Last Updated on April 23, 2020
Decades ago, having an air conditioning system in your car was considered a luxury. Today, it’s a basic feature that we often take for granted.
You want the air conditioner to work efficiently and effectively every time you use it. If any one of the parts in the A/C system fails, the air conditioning won’t work well, if it even works at all.
The air conditioner condenser is a critical component of this air-cooling and air-drying process. With a bad A/C condenser, you won’t be a very happy person in the middle of summer. Here’s how this part works and what signs you should look for to diagnose a faulty air conditioner condenser.
How Does an A/C Condenser Work?
Air conditioners, both in cars and in the home, work on the basis of heat exchange and pressure gradients. In the car, a substance called refrigerant is converted from liquid to gas and back again in a nearly closed system of which the A/C condenser is a very important part.
Pressure gradients are required in order for this to work correctly, so any leaks in the system will eventually cause failure.
The A/C compressor, driven by the crankshaft of the car, pressurizes gaseous refrigerant. This is the point in the cycle at which the A/C system changes from low pressure to high pressure.
Next, this high-pressure refrigerant flows to the A/C condenser, which is like a small radiator at the front of the car where heat is removed from the refrigerant by being transferred to the outside air flowing over it. This causes the gas to condense back into a liquid. The A/C condenser is therefore the key to removing heat from the system.
This cooled liquid moves to the receiver-drier/accumulator which removes excess moisture and any debris from the liquid.
The refrigerant then travels to the expansion valve or orifice tube, which are small openings to allow only a bit of liquid through at a time. This relieves pressure on the substance, which brings us back to the low pressure side of the system.
The evaporator, located under the dashboard on the passenger side in most cases, is the next stop for this very cool low-pressure liquid. The refrigerant makes its way through the evaporator while an A/C blower fan moves cabin air through it. The refrigerant absorbs the heat (causing the liquid to boil and turn back into a gas) from the air, which cools the air before it blows through the dash into the cabin.
The warmed gaseous refrigerant then flows back to the A/C compressor to repeat this process.
5 Symptoms of a Bad A/C Condenser
While a few of these problems just indicate a problem with something in the air conditioning system, those that relate to a buildup of heat usually point to the A/C condenser since removing the system of heat is its main job.
#1 – Lukewarm Air From Vents
This is probably the first thing you will notice if your A/C condenser is failing. When you expect cool air and are hit with a lukewarm gust instead, the A/C condenser should be inspected for blockages or defects which cause restrictions in airflow.
If the flow of the gas and liquid are interrupted here then the entire system is unable to run at its maximum efficiency.
#2 – Burning Smell
When the vehicle can’t release the heat the A/C system builds up, then eventually the temperature of all of the parts will increase to the point that components start burning and emitting a smell while the A/C is turned on.
This is a serious problem and you will likely need to replace multiple parts of the system as they may be melted so badly that they no longer function.
#3 – Overheating While Idling
For the same reasons, a vehicle that isn’t circulating refrigerant through the A/C condenser successfully won’t eliminate heat well so it will build up in the system.
Normally, the A/C condenser is cooled by the air flow it receives once the vehicle starts moving again, but if too much heat is built up by a faulty condenser then this normal behavior just won’t be enough cooling.
#4 – Noticeable Coolant Leaks
As the A/C condenser contains refrigerant under high pressure, it is more prone to leaks if there are any vulnerabilities in the part.
Leaks due to failing seals is a normal part of the aging of the condenser, but the entire part should be replaced before all of the refrigerant leaks out of the system.
#5 – Warning Lights on Dashboard
Some newer vehicles have a warning system that detects a problem with the air conditioning system and emits a warning light on the dashboard. Check your owner’s manual to see if this is something that you should watch for.
Causes of a Bad A/C Condenser
The main cause of a failing A/C condenser is simple wear and tear of the seals and tubes in the part caused by aging. Unfortunately, since the seals alone cannot be replaced, the entire condenser unit must be replaced.
Another cause of a faulty condenser is debris inside that either blocks the flow of refrigerant or travels in the refrigerant and causes damage as it contacts the A/C system components.
These debris often come from a broken A/C compressor that releases metallic fragments into the system. If this is the problem, both the A/C compressor and A/C condenser will need replacement.
If moisture gets into the system via leaks in the seals, ice crystals can form and cause similar blockages and mechanical damage as the metallic pieces.
Air Conditioner Condenser Replacement Cost
The cost of replacing an A/C condenser varies based on the type of vehicle and whether or not other parts in the A/C system need repairs or replacement as well. In most vehicles it should cost between $400 and $900 to replace the condenser, with about $200 to $400 of this going towards labor and the remainder for parts.
It’s not recommended for a home mechanic to try to replace the A/C condenser as this can be a dangerous job due to the high-pressure properties of the system and because specific tools are needed.
For example, the refrigerant which will be released when the system is opened must be contained with specialized recovery equipment as it is illegal to vent it into the atmosphere.
It’s a good idea to periodically clean the A/C condenser to preserve the life of the unit. You can either do it yourself following some simple online video tutorials or take it in to a mechanic for maintenance, either option will still be cheaper than replacing the condenser completely if it’s still working well.
Other parts in the A/C system, such as vents, cabin air filter, and the A/C condenser fan, should also be cleaned regularly for maximum efficiency.