Back in May I mentioned that our air conditioner broke and I had to spend a couple of hours researching the issue on the internet and ten minutes installing the messed up part. I estimated the savings at $200-300.
It turns out I was being too generous with my estimate for an AC repairman’s charges. Steve, the guy behind the now-shuttered EscapeVelocity2020 blog, wrote about paying almost $400 to fix his air conditioner. I realized Steve had the exact same issue as I did and the AC tech charged him $398 for the repair instead of the $25 I spent with my DIY repair.
Wow, holy crap, $398!??!
Steve’s reason for calling the AC repairman makes sense in his situation. Steve is still working full time and therefore very busy. He also has a solid income stream from work, so it’s not like spending an extra $375 will break his budget for the year.
He, like us, has a family, so it’s not just an issue of deciding you can tough it out. You have to decide whether it’s worth making your wife and kids suffer through unbearably hot weather. Steve could have spent a few days in the evenings after work troubleshooting, buying parts (before 5 pm when the industrial supply houses close), then installing them, fingers crossed, hoping it works. But it simply wasn’t worth it to him.
I don’t fault Steve a bit. I almost called my AC guy but I figured I would give it a shot first myself. It only took around two hours of troubleshooting and watching youtube videos. I’m not working and have tons of free time in my weekly schedule.
My air conditioner failed on a Saturday, so I had to wait till Monday to walk up to Grainger Industrial Supply to pick up this beautiful brand new 45/5 microfarad, 370 volt capacitor. It was $25 but available immediately at Grainger, whereas the same part at amazon was only $10-15 but wouldn’t have arrived for a week or so. I made a conscious decision to pay an extra $10 for quicker comfort because I didn’t want the family to suffer through 90+ degree heat while waiting a few days longer. Like Steve, I made a choice to use money to make life easier.
I spent ten minutes actually installing the new capacitor and boom – cold AC once again. I feel a little more clever knowing I saved about $375 versus the going rate. I got “paid” over $150 per hour to fix my own air conditioner.
A snowball of thrift
But the savings didn’t stop at $375. Once I became an expert in diagnosing capacitor failures, I helped a friend and neighbor troubleshoot her AC (while I was 2000 miles away in Mexico, no less!). She had a wait time of one week to get any AC repair company to visit her house, and with three young kids and an out of town husband, she couldn’t wait. Eventually a friend of a friend fixed her unit.
Then a few weeks ago my mom called. She had the same issues as I did, so I assumed it was a blown capacitor. My dad pulled the part number from his unit’s capacitor and I bought one from the industrial supply store near me and installed it. Another incredibly easy ten minute fix.
I saved my mom $350. She gave me $50 to cover her slightly more expensive $33 capacitor plus some extra to cover gas to her house and to the parts store.
I’ve learned that the time spent learning to fix something usually pays dividends over time by letting me help others diagnose and/or repair their problems. And once I gain skills to fix something, I can use those skills over and over for myself and others.
How to diagnose and fix a busted air conditioner compressor capacitor
In case your AC dies, here’s the easy way to determine whether you have a blown capacitor. If you feel air blowing from your vents, but it’s warm or room temperature (and not cold), go check the outside compressor. If the compressor’s fan isn’t running, it means there’s a problem with your compressor. Go grab a screwdriver or a stick on the ground and “stick start” the fan on the compressor. Stick starting is what it sounds like – using the stick to start the fan spinning. If the fan keeps spinning, it’s almost certain you’ve blown the capacitor on your compressor (sometimes called a “run capacitor” or a “start capacitor”).
Capacitors go bad over time. It could be five years or ten years and then they die of old age. Fortunately they are easy to replace:
- pull the shut off breaker or throw the shut off switch to OFF (so you don’t blow your fingers off)
- unscrew ~3 screws
- remove the metal shielding from the AC compressor
- unscrew 1 screw holding the capacitor in place
- wait at least a few minutes to let the capacitor discharge
- ensure discharge by pressing an insulated screwdriver across pairs of terminals (wear safety glasses!)
- pull off 3 connectors
- replace the capacitor
- screw in 1 screw to hold capacitor in place
- plug in the 3 connectors
- replace metal shielding and rescrew 3 screws holding the metal shielding in place
- replace shutoff breaker or turn shutoff switch to ON
Watch this video since that guy does a way better job explaining it than I can.
You can tell if the capacitor is blown by looking at the top of it. It should be flat and level. If it’s rounded then you have a blown capacitor.
What DIY means for our budget
We plan to spend $32,400 per year in our early retirement budget. Included in that budget are categories for home maintenance and car maintenance. We save thousands of dollars every year by exerting a little bit of DIY effort when something breaks. This translates to lower levels of spending throughout our retirement which means we don’t need a huge portfolio to support our spending.
Using a 3% withdrawal rate, for every $1,000 we save by DIY’ing, we need $33,333 less in our retirement stash ($1,000 / 0.03 = $33,333). We aren’t simply saving a hundred or two here and there (or $375 in the case of the busted capacitor). By bringing our spending on home and auto maintenance way down, we reduce the required portfolio balance to support our early retirement by tens of thousands of dollars.
What’s your style? DIY or call the repairman? Will that change once you no longer work full time?