Know When to Replace Your AC Unit and When You Should Just Repair It

Gemma Johnstone
Written by Gemma Johnstone
Updated May 11, 2022
Technician repairs external ac unit
Photo: fotofabrika / Adobe Stock

If your AC breaks down, you might just need a simple repair—even if your unit isn’t exactly the newest model

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When deciding whether to repair or replace an AC unit, there are a few factors to consider. These include the age of the unit, its performance and efficiency, and the cost of any required repair. 

Having these things in mind will help you make a less-panicked plan of action if your AC breaks down on the hottest day of the year. Sometimes a simple repair and regular servicing can be enough to keep an older unit ticking over for a good few more years. 

Signs Your Air Conditioning Isn’t Working

  • Excessive or increasing noise or vibrations (squealing, grinding, or grating are common culprits)

  • An increase in your home’s humidity levels

  • Frequent breakdowns

  • A significant increase in your energy bills

  • Refrigerant or water leaks

  • Problems with the thermostat

  • Hot air blows out of the unit

  • The unit doesn’t switch off or won’t turn on

  • Poor airflow resulting in the unit cooling areas of the home unevenly

  • Burning smells or moldy odors emanating from the unit, indicating issues with wiring or moisture built up

  • More dust is accumulating in your home because of poor AC ventilation

What to Consider When Deciding Whether to Replace or Repair Your AC Unit

A quality and efficient new air conditioner is a big investment. So, unless your existing unit is not performing well and you can’t remedy this without significant expense, it often makes more sense to have it repaired. 

Some factors to consider when deciding whether to repair or replace your existing air conditioning unit include:

1. The AC Unit’s Age

A typical air conditioning unit has a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years. If it’s well-maintained, your unit can continue performing well for even longer.

As a guide: If your unit is over 10 years old, the warranty has expired, you’re experiencing more frequent problems, or the quotes you’ve received for repairs are high, purchasing a new unit may be the better choice. If your AC is less than 10 years old, is well-maintained, and has not experienced a major failure, then it might be better to have the unit repaired.

2. The Cost of the Repair

If you have a relatively new AC unit, unless the cost of repairs runs into thousands of dollars, it rarely makes financial sense to replace it with a new one. 

Many HCAV pros use the “5,000 rule” as a general guide. Here, you multiply the age of the unit by the repair cost, and if that exceeds $5,000, then it may be better to replace the unit. If it’s less, repair it.

3. Refrigerant Environmental Impact and Availability

Many air conditioning units over ten years old use R-22 Freon refrigerant. As of 2020, it’s no longer possible to produce this legally in the U.S. Consequently, any remaining supplies cost considerably more than the readily available R-410a refrigerant used in modern units. Not only will this make any refrigerant repairs needed way more expensive and potentially even challenging to carry out, but the product harms the environment.

4. The Cost of Your Energy Bills

Woman adjusts air-conditioner’s temperature via a digital thermostat
Photo: PHOTOLIFESTYLE / Adobe Stock

Regardless of how well you maintain an older AC unit, it will always be less efficient than a modern system. All air conditioning units have a SEER rating to measure their energy efficiency. AC units from the 1990s required a SEER rating of at least 10. In 2006, this changed to 13, and then 14 in 2015. Modern, efficient systems typically have a SEER rating above 20.

An improperly-sized unit, an incorrect amount of refrigerant, or worn electrical parts can also impact energy efficiency.

If you see the cost of your energy bills creeping up, purchasing a new, more efficient unit could be a worthwhile long-term investment.

5. How Long You Plan to Continue Living in Your Home

Even if you have an older unit, unless there has been a catastrophic failure or repairs are excessive, replacing it might not be a good investment if you plan to move in the next few years. Be aware, however, that if the AC unit is old or has not been well-maintained when you come to sell, a buyer may ask for a reduction on the home sale price to account for this. 

If you don’t plan on selling up soon, having the peace of mind a new unit and an extended warranty will bring may be motivation enough to replace it.

6. Aesthetic Considerations

If you’re having your home redecorated, you might have decided that an old, rusty-looking unit is too much of an eye-sore to keep it—regardless of how well it might operate.

Cost to Repair or Replace Air Conditioning

Understanding the average costs involved in repairing or replacing air conditioning can help you make an informed choice.

Typical AC Repair Costs

The cost to repair or replace smaller components may be less than a few hundred dollars. Some bigger parts are considerably more expensive to replace, and complex jobs are more labor-intensive.

Detecting and repairing a refrigerant leak, for example, can vary dramatically in price. It may cost less than $200 or end up being a complex job costing over $1,000. The cost to replace the TXV valve in an AC unit typically ranges between $100 and $700.

Some parts are expensive, including the compressor, the evaporator (indoor coil), and the condenser (outdoor coil). If any of these need replacing, costs can easily be over $1,000.

If, for example, the compressor fails, you could face a bill of around $2,000. With an older system, this is the type of repair that may have you thinking about whether a complete AC unit replacement would be more prudent.

Typical AC Unit Replacement Costs

The average cost to replace an AC unit is $5,000. Depending on its energy efficiency, size, and complexity of ductwork, it can vary from around $3,000 to more than $10,000.

What Next?

If you’ve called a reputable local HVAC contractor to assess your AC unit, it’s then a case of weighing the cost of any repair compared with the unit's age and energy efficiency.

If you decide to go for a new unit, know that any significant alterations to the ductwork or ventilation could require a permit and a license is necessary to handle the refrigerant chemicals. Attempting to install new central air conditioning on your own is not recommended.

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