How To Save $375 On Air Conditioner Repair in Two Hours

compressor-capacitor

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.

ev2020-repair-bill

Steve’s $398 bill. $79 for the service call and $319 for the capacitor replacement.

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?

 

 

44 comments

  • That’s a good question. I’m am not a handyman whatsoever and it ticks Mrs. Budgets off. I grew up with a father that had everything repaired by someone else so never had that one on one experience. We had a pipe leak a few months ago and luckily Mrs. Budgets relative is a contractor and had one of his guys come over to fix it for practically free. So luckily cause plumbers are expensive! I have fixed a few things around the house with the help of youtube and Mrs. Budgets was ecstatic. I’m sure when I’m a stay at home husband, I will have to learn!

    Not much of a tool box but might start off with a couple sticks on the ground. :p

  • I have rental homes in a very hot area. Knowing about run capacitors can save you from the hungry AC company that tells you the entire unit is shot and needs to be replaced. The other scam is the refrigerant leak. Always ask where and how big the leak is. If the tech says s/he can’t find it, suggest they recharge the unit with refrigerant. I had a company tell me I had to replace a unit in March 2009. I told him to recharge the unit for the weekend. Six and a half years later, the unit is still working.

    • Those slow leaks can be hard to find and possibly expensive to fix (if it’s in the coils for example) so a periodic recharge might be more economical long term. Especially if it lasts 6.5 years!

      We did this with our 15 year old honda accord’s AC system. It stopped working so I bought a $40 AC manifold pressure gauge set and $12 worth of refrigerant and recharged the system. 2 summers later and it’s still cold as ice in the car. I have a theory that an unscrupulous auto repair shop were we had the state vehicle inspection completed actually discharged our system in the hopes that we would come back to them to “fix” it (ie adding $12 worth of refrigerant and charging us many $100’s!). If it’s a very slow leak, I’ll keep adding $12 worth of refrigerant every few years since a major repair or replacement on the AC system is hundreds or possibly $1000.

  • For our personal house, we are all DIY all the way (except for roofing because we aren’t masochists). However, on our rental, we’ve had sort of a mixed bag. When the AC went out, my husband checked on it, but ultimately we called a repairman who could get the part faster and cheaper. It was only $179, although we ended up also giving a rental credit of $100 since the AC was out 3 days when it was over $100 each day.

    • I’d be calling the AC repairman too if we couldn’t get it running for 3 days! Fortunately ours failed early in the season when it was “only” 90 degrees on the day I fixed it (maybe 85 max on the one whole day it was broken before the parts store opened).

  • Steve(formerly@EscapeVelocity2020)

    Hey RoG, sorry about the timing on my website. The renewal came up and I just didn’t want to throw more money at it. Really good job of explaining the repair. A/C’s are fairly straightforward and you pretty much covered the most common failure.

    The ‘funniest’ part about my repair actually came a week after this pricey repair, when the A/C went out again (the outside fan stopping just as you described). It turns out that we actually hadn’t blown the original capacitor, it just happened to look like it was fixed because the first repairman reset everything after replacing the capacitor and it started up fine. I had a free return visit from the A/C company, complaining that they put in a bum capacitor. Well, it turns out that Lenox A/C units have a low pressure switch which is prone to failing. In our case, the second repairman came out, bypassed this faulty switch with a simple splicing of the wires, and we are back in business! Not that I would’ve figured that out myself, but it’s awfully disappointing when you call in a professional only to have them screw you outta 398 bucks… Always good to be able to do as much as possible yourself (or at least give it one good try).

    • Wow, the AC guy didn’t even check to see whether the “blown” capacitor was actually blown? Seems like a rookie mistake to not rule out that some other issue was at play.

      The upside of paying the AC guy to come out is that they did fix the problem for free. If you did this yourself, you might be struggling to figure out what was really wrong with the unit once you determined it’s not actually the run capacitor.

      • Steve(formerly@EscapeVelocity2020)

        Well, I watched the first guy ‘check’ the capacitor and he said it was ‘borderline’, but ultimately proclaimed that it must be the problem… He also said my refrigerant was 2# low, but fortunately I didn’t fork over another $400 for that and bought a 2# fill kit online.

        The second guy that came out said the refrigerant charge was right where he likes to see it (and I’d accidentally leaked some out), which leads me to believe that the first guy was just completely incompetent… 🙁

  • Sometimes a capacitor can be bad without a rounded top. There is an easy way to test the capacitor if you have a cheap voltmeter that will tell you for sure if it’s bad. Look up a video on YouTube on how to do this since it’s easier than trying to type it out. I had a suspect capacitor with a mostly flat top that turned out to be bad after doing this quick test.

    • That’s a great point, and a step of the troubleshooting process that I left out of this article. I consider it slightly more advanced than the very basic process I outlined here. You have to own a voltmeter, for example. 🙂 But for those with a voltmeter, or $5 and a harbor freight store nearby, it’s certainly possible to test the terminals of the capacitor to see whether it’s actually dead without relying on the rounded top trick.

  • Blown capacitors seem to be the number one cause of A/C failure. Some models have two capacitors, one for fan, one for compressor. Whenever one fails, I buy two to keep an extra on hand as they tend to go out in pairs??

    • The two capacitors I’ve replaced were single capacitors that had two capacitors within. But buying two isn’t a bad idea since they fail periodically. Going to the store to buy them takes more time than replacing them in my experience. And my local industrial parts house isn’t open on weekends so that could lead to a loooong hot weekend if the capacitor fails on a Friday night and you can’t get a replacement till Monday morning.

  • Just had this happen a few weeks ago. $188 and he came within 1 hour and we were heading into another week of 90+ degrees with this brutal TN humidity. So think we did pretty well on the bill and if the second unit does the same we will def. refer to this article and maybe could fix it ourselves(i.e. my husband).
    The interesting thing he told me about is the coming phase out of the refrigerant /escalating price .If I understood correctly if you need a new system it will be more involved because the new refrigerants aren’t compatible.This is maybe more an issue for us because we have the heat pump/AC system instead of the furnace/AC combo.Anyone also heard about this?
    Sure wish we had the furnace/AC combo. The heat pump is not the most comfortable heating method for sure.

    • It’s pretty basic to replace the capacitor, and easy to troubleshoot too. Definitely worth an hour or so if you own a screwdriver and know how to turn it! 🙂

      We’re very happy with our furnace and I used to make fun of my friend with a heat pump all the time. I’d tell him how I jacked the heat up 7 degrees in 30 minutes whereas it takes him 24 hours to raise the temp a few degrees (in the middle of winter). His issue is not having natural gas in his area, so he’s stuck on electric heat pump. Next time you’re up for a system replacement it might be worth looking at the cost of gas furnace if you have natural gas in your ‘hood.

  • I had a capacitor issue early this summer as well. I regret not doing it myself, but was under the gun during the week with small kids in the house. Now I know how to handle it, but it still cost me a good $300.

    • Ouch. Yeah, I’d be in the same boat while still working. I’d have to take most of the morning off to get the part, install it and make sure it’s working then shower and drive to work.

  • Now that the brutal heat is starting to abate here in TN, I can get back to doing/finishing some of the DIY projects around the house. Finishing up installing new vapor barrier in the crawl space (1000s of sqft of it!), which is a bear of a job and pretty filthy at that. After that I will be bringing in tons of more river rock to put around the property, which can be done even during the winter since we really don’t get snow to speak of. Replacing lights in the kitchen, exhaust fans in two bathrooms, stripping and replacing caulk on all the windows, and so on.

    Why do I say this? Like yourself I prefer to save the money and do what I can myself since I am early retired. Like Hannah above, about the only thing I won’t try to do is the roof (except for small repairs) since my expertise is lacking in that area. One of the advantages of exiting the workforce is the ability to do much of this work yourself that previously cost thousands$ when time was lacking. Oh well, time to get my 6’4″ frame back into the crawl space, which is aptly named for someone my height.

    • I don’t envy your crawlspace work. I’ve crawled in ours to replace the sump pump and it’s no fun. The split level crawl space is pretty roomy (maybe 3.5′) on the middle floor section, but the lower floor is just above grade, so there’s less than 2′ clearance under half the house. That sucks, and then crawling through 4-6″ of water hauling pumping gear made it worse. Good luck with your repairs! I’ve got a few things I can hopefully tackle too in the next 8 months while it’s cool.

  • Sounds like you have the makings for a new career! 🙂

    • I’ve given it some serious thought. Appliance/HVAC repairman might be a good part time side hustle as a Plan C or D if the early retirement portfolio doesn’t hold up.

  • I just changed one this week too! I do all my own A/C and furnace repairs. It’s not rocket science and saves a TON of money. Capacitors are easy. I have never seen one that wasn’t bulged out when it went out.

    • In terms of money saved per unit of effort, the capacitor replacement must be the highest return repair one can do. $200-375 saved for 15-20 minutes of effort. I’m not sure I can handle much more involved HVAC stuff (or that I want to!) but replacing the cap is such a simple job.

  • My rental coil had a leak, the brand was Carrier. I called several guys and they all told me they couldn’t get the part as Carrier has stopped making the part. I was using R22. The told me I could replace the out door and the coil, I ended up forking out $3500 to replace the furnace at the same time, switching out the system to R410a.

    The capacitor and contactor failure are probably some of the most common ones. I need to learn how to do this and buy some parts on hand as I have 8 HVAC systems between my rentals. Thank you for sharing!

  • I had two air-conditioners installed outside my house about 9 years ago, one failed last year, another one failed last month. In both cases, the capacitors were bad. I watched some Youtube videos and was able to figure out the problems and replaced the capacitors myself.
    Had I called an AC repairman, he might suggest to replace something else. A bill could quickly run to thousands.

    • Nice. Yeah, you would have spent many hundreds just replacing the 2 capacitors. And you might get jerked around into buying additional unnecessary services and repairs.

  • When I grew up, mostly everything in our house was DIY. My father was an electrician and quite handy so he always fixed the broken stuff (with helper me of course). I rent now, but I will use those skills in the future if and when I need them. Definitely saves a ton of money and gives you the satisfaction that you fixed it yourself!

  • Haha, you’re better than I! I guarantee I would have given it a shot, but possibly would have taken too long or reached a point where I give in and make the call. Youtube can teach us a lot, though! Good work!

    -DP

  • I love this topic. Nothing justifies the inter webs more than helping everyday people save tons of money on relatively simple repairs – so kudos to you. I won’t brag about how much money we’ve saved doing our own repairs and remodeling, but I will say that Youtube is worth it’s weight in gold and I got to keep a lot of that gold. The one unfortunate thing is that older folks generally don’t have the ability to use the internet and do these kinds of repairs and they probably would benefit more than any other demographic due to fixed income etc. In the near future I suspect kids brought up with the internet will be able to save boatloads of money on all sorts of DIY repairs and projects. It’s funny how history has done a U turn…back in the day a farmer far from the city would have to learn how to fix any and all mechanical issues to survive…now anyone with wifi can master similar needs. I’m looking forward to the Youtube video on how to DIY surgery on my torn ACL from my HS running back days. Talk about savin’ some moola! ; )

    • It’s pretty incredible how much you can learn on the internet (for DIY tasks or stuff in general). I can’t imagine how much more difficult DIY was pre-youtube/internet. Now you just pop whatever problem you’re having into your search bar and up comes a number of relevant articles and links. The future is now!!

  • Pretty cool. Our DIY style depends.

    Our AC busted. I mean, it was blowing air, but the house was still hot.
    Husband changed the filter, still not cooling the house

    Called repairman, who measured the temp coming out of one of the vents and said “its fine” and charged us $118.

    Husband did some more work
    Found a vent/flu blocked, probably from some roof work last year. So reopened that vent (to kitchen).
    Found some leaks/ blowing air in the attic and patched them (who wants to cool the attic?)
    Still too damn hot. As it, running overnight, only drops 1 degree.

    Called a second repairman (the first guy said “hey, if you still have a problem, call us again and we’ll apply that charge to any work we do”). Which, um, no you suck. (A later Yelp search confirmed that.)

    Second guy found coils full of dust and spent 30 mins cleaning (these were very hard to get to). Also found that some of the ducting was mis-sized and blocking flow. (He didn’t have parts but said he’d look into it).

    That was $158 and the AC works.

    So total it was over $250 because of the sucky first guy.

    • It’s amazing how many incompetent repairmen there are. At least you eventually got yours fixed for a relatively reasonable price and the 2nd guy didn’t try to rip you off for a system replacement or something!

  • There are many incompetent and unreliable repairmen out there so it pays to be thorough when it comes to hiring the people who will do the AC repair for you. Do some background check first before making a decision.

  • I definitely prefer to DIY when I can, but have had to call in the professionals on occasion because there’s just not enough time with a busy work schedule.
    In the past I’ve run electric and drywalled my 2.5 car garage, finished my basement including framing and electric, did a minor remodel of our full bath, and with the help of a very talented friend I completed a major kitchen renovation. On top of that I’ve diagnosed and fixed the furnace (seized draft inducer motor), fixed our electric dryer (cheap blown fuse replacement), and fixed our clothes washer (broken plastic drive piece).
    But my biggest fear/weakness is plumbing. We just had our water heater replaced (after 19 years!) and I had to bring in a plumber since I was traveling for work soon after. He did great work and was incredibly generous after he noticed the new heater I bought wouldn’t fit with the increased 4″ vent (necessary due to newer local codes). He said as long as I could exchange it for a shorter model within 45 minutes, he could start the tear out of the old one. I rushed back to Home Depot, made a quick exchange, and returned just as he was finishing. Wish I didn’t have to shell out $800 for installation of a $500 water heater, but hopefully next time I’ll be FIRE and can spend the time to do it myself.
    On a side note, I’ve found a great resource for DIYers to be RepairClinic.com. I have no affiliation with them, I’m just a fan of their troubleshooting info online and their generous return policy. Then I learned that their warehouse is local to me (metro Detroit) so I can stop in after work, pick up a part, and have anything fixed pretty quick. I even noticed they offer affiliate links if you were so inclined to pair up with lovely articles such as this one.

    • Nice work on the dryer and washer. I have replaced the exact same two components on both of my systems and it was pretty straight forward with the help of youtube (especially the dryer fuse). Even did the dryer fuse for my in-laws and didn’t take more than 15 minutes (most of that was moving the unit out and screwing/unscrewing).

      I’m not a fan of plumbing either and had to call the plumber several times this year (though did a bit of DIY in that area saving a few hundred $$). Our hot water heater is reaching the end of life and I’m planning a $2000+ expenditure to get a pro to install a tankless unit. My current unit is out of code and the plumber said no one would touch the replacement job given the height of the crawlspace. Kind of bummed about that but I figure I’ve saved $100k+ by owning an older house so not too many complaints 🙂

      • I’m jealous you’re going tankless! I’ve thought about it often but can’t justify the cost given our situation: 1) 1″ gas line into house, would probably require upsizing (and gas line is behind drywall), 2) that power vent would require them to knock a hole through our brick house and exit along our driveway, 3) with only 1.5 baths and 2 people I’m not sure we’d ever hit the payback period. We were at least able to downsize from 50 to 40 gallons so hopefully some savings there.
        Good luck on that install – at least you have time to plan and quote it. Make sure to check for utility rebates too. Our local utilities still offer decent rebates for higher efficiency appliances. If I’d been able to stick with my intended water heater (with EF of 0.69) I could’ve received $75 back, but the last-minute switch to a “short” model nixed that deal.

        • My plan is to wait and let the current tank hot water heater fail before having the tankless installed. Haven’t thought about upsizing the gas supply line and can’t recall whether it’s 1 or 1.5″ but the install site for the tankless would be within 5-6′ of the gas meter so no biggie.

          We’re stuck because of a low clearance in our crawl space. We used to have a “low boy” tank water heater but those are no longer made. Even the old “short” water heaters that are harder to find are too tall (what we have in there currently; not exactly up to code but it works how we have it installed and it’s not a fire/safety hazard per my engineering eye). I doubt we’ll ever get pay back on the $1000+ marginal cost of going tankless (our water heater only uses $10 in hot months, maybe $20-30 in cold months). But the alternative involves building a closet for a tank water heater somewhere in the house or outside the house. I’ll just go with the tankless and hope I can do the annual maintenance/flush myself. And possibly DIY the replacement if/when it dies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *