I think my air conditioner is dying. Help me not get Rheem'd.
March 13, 2007 9:22 AM   Subscribe

Last spring my husband and I noticed that a small puddle of water would form on the garage floor every time we used our central a/c for more than a few minutes. We had a local a/c guy come out and he told us the pan was leaking and needed to be replaced. He quoted us around $2,000 which I thought was extremely high considering he'd done the exact same job a year previously for our neighbor (who has the same model house and, incidentally, recommended this company) for $400.

We then asked him how much it would cost to replace the central a/c entirely since the unit was over 17 years old and probably on its last legs anyway. He went out to the backyard, took one look at our trusty old Rheem and said, "$8,000." Wha-wha-what?!

We know next to nothing about air conditioners, but I immediately went to work researching a/c brands online and getting quotes from other local companies. None of the four companies who came out did any duct tests or asked any questions about problem rooms (we have two -- the master bedroom which, due to it's location, gets extremely hot in the summer and very cold in the winter and the living room which stays relatively cool in the summer and downright artic in the winter). The first guy's quote was the "cheapest" at 8K -- he said he'd basically replace the Rheem with a bigger, more current model -- and the most expensive quote was from a company that does a lot of heavy advertising in our area and claims to be number 1 in customer satisfaction: $12K for a top of the line Trane with climate control and some kind if allergy filtration system. Needless to say, we were in serious sticker shock. We survived last summer's heatwave by diligently cleaning the outside unit and crossing our fingers; the puddle in the garage got bigger, but we made it. Fast forward to now. We still have a decision to make, but I need some serious advice before proceeding.

Our house is a small 3 bed/ 2 bath (under 1300 sf), one story tract home in the Central California 'burbs. Can these quotes be right? What kinds of questions should I ask the contractors? Why do they just take a few room measurements and toss out a quote without doing any duct tests or asking us anything? Some of the guys don't even take measurements, they just look at the current unit and suggestion something bigger. I've read that buying bigger without doing the proper tests can be a mistake -- especially when dealing with problem rooms. Asking friends and neighbors hasn't worked out so far; most people we've asked do very little research and pay what they're quoted, just like that. Since this is such a huge chunk of money for us, we're trying to be very careful. Any help and/or advice would be truly appreciated. Thanks!

P.S. The guy who gave us our first quote of $8K claimed he would be saving us money by *not* dealing with city hall and writing the job up as a "repair" rather than a replacement whereas the "expensive 12K" guy emphasized that he *would* file all of the proper contractor's paperwork and perform the job according to the new "rules" so that we wouldn't have any trouble when if/when we decided to sell our house in a few years. Can anyone break this down for me in layperson language?
posted by LuckySeven~ to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
They should be doing tests and asking about problems (we didn't get tests done and I've regretted it), but the price sounds about right. We got central air, a new furnace AND switched from oil to natural gas all at the same time for around twice what you were quoted.

I also wouldn't try to circumvent the law, which is more likely trying to protect you than hurt you (and will certainly eventually hurt you either way if you don't do it).
posted by DU at 10:06 AM on March 13, 2007

Recently, the Feds changed some of their requirements for replacing a furnance or a/c unit: replacements much now have a SEER rating of at least 13 [PDF] and California added a requirement [PDF] that a home's ducts must be tested for leaks whenever a new a/c or furnace is installed. Higher SEER rated units are more expensive and the duct inspection can turn up some pretty costly repairs in older (i.e pre 90s) homes. I replaced my forced air furnace in late 2005: all the HVAC shops I talked to at the time were atwitter about the new regulations and the costs for duct repair comprised the largest portion of the estimate.

The $8K guy is trying to sneak around triggering the above requirements by calling your job a repair to an existing unit. The $12K guy is being above the board. If you go with the $8K guy, you might end up having to disclose that your new a/c unit doesn't meet code when you put the house on the market, CA real estate disclosure requirements tending to be very thorough. This means either bringing the new unit up to code at your cost (yikes, possibly buying yet another unit that tops SEER 13) or selling the house as-is.

I'd shop around a little more, call some more contractors, call your local Sears and have them send someone out for an estimate (they aren't any cheaper but they usually offer 1 year no payment financing). Have them break down your estimates by line so you can find out if they are ballparking the duct repairs or will that get tacked on later if your ducts flunk the test. Also, check with your local power provider, they often offer rebates on replacing older coolers with energy-efficient models.
posted by jamaro at 10:07 AM on March 13, 2007

a) Air conditioners are supposed to create water. (When you cool warm, moist air, you get cooler, dryer air. The water has to go somewhere.) Generally the water is designed to collect at the bottom of the unit and either evaporate there or drain off into a drain. If the pan is leaking... well, so what? Is there some reason you can't put a piece of aluminum foil in the bottom of the pan and restore it to its prior evaporating/draining state? Perhaps the drain tube is clogged?

b) When one room is always cold in winter and hot in the summer, the "Holmes on Homes" guy usually finds that the room has been renovated and there's no insulation in the walls. (Are the inside walls hot in the summer? Dead giveaway.) Doesn't have much to do with how powerful your air conditioner is. Your house is small. Air conditioner power is not likely the issue. Personally, I would think you might want to investigate having someone check your house for heat loss/energy efficiency. When the air conditioner breaks (ceases working, pieces fly off, it explodes and catches fire) then you can look at replacement.
posted by jellicle at 10:17 AM on March 13, 2007

I know everything is more expensive in California. I had to replace my "heat-pump" last year because I was having to many service calls. So I replaced the outside unit and the inside coil unit. The total cost to remove the old one and install the new one was $2,600. And it was a Rheem. My house is 2,000 sq feet and the unit keeps the house where I set the thermostat, winter and summer.
posted by JayRwv at 10:54 AM on March 13, 2007

This is no answer, but wikipedia can be a great place to start a learning process if about anything else, i.e. ?what does 'one ton air conditioner' refer to? etc.

And as JayRwv stated, Cali is a touch more than expensive. A person has to assume that the AC guy isn't homeless, and might even have a home and family of his own too.

Fwiw, the drain pan on the AC is not too different than the pan you might put a holiday turkey into, it just has a drain on the downward end of it... Assuming you are able to creep into the attic yourself, take a real look. Could be a leaking (or clogged) drain pipe, etc.

IANAL or an AC guy, but any decent handyman should be able to fix your drain for less than a few hundred, even in Cali. I'd skip the AC folk, they seem to be wanting to sell you a new engine instead of just doing a tune up.
posted by buzzman at 11:16 AM on March 13, 2007

Response by poster: DU, should I request any specific tests besides the duct test?

Thanks, jamaro. I did read about those new requirements and I'll definitely take your advice about having future bidders break down the job by lines. The four companies we'd asked last spring all were very vague when I asked them if their estimates included duct testing and repair. Even the $12K guy seemed fishy; he told us our ducts were "fine" even though he barely glanced at them and certainly didn't perform any tests. Oh, and these quotes were factored *after* rebates, believe it or not.

Jellicle, we bought this house new in 1989. From what the $8K a/c guy told us, the pan was rusted out in several places and beyond repair. He'd made a brand new pan for my neighbor last year for $400, but for some mysterious reason, ours was going to cost over 2K even though it was the exact same thing. The water is supposed to drain out of the drainpipe on the outside wall of the house, but it's been pooling slowing at the bottom of that outside wall as well. We did suspect a clog and were semi-successful in blowing it out last year with a shop vac, but it never did stop the leaks completely. We're too afraid to chance the a/c dying for good this year (central California summers are notoriously hot), so we've decided to bite the bullet and replace the whole kit and kaboodle. Thanks for the advice regarding an heat loss/efficiency. I forgot that our local energy company offers that service for free; I'll call about that today.

Thanks, JayRwv. I knew it was going to be expensive, but I had no idea it was going to be so much.

Keep the suggestions coming! I'm making a master list before I get anymore quotes. And if anyone has any positive or negative recommendations for a/c companies in the Turlock, CA area, I'd be extremely grateful. Angie's List is barren for my neck of the woods. Please, if it's not too much trouble, ask your friends and family members who they've used in the past.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 11:48 AM on March 13, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you, buzzman. I'd love nothing better than to get a simple repair, but we've been burned in the past by "patch and go" handymen; we're trying to determine if it would be more cost effective to replace the a/c now or just fix the pan and possibly have to replace the a/c a few months later anyway. Trust me, I have zero desire to spend thousands of dollars right now, but from the reading I've done, our a/c is supposedly leading a charmed life. By most accounts, considering it's age and our area, it should have died a long time ago, but my husband has been diligent about keeping it clean and serviced.

I appreciate your POV and I think you're right, too; it can't hurt to get some quotes to have the pan repaired. At the very least, that might buy us some more time to find a well-regarded a/c company.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 12:04 PM on March 13, 2007

FYI Some utility companies offer rebates fro installing high efficiency units. Check with your gas co.
posted by Gungho at 12:38 PM on March 13, 2007

some random thoughts:

Ask the HVAC contractors if they charge less to do a/c installs in winter. Depending on the local climate, you can sometimes save a little in their downtime (though not in areas where furnace installs keep them busy in winter).

If there is some value to waiting a few months, talk to a sheet metal shop about having a replacement pan made. Might be cheaper than having an HVAC guy source it.

When you ask for the ducting test, give the contractor a copy of that CEC pdf so they are clear you are talking about the state-mandated ducting inspection, not just a cleaning or some other handwaving that doesn't meet code (assuming you are going with the above the board route)--after all, if they are going to charge you so much for it, you should get what you paid for.

On the plus side, a new a/c unit will cost a lost less to run: the costs of my new furnace will have been paid off in the savings in few years worth of the heating bill (I replaced a 45 year old furnace that was costing nearly $500/mo to keep the house a few degrees above chilly).
posted by jamaro at 1:09 PM on March 13, 2007

I'll third or whatever getting a new pan made. This shouldn't cost more than a few hundred to make from sheetmetal and it's the best, most cost effective solution I think.

$12K sounds very high, though I don't know California or HVAC very well. Unless your current unit is really inefficient it's going to take a long time to break even on a new unit and I don't think an 89 AC unit is that old.

To address the second concern of uneven heating and cooling I think only the very best engineered systems in well designed houses are completely even. Does your master bedroom have insulation in the walls? Is there insulation in the attic? Do you have double paned windows? If so are they still sealed?

There are some things you can do for little money to help the bedroom. Put an exterior shade or awning over the windows to keep out summer sun. Put a layer of plexiglas or plastic film over the inside of the window, sealed well, to create a poor-man's double paned window. This will help keep the heat in or the cool in, depending on the season. Of course it's a pain if you open the windows frequently. You can add insulation in the attic really easily if it's missing or subpar, very much a DIY job. Shading the exterior walls, especially the south and then west facing ones will help a lot as well. Trees are slow growing or expensive to have big ones transplanted but you could put a trellis/lattice on the south wall and grow some sort of ivy to keep the wall significantly cooler. Insulation can be added to the exterior walls if it's not there. I don't know the cost a typical method is cutting a series of holes and blowing in loose insulation, then patching the holes and repainting.
posted by 6550 at 1:50 PM on March 13, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks again, jamaro. Excellent advice. I'll use the CEC pdf during our next appointment. Hopefully, it will help separate the wheat from the chaff; we'll avoid the contractors who appear evasive. Since the job is so expensive, we do want it done correctly.

As far as the "winter discount" goes -- no such luck. The hvac companies over here are kept pretty busy the whole year long. That's another reason why it's so hard to get reasonably competitive bids. The companies I've had quotes from so far seem to fall into two categories: established, full page ad in the Yellow Pages types, who push their brand and trash talk their competitors or no-name "ABC Heating and Air" types who no one I know has ever heard of, much less used.

6550, my husband feels exactly as you do. Other than the leak, the unit seems to be running well. I'm just paranoid it's going to stop working in the dead of summer on a 100 plus degree day. It happened to many people in our area last year during the heatwave and the backlog was insane; some had to go months before their units were replaced or repaired.

The master bedroom (and the rest of our house is insulated), but I wouldn't be surprised if that needed addressing as well. I suspect that the insulation near the vaulted ceilings in the master bedroom and living room (the two problem areas) has become dislodged. Great advice about getting new insulation blown in -- I can't believe I hadn't thought of that! And you're right about the landscaping, too. We only have fruit trees in our backyard -- no shade at all against the master bedroom wall or the kitchen nook, which both get full sun in the spring and summer months. And it's funny you should mention the plexiglass windows -- we'd invested in those (Magnatite, to be specific) a few years after we moved in and they have helped to keep our energy costs down, but you're right, they are a pain to take on and off. They're hard to keep clean as well.

Thanks so much everyone! This morning i was feeling pretty frazzled and overwhelmed; now I have a plan of attack and know what to do. This is why I love mefi!
posted by LuckySeven~ at 4:39 PM on March 13, 2007

Best answer: You say the master bedroom "due to its location" gets very hot in summer and very cold in winter. I'm betting that the actual cause of this is a big west-facing window. It will cost you far less than $8K to put a big canvas awning outside to cut the summer sun, and a heavy curtain inside to keep heat in on winter nights, and you'll be amazed how much electricity these simple things will save you.
posted by flabdablet at 4:46 PM on March 13, 2007

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