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Buyers Guide & Information

AC Condenser Guide

Cost guide and analysis for replacing AC condensers in home air conditioners.

by Joshm

Buyers Guide & Information

AC Condenser Guide

Cost guide and analysis for replacing AC condensers in home air conditioners.

by Joshm

by Joshm

Your air conditioning system has three major components. The first two, the evaporator and compressor, work to get the cool air into your home. The third, the condenser, is considered to be the central portion of the entire system. Without the condenser, your house wouldn’t heat or cool at all.

How much does a condenser cost to replace? How can you tell if it is going bad? This article will answer those questions as well as identifying the parts, system expectations, and if a replacement should be a DIY or professional project.

How the Condensing Unit Works

The condensing unit is generally outside unless you have an enclosed unit. With most residential and commercial applications, though, a split AC will have the evaporator unit inside and the condenser unit outside.

The refrigerant is brought into the condenser through the low-pressure line as a hot liquid. It travels through the coils where the air is passed over to begin cooling it down. The coolant then passes through the coils and to the compressor, which is found inside the condenser unit, below the fan.

The compressor turns the low-pressure liquid into a high-pressure vapor and passes it through the rest of the condenser coils to finish the cooling process. From there, it is sent off to the evaporator unit, and the cycle repeats.

Types of AC Condenser Units

There are three types of condenser units available, water-cooled, air-cooled, and evaporative. Let’s take a look at the three to find the best option for your home.

Water-Cooled

Water-cooled condensers use tubing to pass water through the system. The water removes the heat from the refrigerant and passes it to the ambient air outside. There are three types of tubing, known as shell and tube, shell and coil, and dual-tubed.

Each similarly manages the process, warm water goes out, and cool water returns. The cool water absorbs the heat from the refrigerant during a heat-exchange inside the condenser. The water-cooled condensers are the most efficient, although they also cost the most to install.

Air-Cooled

Air-cooled condensers are primarily used in residential and small commercial areas. If you have a split AC, you most likely have an air-cooled condenser. The main difference here is that air is drawn in from the ambient space around the condenser over the coils. The hot refrigerant inside is cooled down, and the heated air is pushed out (generally through the top).

Air-cooled units are considerably cheaper to install but come at the cost of a higher monthly energy bill. They are not as efficient at cooling as a water-cooled unit, so they have to run longer to produce the same amount of cooling inside the home.

Evaporative

For what it matters, an evaporative condenser is a hybrid of a water and air-cooled unit. They are cheaper to install than water units, more efficient than air units, and last longer than both other types combined.

However, because they are such a large capacity condenser, you will only ever really find them in industrial and large commercial usage. While they can work with any AC system, placing these types of units in a residential setting isn’t feasible.

AC diagram outside unit

Replaceable Parts of AC Condensers

Condensers are made up of several different parts, each with a specific job to do. Let’s take a look at these parts and find out what they do.

Condenser Coils

Condenser coils are responsible for taking the heat out of the compressed refrigerant vapor. As the vapor travels through the coils, the air blowing over them causes a heat transfer that rapidly cools the refrigerant, resulting in the vapor turning into a liquid.

Condensate Pump

As the heat exchange takes place, condensation will form and be pulled to the bottom of the system. A condensate pump is triggered when the water level gets too high and pumps the water out. An impeller on the bottom of the pump removes the water and flushes it from the system.

Condenser Fan Motor

The fan motor is mounted to the top lid of the condenser unit and turns on whenever the system has power. The motor is responsible for spinning the fan blades, which work to remove the hot air from inside the condenser. They pull colder air in from the sides of the unit to cool the refrigerant running through the coils.

Condensate Drain Line

The condensate drain line is simply what it sounds like. As the condensation is pumped out from the condensation pump, it travels through the condensate drain line to exit the system.

Condenser Pad

The condenser pad is a concrete or composite square that acts as the base for the condenser. It works to give the condenser a solid, flat surface to mount to as well as lifting the unit off the ground to keep it from collecting debris from the yard.

Condenser Relay Switch/ Run Start Capacitor

A relay switch is more often referred to as a contactor. It is responsible for providing the current for switching the high voltage components on and off. The contactor is connected to the run capacitor, which gives it the jolt needed to engage the electromagnetic switches.

Without a run capacitor, the system wouldn’t get enough voltage to kick on, the compressor wouldn’t operate, and the blower and condenser fans wouldn’t spin. Without a contactor or condenser relay switch, the system wouldn’t stay running.

Common AC Condenser Problems

The condenser is generally a well-running piece of the HVAC system. However, because of the high voltage required to run it, the moving parts and heat exchange, things will go wrong. Let’s look at the more common failure points of the AC condenser.

Dirty Components

When dirt and debris enter the system or its components, it has to work harder to produce the same cold air you are used to. You should inspect your condenser regularly and keep the coils, fan, and air louvers clean and clear of dirt, debris, or build up.

Leaks

If the unit is leaking, you will need to replace the part that is leaking. The two primary leaking spots are refrigerant escaping from the fill valves and from a bad compressor. If you notice the level of your refrigerant is dropping, check the valve cores. They can be replaced with a valve core tool designed for air conditioners.

If the compressor is rusted or has otherwise gone bad, it can leak from the bottom or the copper tube connections. The tubing can be brazed to patch a small hole, but a large hole or bad compressor will need to be replaced entirely.

Blockages

If debris is allowed to enter the system, it can block off the coils. This is a sign of a faulty line dryer filter. You may also notice the coils aren’t being cooled or that the system never shuts off. This is generally an indication that the air louvers on the outside of the condenser are packed with debris, leaves or yard waste.

You can have your system flushed and a new filter dryer put in place to unclog the coils. If the flush doesn’t work, you will need to replace them. For blocked louvers, a garden hose will keep them clean.

Damaged Coil

Just like an internal blockage from debris, the coils can be pressed inward on themselves. Touching the coils can cause this, as well as flying debris during a storm. If the coils are damaged, it is generally best to have the system inspected before jumping to a coil replacement.

Bad Run Capacitor

The run capacitor is usually the first part to fail. You will notice a bad capacitor because it will be swollen. Capacitors also have a tale-tell color ring. If you look at the top of the capacitor and see a yellow circle that looks like a tiny coffee mug stain, this usually indicates the fluid inside is leaking. A swollen or leaking capacitor needs to be replaced immediately.

Bad Condenser Relay Switch

Second, to the capacitor, the relay switch also burns out over time. You will notice a faint burns metal odor coming from your condenser. When you open the access panel, you will see the copper coils on the electromagnet of the contactor have been burned. When this happens, it is time to replace the relay switch.

Faulty Control Board

Some newer model air conditioners use a computer control board to send the voltage and control the operation of the unit. With the exception of the capacitor, everything is done through the solid-state control board. Control boards can burn out or have issues, as well. Usually, when this happens, you will get an error code on the AC display.

Your first option should always be to call the company or retailer where you purchased your unit to make sure the error codes point to the control board and that your unit is not in warranty. If it is not in warranty, you can replace your control board as a DIY project.

Burned-Out Motor

Motors will wear out eventually, and this can cause more significant problems if left untreated. Your first stop should always be the contactor and capacitor as they provide the power to the condenser fan. If these are in working order, then the fan motor is generally to blame.

When purchasing a new fan motor, you will need to ensure you get the same voltage, rotation direction, and input capacity of your existing motor. All of the required information can be found on the paper label glued to the motor itself.

Symptoms of a Failing AC Condenser

Because there are many different parts of the condenser unit, it is hard to tell if the condenser has failed. It could be another portion of the condensing and compression stage of the cooling process. Here are the notable symptoms of a failing AC condenser.

Significantly Reduced Cooling

When you set the temperature on your thermostat, you expect your house to get to that temperature in a reasonable amount of time. If the cooling takes a lot longer to reach temperature, it could be the condenser’s fault.

Usually, when the air isn’t cold enough, the first thing you want to check is the common failure points. The air filter and thermostat are the most likely culprits. However, if these check out, it is time to inspect your condenser unit. Most often, the problem is debris build up in the air louvers. A good rinse with a hose will clear the issue.

If the problem persists, you will need to hire a professional to run flush tests and inspect the coils with testing equipment.

Noticeable Leaks

If you notice a lot of water around your condenser unit, it isn’t leaking. Refrigerant is the only thing running through the system, and it won’t puddle. The exception is if you have a water-cooled unit, and the leaking water is generally too hot to pool. Instead, it will burn off and evaporate.

The vapor will whistle as is escapes and will empty into the atmosphere. If you suspect your condenser is leaking, you should look for the vapor clouds and listen for the whistle when the AC is on.

If you see a puddle, this is generally the result of melting ice. Ice will build-up on the copper lines and can even encase the compressor. This is a sure sign of a leak in refrigerant and a loss of pressure. In this instance, you will need to refill your refrigerant level and locate the leak. A blown fill valve core is the most likely place to look.

Defective AC Condenser Fan Motor

Another sign of a bad condenser is when the motor for the condenser fan doesn’t operate as expected. The Fan motor can seize, run intermittently, or run continuously. If the motor doesn’t run at all, it will cause your condenser and compressor to overheat.

Any other unexpected fan motor operation is a sign of a lousy contactor or capacitor. An inspection of these two items, or replacement, is recommended.

Factors to Consider When to Repair or Replace Condenser Coils

When something goes wrong, you have the option to repair the issue or replace the part. How should you base your decision? Let’s take a look at some examples to find out.

Systems Age

Age plays a key role in the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of your HVAC system. Most residential systems will be reliable for about 20 years. If your condenser is only a few years old, it isn’t economical to replace the entire unit. You can repair a condenser for a lower cost if the part is still in warranty.

However, if your unit is getting up there in age, it may be more beneficial in the long run to replace the entire unit with a new one.

Efficiency Upgrade

Newer systems require less maintenance and are designed to last longer. You may be interested in upgrading your system to integrate with your smart home, for example. Since older systems don’t have the capabilities required for smart home integration, you may decide to purchase an upgraded unit.

Older R22 Systems

R-22 refrigerant is no longer being produced. What is available for purchase will be gone soon. In the meantime, prices for R-22 are skyrocketing. Even though you won’t be able to buy the refrigerant yourself (you must have a certification license), the additional costs will be added to your maintenance bill.

Moving to a newer system that uses an approved refrigerant like R-410a, is not only better for the environment, but will also keep more bills in your wallet in the long run.

AC Condenser Replacement & Repair Costs

How much is it going to cost to repair or replace your AC condenser? This section will cover various parts, brands, and options to give you a better idea of what your costs will be.

Keep in mind that each region, area, and situation will have various nuances that will affect the final cost. Be sure you always get at least three quotes before settling on a final purchase option.

Home AC Condenser Parts Replacement & Repair Costs

The condenser unit is a simple system with a lot of intricate parts. The diagnosis of the component causing the problem is the first hurdle. The most significant causes of condenser unit failure are the coils, fan motor, circuit control board, contactor or capacitor, and blockages or leaks.

When hiring a professional, the costs will increase at last double. Most professional repair companies will charge an hourly labor fee, which can range between $50 and $150 per hour.

Home Advisor breaks down the common failure points based on size (coils and condenser unit ton-capacity). This information is expressed in the chart below.

Size Unit Price Total With Labor
1.5 – 2 Ton $500-$800 $900-$1,500
2.5 Ton $600-$1,000 $1,000-$2,200
3 Ton $700-$1,100 $1,100-$2,300
3.5 Ton $750-$1,200 $1,150-$2,400
4 Ton $800-$1,300 $1,200-$2,500
5 Ton $1,000-$1,600 $1,400-$2,800

Chart information retrieved from Home Advisor

Unless you have a blockage or a leak, repairs can be done by the replacement of worn parts. Instead of replacing the entire condenser unit, you can expect to pay the following costs for the various common failure parts. Note, the chart below does not include labor.

Part Cost
Motor $350-$600
Control Circuit Board $150-$400
Contactor or Capacitor $150-$300

For a blockage or a leak, it is highly recommended that you replace the entire condenser unit. Costs for those based on brand, size, and application are below.

Residential HVAC Condenser Unit Replacement Price by Brand

If you are going to replace the entire condenser unit, there are a few factors you must decide on before making your purchase. First and foremost is the type of refrigerant being used by the system. If you currently use R-22 and want to go with a system that uses R-410a, you will need to also replace the high-pressure line and flush the entire system before installation.

The size of the condenser unit is also required. If you put a condensers that is too big for your system you won’t run efficiently and the costs on your energy bill will increase. Likewise, if you opt for a condenser that is too small, the system will have to work overtime to cool your home, resulting in a shortened life span and a higher monthly energy bill.

Most residential homes average a 1.5 – 2-ton unit. The ton measurement comes from how much heat it takes to melt one ton of ice. This was adapted into the BTU measurement we use today, but condensers are still rated by tons. Below are costs for condenser units, by brand, for an average residential installation.

Condenser Brand 1.5 ton/ R-401a Cost
Goodman 1.5 ton/ R-401a $$
Trane 3 ton/R-410a $$$
Carrier 1.5 ton/R-410a $
Lennox 2 ton/R-410a $$
Rheem 2 ton/R-410a $$

DIY Vs Professional HVAC Technician

Before you jump in and start fixing things yourself, you need to understand the dangers involved. First, you are dealing with an energized electrical component that deals with temperature extremes.

3rd-degree burns, as well as frostbite, are all possible with improper handling. You are also going to be messing with parts that generally have over 200 volts of electricity running through them. Always double-check power supplies are shut off, safety gear is worn, and that you know exactly what you are doing.

While the dangers are serious, most repairs and replacements aren’t that complicated. You will have to handle refrigerant, though, which does require a license. If you do not have a license, you can attend a class to get certified. Check the EPA guidelines for details.

Hiring a professional will save you a lot of time and headaches. However, labor costs can get high. For routine maintenance, you should do it yourself (see further below). Replacing the relay switches, capacitors, and even the blower motors can be done as a DIY project. Beyond that, though, it is beneficial to hire a professional.

You can check Angie’s List for reputable professionals in your area.

How to Replace AC Condenser Units

Before you set out to replace your condenser unit, you will need to have an understanding of the HVAC system, how it operates, and the refrigerant it uses. You will also be required by law to have a license to handle the refrigerant.

  • Before you remove the power to the condenser, you will need to recover the refrigerant that is in the system. This will require a recovery machine, refrigerant gauges and manifold set, recovery tank, and protective equipment.
  • Remove the disconnect block form the outside power breaker and short the capacitor to drain any residual charge.
  • Close the refrigerant valves to prevent any leaking from leftover vapor in the compressor.
  • Cut the copper refrigerant lines at the condenser, leaving enough behind to braze the new condenser unit into.
  • Disconnect the thermostat wires, power wires, and junction box wires from the condenser.
  • Remove the top shell and pull out the fan and fan motor.
  • Assuming your new condenser unit comes with a compressor, you won’t need to remove the old one. If you are using the old compressor, you will need to remove it as well.
  • Unbolt the condenser unit from the pad by removing the bolts from inside the unit.
  • Carefully remove the condenser unit from the pad and recycle where applicable.
  • Installation of the new condenser unit is the reverse of removal.

How To Clean Condenser Units

Cleaning your AC condenser unit should be an annual routine. You can also maintain the unit seasonally to help the overall upkeep. Maintenance should take you about an hour, though you will get faster with knowledge and practice.

The idea behind the maintenance is to keep the unit working efficiently. You will be checking for damage, removing debris and clearing the area of possible airflow blockades. You will need a screwdriver with a Phillips, flat, and ¼ drive ends. Most 4-in-1 screwdrivers will fit all of the screws on your condenser.

You will also need a garden hose with a nozzle attachment, eye protection, gloves, and either a shop vacuum or air compressor.

Important Note: Any time you are working in, on, or around the condenser unit, you must shut off the power. You can pull the power disconnect block (or toggle the on/off switch to off). However, you should be cautious as many components inside retain the electricity they store. Even with the power off, sudden jolts of component movement are still possible.

  • The first thing you need to do is clear the area around the condenser and pad. Use yard tools to cut down grass, weeds, and any other lawn debris that can grow up, in or over the condenser.
  • Blow or vacuum the fins and air louvers on the outside of the unit. Pay special attention to the corners and bottom of the condenser shell.
  • Inspect the fins and ensure they are straight and parallel. You can use a small knife to straighten the fins if needed.
  • Remove the top of the condenser shell with the fan and fan motor attached. Go slow, as there won’t be a lot of room because of the electrical wires. Place the top securely out of your way to give you access to the inside.
  • Spray the inside of the unit with the garden hose and nozzle. Moderate pressure should be used. From inside, direct your spray to the outside of the machine, cleaning out the coils and fins from top to bottom.
  • Vacuum out the inside bottom area around the compressor and the pad underneath.
  • Reinstall the fan and shell top using all of the mounting screws you removed and ensuring the electrical wires do not become pinched, cut, or dislodged.
  • Go around the unit again, clearing off the debris expelled from spraying in the previous steps. Do not spray back into the machine. If stubborn debris is present, use the vacuum to remove.
  • Replace the air filter inside your home and set the thermostat for the AC to come on.
  • Restore power to the condenser and ensure everything is in working order.

Frequently Asked Questions

Let’s go over a few of the more common questions about the AC condenser and its various pieces.

How long do AC coils last?

With proper maintenance and care, the coils in an AC condenser should last several decades. Because the coils are a closed system, unless there is physical damage from an outside source, the coils should last at least as long as the rest of your HVAC system.

How long should I expect my AC condenser to last?

The average life expectancy for a home AC condenser is about 20 years. This can be extended with proper and routine maintenance. For automotive compressors, life expectancy is about five years, depending on usage.

Do home warranties cover AC coil replacement and repairs?

Most home warranty companies will cover the HVAC system, which will include the AC coils. However, we can’t know every home warranty option available as well as each company’s practices. You should double-check with your home warranty company as to what is covered and to what degree before any work is done.

Is it more economical to buy a whole new system vs. repairing and replacing my AC condenser unit?

This will depend mostly on the age of your AC system as well as which parts are being replaced. It is also a consideration if you are doing the repairs or replacement yourself, or hiring a professional. Unless you are EPA certified, a professional will be required for legal reasons in most cases.

How much does an AC condenser unit typically cost?

The cost will vary significantly from brand to brand. You will need to factor in the size and capacity of the condenser unit, brand, refrigerant type, installation location, etc. For just the parts, though, most residential AC compressors will range between $500 and $2,000.

Conclusion

While budget is a major factor when deciding to repair or replace your condenser unit, it is also a factor in whether the job will be done as a DIY project or by a professional. It is always advised to hire out the work when dealing with major AC components such as the condenser.

Because of the dangers involved and the EPA license requirements, most homeowners aren’t legally allowed to work on their own systems. This doesn’t mean you can’t maintain the system and replace smaller parts that go bad yourself, but it should be considered.

The overall costs of hiring a professional versus doing the job yourself are mostly minimal. When you factor in your time and the warranties, the labor costs can be considered a wash.

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