have a service agreement, consider getting one. Our heating / cooling company offers a 15% discount on parts and labor with a service agreement; in addition to expedited service calls, and the waiver of the ’emergency’ call fee should a repair be needed after-hours, weekends, or holidays.

    Finally, see if there is a manufacturer’s rebate on your model; like cars, heating / AC dealers sometimes want to clean out excess inventory or last year’s models.

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