AC leak: repair or replace?

06/13/2014 12:00 AM

06/14/2014 6:33 PM

Q: How do I decide if it’s smarter to repair or replace my air conditioner?

Nancy T., Cowan Heights, Calif.

A: In checking with top-rated HVAC technicians, our team heard an interesting approach to this conundrum that one expert calls the $5,000 rule.

Here’s how it works: Multiply the age of the equipment by the estimated repair cost. If the result is higher than $5,000, replacement is probably your best bet. If it’s lower, you might do better to invest in a repair. For example, if you’ve gotten an estimate of $350 to repair a 10-year-old air conditioner, the $5,000 rule of thumb indicates that repair is the best value. ($350 times 10 is $3,500.)

Many top-rated technicians say that if your unit is working, you can wait until it’s 15 years or older before replacing. But according to Energy Star, the Environmental Protection Agency program, it’s a good idea to consider replacing an A/C unit with something more energy-efficient when the older unit reaches 10 years. A new, energy-efficient air conditioning unit will cost from about $3,600 to $7,200 and will save you an estimated 20 percent on energy costs, according to Energy Star.

Refrigerant is another factor to consider when determining whether to repair or replace. If your unit has a leak or otherwise requires additional refrigerant, be aware that topping off a system with R-22 refrigerant can cost from $40 to more than $175 a pound. The price of repairing a leak and adding several pounds of refrigerant can range from $550 to $1,000.

The price of R-22 has soared in recent years, as its production is phased out in favor of the more environmentally friendly R-410A. HVAC manufacturers stopped making R-22-using units in 2010. R-22 production will cease in 2020.

Pros say if your unit requires R-22 refrigerant, a leak may be a good reason to replace the unit, since the cost of repairing a leak and adding R-22 can approach the cost of buying a new unit. Also, they say, a leak is often a precursor to a failed compressor, which costs around $2,000 to replace.

Other factors to consider when determining if you need a new AC:

• How well the unit actually cools your home
• How often you have to call a technician
• If you’re not sure what condition your AC’s in, consider scheduling an inspection by a HVAC company that has earned good reviews or recommendations.

Send questions to askangie@angieslist.com.

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