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Raise your hand if you A) own a home or property with an HVAC system, and B) have ever had a HVAC service person recharge your refrigerant due to a leak?

I see everyone's hand is raised.

Okay, maybe the lucky few didn't or the owners of brand spanking new system, but most of you did. Summer starts and the heat waves wash over the country. Residential customers start calling the techs to come out, businesses are posting signs on their doors "Bear with us as we repair our A/C"...

Question

So tell me, why, of all the important systems in a home, is an HVAC system so susceptible to this issue? And is there anything a homeowner, apart from having an entire new system installed (or leaks repaired), do about it? Is there some preventative maintenance that can help alleviate this common issue?

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    When you've had it recharged, have you also had the leak fixed? The only problem I have had with my 15 year old condenser in my 5 years of ownership of the home is that the capacitor went bad. – statueuphemism May 31 '17 at 20:38
  • Don't get me started on the capacitor's :) Been there too... But yes, fixing the leak is one thing. I guess I'm more or less concerned that the leak occurred at all. I understand things break down, get old, and what not, but what I do not understand is how we have not engineered HVAC systems that are impervious to those effects. Is it the nature of the beast? Is that just "how things are" in the HVAC world? I guess I'm alluding to the proverbial "We can put a man on the moon, but we can't design HVAC systems that don't leak." What is it about the HVAC sealed system that breaks down? :o – ryancdotnet May 31 '17 at 20:46
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    As @ChrisM. said, the system isn't designed to not ever fail - doing so would drastically increase the cost of an HVAC system. That's a cost not many homeowners are willing to deal with, especially given the relative infrequency of leaks in HVAC systems - despite your anecdotal evidence :) Fix it once and you're generally good for another 15 years or so. If they were springing a new leak every year, you'd bet someone would develop a more resilient (though still not completely fail-safe) solution. – mmathis May 31 '17 at 21:05
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because its a rant about the iniquities of capitalism or something. – RedGrittyBrick May 31 '17 at 21:11
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    Our HVAC is almost 15 years old, and it's never ever gotten a recharge. The only coolant it has lost is the small amount needed to measure the charge. I have had to replace a motor in the condenser, the blower motor, and a few capacitors, but never the coolant itself. – BillDOe May 31 '17 at 23:22
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Is there some preventative maintenance that can help alleviate this common issue?

Other than keeping your furnace filter clean (check it once a month) and washing out the fuzz stuck inside the condenser with a garden hose every spring, unless you notice a ridiculous amount of vibration or unless you know you're low on refrigerant, then there's no reason to call a guy out and nothing more you can really do.

That "Leak Stop" stuff is a stop-gap (it's worth a shot though). If your system is low due to a leak then it's on its way out. It's up to you to spend ~$100 a year to probably continually leak Freon, or drop several thousand up front to not to.

Anecdotally, no one 'goes on' about their working AC unit. The failure rate on condensers by year five is less than 10%.


Why are HVAC systems so susceptible to failure?

It's probably the most complicated machine in your home, subjects itself to vibrations and the weather, runs at pressures upwards of 400 psi, passing refrigerant through flimsy copper or aluminum tubes that have about a thousand solder joints.

Most manufacturers have different grades of equipment, but most of the improvements they offer are for comfort or a slight increase in efficiency - but every split system ever made still has to contend with the above.


Is this the way the "industry" or "man" keeps HVAC service companies in business?

Yes, but not in the way you're thinking. The 'industry' could care less about service companies. What they care about are the installers they sell equipment to, and you'd better believe that they build them as cheaply as possible. And that's why the term builder grade A/C unit exists. It just needs to work well and long enough to sell the place. Like all things (they fall apart), it comes down to economics.

I'll take a wild guess that your system doesn't have a nameplate on it that says Carrier or Train (or any of their subsidiaries) - you get what you pay for... I'm looking at you, Goodman :\

Most Reliable Central Air Conditioning Systems – Consumer Reports

Still, two-thirds of the owners of American Standard systems are likely to be completely satisfied with the performance of their A/C system by year five. Owners of Goodman systems are predicted to be the least satisfied followed by Rheem.

By the fifth year of ownership, the evaporator coil is the part most likely to break, with Rudd, Rheem and York being the brands most susceptible to this problem. However, this problem is only likely to affect less than 10 percent of all units by year five.

Regardless of brand, when a repair is needed, most of our readers told us they pay out of pocket. Rheem owners paid a median repair cost of $252. Lennox wasn’t too far behind at $236. Somewhat less expensive to repair out of pocket was Carrier, at $200, followed by Goodman at $204 and Trane at $219. We didn’t have enough repair cost data on systems from Amana, American Standard, York, Bryant, and Ruud to report on them.


Therefore, fixing the problem will require a professional.

Well, not literally. You just need the tools, the knowledge, and a license to buy refrigerant. Free free to become an AC tech at any point... No? Well, that's why it costs so much money ;)

  • "By the fifth year of ownership,the evaporator coil is the part most likely to break." I find that hard to believe (that's been the problem, like, twice in my life). It's more likely that when that part breaks, you definitely call a guy out (and prob contact your insurance). Capacitors, contactors, and fan motors are the first things to go, and account for ~90% of all the repairs I've ever done - people probably either do those themselves or don't report them. – Mazura Jun 7 '17 at 17:28
  • Also, "median repair cost of $252" ? Bottom of the barrel uncased coils are ~$150. If someone will come out and draw down your system, swap the coil, patch the hole, hook the drain line back up, vacuum the line sets, and re-charge the system for ~$100 profit.... freakin' pay them! – Mazura Jun 7 '17 at 17:33
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I had my A/C unit installed when I built my house 19 years ago, and it has only had gauges on it once when I charged it and a 2nd time about 10 years ago. I check it's operation every year without using gauges. ---Now to the original question. Some systems have leaks that came from the manufacturing process; maybe the person soldering the connections had a bad day. Sometimes the installer doesn't know how to properly tighten or solder the tubing connections and leaks occur. Other times service techs use their gauges to impress, scare, or justify their reason for being there. If I am the professional and I tell you that you need me yearly, you will call for service every spring for start up service. If your a/c unit needs to be recharged every year, then someone is not doing his/her job. I would explain what needs to be done to find the leak and fix it. You can determine what you want me to do. Yes, some systems leak and their leaks can't be fix but that is the rare case.

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First to answer your question, no there is nothing you can do to prevent leaks as a homeowner. Refrigeration systems should never leak unless there is a problem or it was never installed right. The entire system is solid copper and possibly aluminum. When I install a system I fill it with nitrogen for at least 24 hours to check for leaks. Most companies won’t do this because it costs them time and money. I have found many small leaks this way, if I hadn’t done this I would have gotten a call back in a year or 2. Occasionally I will find a coil that leaks but this is infrequently and once fixed then if it leaks again time for a new coil.

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