What you will learn from Air Conditioner Compressor Failure article:

  1. discussion about HVAC compressor failure and how it is one of the most expensive air conditioner repairs
  2. comprehensive list of reasons why HVAC compressors fail
  3. actions to take to prevent compressor failure
  4. the importance of doing the job right and using the triple evacuation method
  5. a video on the importance of regular maintenance on HVAC equipment

Air Conditioner Compressor Failure - Air Conditioner Repair

Air Conditioner Compressor Failure - Old Burned Up Semi-Hermetic Compressor from a Chiller

Old Burned Up Semi-Hermetic Compressor from a Chiller

Air Conditioner Compressor Failure - There may come a day when your air conditioner or heat pump system fails to cool your home or business and you call an air conditioning and heating contractor to fix the problem. The HVAC technician arrives and starts the process of troubleshooting the air conditioner system.

About 30 minutes later the HVAC technician reports back to you that your Compressor Overheating Troubleshooting and either need replacing or the HVAC system needs to be replaced.

HVAC Compressor burnout is a serious and costly matter. Replacing the system requires a judgment call on your part. It is based on the cost of the burned-out compressor replacement. If the failed compressor is still under warranty, you might still have to pay for labor. You will likely have to pay for labor to replace the burned-out HVAC compressor for your air conditioner. Additionally, another factor is the current age of the air conditioning and heating equipment and whether you have the money in your budget to replace the system.

Before any of that, you’ll want to know what happened to cause the compressor to burn out in the first place. There are many reasons why an air conditioning and heating compressor can burn up, but the primary causes are neglect. Here is a list of possible reasons an HVAC compressor can burn out. Some of these reasons for compressor burnout are beyond your control, but the things that are in your control need to be addressed on a regular schedule.

Air Conditioner Compressor Failure | Excess Heat - Pressure

Some of the things on this list will cause excess heat inside the compressor. Excess heat inside a compressor is not good for mechanical components, and the oil in the system. Eventually, with excess heat that is outside of design temperatures, metal components will fail or not work as designed, and the excess heat causes the oil to break down and not provide the lubrication as designed, and that leads to more heat. The situation can snowball, and eventually, you have to either replace the compressor or replace the whole system.

Air Conditioner Compressor Failure - Possible Causes

HVAC Compressor Failure - Poor Maintenance to the HVAC system especially the air conditioning or heat pump condenser. Compressors don’t get compressors to burn out because of poor maintenance on the compressor. Many hermetic compressors are maintenance-free, so you need to look at the condenser instead of the HVAC compressor. Over a period of time, the air conditioning and heat pump condenser coils can become clogged with dust, dirt, and debris.

This restricts airflow through the coils and causes pressures and temperatures to rise inside the air conditioner or heat pump condenser including the air conditioner or heat pump HVAC compressor. Under extreme operating conditions, the air conditioner or heat pump compressor has to work harder to compress and pump the refrigerant through the air conditioner or heat pump system.

When the compressor works harder, it pulls more amperage, which causes it to run hotter than normal. If the HVAC compressor exceeds its normal rated operating temperature, things inside the compressor start to break down, and eventually, over time, the compressor will fail, and the result is compressor burnout.

There are built-in protections against compressor overheating, but these protections are prone to failure under extreme conditions or may allow the compressor to run at just below the temperature protection level, but over time this higher than normal temperature will cause the compressor to burn out.

HVAC Compressor Failure - Restriction in the Refrigerant Lines

A restriction can also cause a compressor to burn out. Compressor burnout can occur as a result of a malfunctioning or clogged metering device or damage to the refrigeration line set. The copper lines that run between the condenser and the evaporator coil can be damaged or crimped, which will restrict the flow of refrigerants.

This refrigerant flow restriction causes an imbalance in the pressures of the air-conditioning or heat pump system, which causes the air conditioner or heat pump compressor to work harder. That causes higher compressor operating temperatures and amp draws, which leads to burnout, especially under extreme operating conditions.

A refrigerant line can become damaged when someone steps on or twists one of the copper lines running from the air conditioner or heat pump condenser to the evaporator coil located in the air handler. The damage may or may not affect the cooling capacity of the air conditioner or heat pump system, but it needs to be corrected as soon as possible.

There are instances when the installation crews inadvertently crimped the lines upon installation, and the problem can remain hidden until the air conditioner or heat pump system has a compressor burn out. A good air conditioning or heat pump technician using thorough air conditioning and heating troubleshooting techniques can resolve the issue and prevent a compressor burnout before it happens.

Related Link: Start Capacitors for HVAC Compressors- Delve deeper and learn more about HVAC and Compressors for HVAC (opens in a new window)

Restricted or Malfunctioning Metering Device | Air Conditioner Compressor Failure Root Cause Analysis

High Head Pressure TXVRestricted or malfunctioning metering device can also cause the air conditioning, or heat pump compressor burn out. That can be a complicated problem to diagnose even for experienced technicians, especially when the problem is intermittent. The most common metering devices are fixed orifice metering devices and thermostatic expansion valve device (TXV).

Fixed orifice metering devices can become clogged with trash or even ice up if moisture is in the system, and this can lead to compressor burnout. The same thing can happen with a TXV metering device. However, the TXV is more complex than the fixed orifice metering device, but it too can malfunction and result in a compressor burnout. The TXV has moving parts, and these moving parts can stick, causing the system to experience restrictions.

Burned out compressors that have been replaced before, and two weeks later, the technician is back looking at another burned-out compressor. Because this problem was intermittent and not diagnosed when the new compressor was installed. Now everyone is scratching their heads, the air conditioning or heat pump technician looks bad, and the customer is perturbed. It happens, and the best thing to do is find the intermittent metering device problem and replace the old burned-out compressor.

Moisture in the Refrigeration System | Air Conditioner Compressor Failure

Moisture in the refrigeration system can also cause air conditioner or heat pump compressor burnout. Moisture in the refrigeration system will eventually cause a compressor to burn out and is usually a result of poor installation. The oil in the refrigeration system mixes with moisture and creates an acidic sludge that slowly eats away at the windings on the compressor motor.

The installation technician must use proper installation practices when installing a new air conditioner or heat pump system. Or that the service technician uses the proper methods and procedures when opening the air conditioner or heat pump refrigeration system for any reason. A triple evacuation with a nitrogen purge in many cases will eliminate all moisture and non-condensable gases in the air-conditioning or heat pump system.

That, along with using the proper filter driers will prevent compressor burn-up from moisture. The filter drier should be replaced any time the air conditioner or heat system is opened for any reason.

Oil Loss from Refrigerant Leaks | Air Conditioner Compressor Failure

Oil loss from refrigerant leaks can be another reason for air conditioner or heat compressor burnout. That is common as many people do not want to pay to find a refrigerant leak when the cost of filling the air conditioner or heat pump system up with refrigerant is cheaper. Whenever there is a refrigerant leak, oil from the system also leaks out through the same hole where the refrigerant is escaping.

The proper oil level is necessary for good lubrication and also cooling the compressor. While the air conditioner or heat pump compressor is cooled mainly by the return suction gas, the oil still contributes to keeping the air conditioner or heat pump compressor cool by reducing friction in the air conditioner or heat pump compressor. The best advice High Performance HVAC Systems can offer is that you have the technician find and fix the refrigerant leak.

That will cost more than just filling the air conditioner or heat pump system with refrigerant, but the long-term alternative will cost more. This is especially true for the new R-410A refrigerant systems which operate at higher pressures than the older R-22 systems.

Compressor Short Cycling | Air Conditioner Compressor Failure

Compressor short cycling can also cause air conditioner or heat pump compressor burnout. That occurs when the unit is turned on and off quickly without giving it the proper time to recover, equalize, and cool down. An air conditioner or heat pump compressor pulls a high amp draw on startup, which is technically called locked rotor amps.

The compressor has to start from a full stop to a full blast in less than a second. It also has to overcome the head pressure, and if the unit just quit (within the last 3 minutes), the head pressure is still high and equalizing. Starting and stopping and the compressor continuously under these conditions will create a lot of heat, and this increased heat level can cause a compressor to burn out.

An air conditioner or heat pump unit with the proper controls that prevent short-cycling will prevent compressor burn up under these circumstances. Much modern digital heating and cooling thermostats have built protection for short cycling. The thermostat has a built-in time delay which prevents the user from turning the air conditioner or heat on and off and on again too quickly.

Refrigerant Contamination

Refrigerant Contamination - If the system was recovered of refrigerant and the recovery tank contained contaminated refrigerant and acid from an old burnout, the contaminated refrigerant will cause problems. Eventually, the acid will cause compressor failure. If the technician cannot do a refrigerant pump-down method into the condenser then it is best to use virgin refrigerant on the refill after the triple evacuation of the system.

Liquid Slugging

Liquid Slugging - this happens when the evaporator is not absorbing enough heat, and liquid refrigerant makes its way back to the compressor. The liquid does not compress and will cause irreparable damage to a compressor.

Defective Compressor | Air Conditioner Compressor Failure

A defective Compressor can also be the cause of an air conditioner or heat pump compressor burnout. That is not very common, but it does occur. Hopefully, if this happens to you, the air conditioner or heat pump compressor is still under warranty. Either way, the technician needs to look at the other issues described here before determining that it was a defective compressor.

Other issues to look at in the air conditioner or heat pump compressor system are the compressor motor capacitor and the proper amount of voltage the compressor is getting. The capacitor and the voltage should fall into plus or minus 10 percent of the rating by the compressor manufacturer. Anything out of this range can cause problems that lead to compressor burn-up or burn-out.

Lightning Strikes

Lightning Strikes can fry an air conditioner or heat pump compressor and other HVAC components in the air conditioner or heat pump system. In this case, hopefully, your insurance will cover the cost of replacing the air conditioner or heat pump. A large amount of voltage and the current passing through an air conditioner compressor that is running can have devastating effects the may damage the system beyond repair.

Conclusion | Air Conditioner Compressor Failure

While compressor burn-out is quite common for compressor failures, another common problem is compressor lock up. An air conditioner or heat pump compressor is a mechanical and electrical device. It has mechanical parts which are driven by an electric motor. If the mechanical parts lock up or seize up and the electric motor in the compressor does not have the horsepower to overcome the lock-up or seizing of the mechanical parts, then the compressor is mechanically locked up.

There are techniques a good air conditioning, and heat pump technician can use to unlock the compressor, but approximately 25 percent of compressor lockups cannot be unlocked. It becomes necessary to replace the air conditioner or heat pump compressor or the whole condenser. The important thing is that you have a regular maintenance schedule for the air conditioner or heat pump system to prevent most problems that can cause a compressor to burn out, burn up, or mechanical lockup.

Installation technical techniques are crucial for a split system or anytime the refrigeration portion of the air conditioner or heat pump is opened for any reason. Doing the job right will save a system from a compressor burn-out. It is important that any technician opening the refrigeration system anywhere or installing a new air conditioner or heat pump use the triple evacuation method before the system is put back into use. That is especially true with newer refrigerants such as R-410A, which is used mostly in residential HVAC.

Video | Air Conditioner Compressor Failure

Air Conditioner Compressor Failure Helpful Video - Here is a video of a man explaining preventive maintenance on condenser coils. Dirty condenser coils contribute to burned-out compressors.

High Performance HVAC Air Conditioning and Heating Systems

HVAC Compressor Failure