My Home Air Conditioner Isn’t Working. Could it just be my capacitor?

That was the question I got from a friend who rents a condo in Chandler, AZ the other day. I’ve been an HVAC Technician for over thirty years, and have owned Magic Touch Mechanical in Mesa, Arizona for just over twenty of those years. As the owner of an AC and heating company, I get questions like this whenever a friend’s central air conditioner stops working.

My response was, “Have you called your landlord yet?” and, “Why do you assume a capacitor is the problem?”

It’s impossible to put thirty years of experience, a degree in Electro-Mechanical Engineering, and a lifetime worth of continuing education into a one sentence answer – so I didn’t even bother explaining that many air conditioners have three capacitors, not one, or the fact that some newer AC’s may not have any.

I wasn’t sure if I should be insulted that he thought my life’s work was so easy it could be summarized in a phone call (without testing a single component), or if I should be honored he thought I had the skill to diagnose the problem from my couch via some sort of Jedi Force.

No Matter the AC’s Fault, the Symptom is “No Cooling” or “No Heating”

Even though an AC unit is made up of dozens of electrical components, dozens of mechanical components, hundreds of linear feet in copper piping, heat exchangers, etc., the call we HVAC Service Technicians receive is always the same – “it’s not cooling” or “it’s not heating”. In other words, while the problem could be any one of a hundred things, even we don’t know (for sure) until we do a thorough evaluation and testing. Not to mention, just like when you go to the doctor for one thing and find out you also have another issue, sometimes we find a component out of tolerance or on the verge of failure, that hasn’t actually failed yet.

Thirty years ago, when I first started working for an HVAC contractor, these machines were much less “electronic” than they are today and were reliant on “mechanical” components. Back then, there were no PCB’s (Printed Circuit Boards), EEV’s (Electronic Expansion Valves), variable speed motors, or inverter driven compressors in residential ac units, furnaces, or boilers. Most of the components were also somewhat universal then or could be rebuilt using universal parts, whereas now most utilize OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) parts, i.e. non-truck-stock-items.

Even then though, before the days of the internet and You Tube videos, diagnosing and then attempting to repair a broken air conditioner, heat pump, or furnace without any experience was (and still is), a fool’s errand.

Don’t get me wrong, many people with a mechanical aptitude, and a good grasp on math and science can be trained to be a good technician, but HVAC just isn’t one of those things an untrained person should even consider attempting. Safety and liability hazards aside, this equipment is too expensive for the average layman to fiddle with. That said, if you’re in the Phoenix, AZ area and need us to fix what you broke before your wife finds out, we’ll keep it between us!

Think about what you do for a living, the experience you have, the training you’ve been through, and all the little nuisances and tricks-of-the-trade you know that a layman would not. Could you / would you attempt to summarize all that in a phone call and recommend they do it themselves?

There’s a reason I have a CPA, doctor, lawyer, auto mechanic, etc. There’s also a reason I don’t seek (or give) financial, medical, legal, or mechanical advice on Facebook or YouTube. You know the old saying about a person representing themselves in court having a fool for a client? I’ve come to learn that saying applies to many other industries and trades as well.

How Much Does a Capacitor Cost?

Air conditioner capacitors are not made as stout as they were years ago. Today’s capacitors don’t handle extreme heat the way the old ones did – they just don’t build anything like they used to. We know a thing or two about extreme heat here in the Phoenix, AZ so many people have had to have an AC company replace a bad capacitor at some point in time. It is one of the highest quantity stocked parts on our service vehicles for this reason.

As a result, people have grown accustom to the word “capacitor” in the same way people call us and say, “I think it just needs a little more Freon” or “I think it’s a bad thermostat”. I believe this phenomenon is because people naturally want to help and think they’re pointing the technician in the right direction.

I’ve seen Facebook comments where one layman tells another layman to “replace the capacitor…that’s what was wrong with mine.” This often leads to one of the dozen calls we get a year with the question, “How much does a new capacitor cost?”

If you call Magic Touch Mechanical with that question, you will not like the answer, because you won’t get one. I don’t mean that in a mean way, let me explain:

  • The Customer Service Reps. that answer our phones are not HVAC Technicians, they are trained to deliver great customer service and get you scheduled with a service technician.

 

  • We do not sell parts, and do not quote prices over the phone unless one of our technicians has already diagnosed what is wrong. Frankly, we don’t want to assume the liability for a misdiagnosis, or assist people in electrocuting themselves, further damaging their AC equipment, or worse!

 

The case of the capacitor question I received from a friend is a perfect example. Here are some of the questions I would have:

  • Which capacitor are we talking about?
  • Is it a run capacitor or a start capacitor?
  • Is it the blower motor capacitor?
  • Is it the condenser motor capacitor?
  • Is it the compressor capacitor?
  • Does the unit even have capacitors?
  • Are you aware variable speed motors and inverter driven compressors don’t use a capacitor?
  • Is it a dual-cap?
  • How many microfarads is it?
  • Which method did you use to test its capacitance?
  • What’s the voltage?
  • Do we need a new mounting kit also?
  • How is it wired?
  • Has a dual capacitor been split?
  • Is the existing capacitor OEM or aftermarket?
  • How did you determine the existing capacitor is correct?
  • What is the allowable tolerance for a capacitor?

 

Of course, I wouldn’t really ask all those as I know the person on the other end of the phone couldn’t answer the majority of those questions, but that’s my point.

No matter how hard we try, there are always people who become angry because a CSR can’t “just give me the price, I already know what’s wrong” or “don’t understand why a service technician can’t just call me back first” – we’ve even received bad reviews from people who don’t get the answer they want over the phone…which still baffles me, but no longer surprises me.

 

How to save money on air conditioner maintenance and repairs. Today’s DIY tip of the day.

If you’re a do-it-yourselfer and don’t know much about air conditioning equipment, there’s still a way to save money and get it done right.

  • Hand wash your car instead of going through the carwash …or better yet have your teenager do it!
  • Trim the bushes and mow your grass yourself instead of paying someone to do it …or better yet have your teenager do it!
  • Make dinner instead of eating out a couple of times …only, have your teenager do it if they can cook!

With all the money you save, you can hire a professional to properly diagnose and repair a broken air conditioner – and still be a “do-it-yourselfer”!

 

If Your AC has Stopped Working, Call a Pro

Aside from the phone call I received, another thing that prompted me to write this article was a review we received a year or so ago. The reviewer gave us a one-star review for a repair we had done three years prior. Here’s a snippet (it was very long and dramatic) of that insulting review:

 

“Was out of the Country 3 years ago and AC unit went down. Person staying at my house had the unit fixed while I was away. Magic Touch responded and fixed the unit. I did not ask questions and just paid for the service …Today the Capacitor went bad again. I decided to fix the unit myself.

…I understand they are a business and are there to make money, but it always makes it worse when a company makes that money in a dishonest fashion. This company is a JOKE. Watch a few videos on AC repair before calling anyone, especially Magic Touch. You will save Tons of money and feel better about not getting screwed!”

 

Here is my admittedly and purposely sarcastic reply:

We are sorry three years later you have buyer’s remorse and can now diagnose and repair your own AC thanks to online videos. We also apologize our fully-stocked trucks carry OEM parts to provide the right and exact replacement for your missing bracket. I wish you had better luck with all of the service companies you do business with, it appears by your reviews 90% are 1-star! Thanks for your kind words, we wish you the best of luck with your future AC repairs and choosing better businesses than us and the rest of the pack! Sincerely, Rich Morgan, President – Magic Touch Mechanical”

 

As near as I can tell, we have received in the neighborhood of 2,000 online reviews in the twenty plus years we have been in business. Better than 90% of those reviews are 5 out of 5 stars. Admittedly we have received some well-deserved poor reviews in that time as well…we’re only human and therefore we make mistakes. When we do make a mistake however we make things right at all costs…that’s how we do business and why we have the great reputation we do.

In this case however, we have a situation where a DIY’er was out of town and his house guest called us to diagnose and repair the problem. Somehow wanting to get paid for services rendered, at a price agreed upon before completed, is three years later “dishonest” and makes us a “JOKE”. Unfortunately, since he was out of town, he “just paid for the service and did not ask questions”.

He now knew years prior the capacitor was the problem. He took the chance that replacing it again may solve his problem. He got lucky and it was (allegedly) a bad capacitor again, and he admittedly watched a YouTube video to learn how to do it himself.

Forget our years of experience, trade school, certifications, fully-stocked trucks, licenses, insurance, warranty coverage, customer service reps, dispatcher, service manager, etc., etc.

All the people, time, and overhead it took to deliver quick service and an accurate repair that his guest called us to deliver. Sounds “dishonest” and joke-like, right? How dare we show up and do what we were called to do!

Don’t get me wrong, I know these people exist (they are the 2%) and knew by all the other 1-star reviews he had written about other service companies, barber shops, and even two different Circle-K’s, the type of person he was.

 

Who has the time or desire for that matter to write a review about Circle-K, let alone two of them? LOL

 

There is a moral to this story and a reason I’m sharing a particularly poor review. Yes, capacitors fail, and yes, it is a common repair nowadays, but multiple capacitor failures in a few years’ time could be indicative of another problem. I wonder if the You-Tube video explained that there may be a voltage issue elsewhere in the unit, or that a motor or compressor may be over-amping…all things an experienced technician would be considering and more importantly…testing. Interestingly, all things recorded on the technician’s checklist years prior.

I don’t wish bad will on anyone, but in this case, it would serve him right if his compressor or motor has failed, leading to a very pricey repair or even possible need to replace the entire unit. The sad part is he would never even know it was his own fault!

 

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