Air Conditioner Compressor: What to Do When It Breaks Down

Air Conditioner Compressor Repair

There's never a good time for your air conditioner compressor to fail, but in the hot afternoons of summer, the timing couldn't be worse. An AC compressor is one of the main components of your home's cooling system and what to do next is a big decision. "Use our quick navigation below to help you determine your next steps when your air conditioner compressor fails."

Depending on the size and type of compressor, you could easily spend in the neighborhood of $1,500 to purchase a new one. But is this the right decision? This article will cover your options of what to do after your air conditioner compressor dies and help you make the best decision for your situation.

When Your Air Conditioner Compressor Dies


Some of the worst news you can get from your repair service is that your AC compressor has died. The first question you're probably asking is if you need to purchase a new AC unit or if you can simply replace your air conditioner compressor.

We'll take a close look at this question and the other options available to you, but let's first look at the role of a compressor and why it failed.

What is a Compressor?

The majority of homes have a split air conditioning system where the compressor is located in a unit outside the house. In a nut shell, the air conditioner compressor simply compresses the refrigerant.

During the air conditioning cycle the refrigerant changes from a liquid to a gas to cool your home. The compressor's role is to turn the gas back to a liquid.

This video shows the air conditioning cycle:


What Causes a Compressor to Fail?

If you live in a warm climate such as Florida, your air conditioner compressor is under a great deal of stress when it's warm outside. There a number of reasons your AC compressor can fail. Here are the top 3:

  • Grime and dust can get inside the compressor and cause it to get "stuck" and shut down all together. 
  • The compressor may malfunction and stop working.
  • The refrigerant may escape due to a leak, and running low on refrigerant can cause damage to the compressor.

What to Do when your Air Conditioner Compressor Dies

When your AC compressor fails, you have a few options. The route you choose will largely be determined by your situation. Let's take a look at each option. 

Replace the Compressor

The air conditioning compressor is housed in the outdoor condensing unit, in fact, the compressor is the primary part of the condensing unit. If your air conditioner compressor is still under warranty, you should definitely replace your compressor, since you'll only need to pay for the labor.

However, if your compressor is no longer under warranty, you'll need to pay for both the labor and the compressor. In this case, it's probably more cost effective to simply replace the entire outdoor condenser unit.

If you decide to replace the condenser unit you should also consider replacing the indoor evaporator coils.

Evaporator Coil

Replace the Condenser and Evaporator Units

The evaporator coil is located either inside the air handler or it's attached to the furnace. After the compressor turns the gas back to a liquid, it is then moved to the evaporator coil, where it's role is to absorb the heat from within your home.

The condensing unit and evaporator unit are designed to work together in what is called a matched system. If you only replace the outdoor condenser unit (where the compressor is located) and not the indoor evaporator unit, your system will not operate as efficiently as it could. In addition, the unnecessary stress on the system will likely cause it to fail prematurely. 

Manufacturers are aware that mismatched systems are prone to issues and often void their warranty unless both the compressor and the evaporator unit are replaced together. 

The upfront cost of replacing both the evaporator unit and the condensing unit (compressor) typically is worth the expense in the long run. Here are some of the main advantages of replacing both units together:

Warranty - The majority of manufacturers will void the warranty unless both the inside and outside units are replaced. On the flip side, replacing both will give you a new warranty on the entire system. 

Lower Installation Costs - More often than not, you'll pay less labor if you replace both units together, rather than replacing one now and the other in the future.

Energy Efficiency - A matched set is designed to work together and they are far more energy efficient then a mismatched system.

Rebates - If your manufacturer is offering a rebate, you'll only be able to take advantage of it if you replace both the inside and outdoor units. Check HERE to see if there are any tax credits available in your area.

Improved Refrigerant - Depending on how old your air conditioner is, you may be using R-22 refrigerant, which is horrible for the environment and also more expensive. The new version, 410a is a better refrigerant and can only be used if you replace both units. 

Tech checking air conditioner compressor

Replace the Entire Air Conditioner

Replacing your entire air conditioner is no small thing. It's by far the most radical choice, and the most expensive. But it does make sense in some situations.

Replacing your entire air conditioning system would include the following:

  • Condensing Unit - The outdoor unit that houses the compressor. 
  • Evaporator Unit - The inside unit that houses the evaporator coil.
  • Indoor Fan Unit - This is either the furnace or the air handler.

Replacing your furnace or air handler at the same time as the condensing and evaporator units can provide all of the above benefits as well as a few others. This is true even if your furnace or air handler are not having issues. Here are a few of the benefits:

Energy Efficiency - If you liked the improvements in efficiency you'd receive by replacing the condensing and evaporator units, you'll really like the results when you update your furnace or air handler too. Technology such as variable speed fans can reduce your AC expenses by up to 75%!

Reduced Noise -  Not only do variable speed fans save you money, but they also can run up to 10 times quieter than a standard cooling fan.

Incentives - Manufacturers understand the advantages of upgrading your entire system and they want you to have the best experience possible by offering additional rebates and incentives that are only available when you replace all of the components.

Improved Humidity - A variable speed fan can reduce the humidity up to 4 times over a standard fan.

Matched System - When all the major components are designed to work with each other you'll be taking advantage of the latest technology. New systems even have the ability to troubleshoot and diagnose their own issues!