Photograph of an old burned-out air conditioning compressor unit How to Diagnose & Fix a Burned-out Air Conditioning Compressor

  • BURNED-OUT COMPRESSOR - CONTENTS: how to diagnose a burned-out air conditioning compressor. When is a compressor at or near end of its life? Criteria for deciding that an air conditioner, heat pump, or refrigeration compressor needs to be replaced.Hard starting air conditioner compressor. Increased air conditioning electrical bills. Air conditioner compressor defect diagnosis & repair guide. Air conditioning condenser unit fan diagnosis/repair. When to replace a failing or failed A/C or heat pump compressor. Common causes of A/C or heat pump compressor motor failure
  • POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about air conditioning and heat pump compressors: diagnosis, failure, repair, replacement

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This air conditioning repair article discusses the how to diagnose and replace a burned out air conditioner compressor, including evaluation of air conditioner compressor noises, hard starting, lost cooling capacity, and detection of a burned out compressor or A/C compressors at or near end of their life. Here we catalog and describe the causes of air conditioner or heat pump compressor failures and we suggest compressor motor diagnostic steps. Contact us to suggest text changes and additions and, if you wish, to receive online listing and credit for that contribution

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How to Diagnose a Burned-Out Air Conditioning Compressor

Air conditioner failure warning signs: Before an air conditioning compressor fails solid you may notice that the unit is hard-starting, particularly when starting against a head pressure (someone switched the system off while the compressor was running, then tried turning it right back on). See CAPACITORS for HARD STARTING MOTORS and see MOTOR OVERLOAD RESET SWITCH.

Another sign of a failing air conditioning compressor is noisy motor operation, such as buzzing or clanking sounds coming from the outside unit housing the compressor motor. See NOISES, COMPRESSOR CONDENSER.

Another sign that might indicate a failing air conditioner compressor motor is an increase in the building's electrical bills even though the air conditioning system "on" time has not changed. See TIGHT or SEIZED AC COMPRESSORS where we provide additional details about examining and measuring A/C and heat pump compressors to continue compressor condition diagnosis.

When a sealed compressor motor has "burned out" this means that the internal wiring of the motor has become irreparably damaged: the compressor motor windings may be burned and shorted together or shorted to the steel shell of the motor, or the windings may have burned and simply become "open" or disconnected. If the motor has burned out in either of these ways it needs to be replaced.

When an air conditioner / heat pump compressor can no longer develop proper pressures, even if its electric motor has not burned out, the unit will still need to be replaced. Below we give refrigerant pressure details that help make this decision.

Basic Diagnostic Clues Indicating a Failed A/C or Heat Pump Compressor Motor

Watch out for shock hazards or equipment damage: see DMMs VOMs SAFE USE OF.

The compressor won't start, perhaps just hums, and the motor star/run capacitor(s) are ok or you've tried replacing that part

As soon as the compressor tries to start the circuit breaker trips or fuse blows. The compressor motor has burned out, is internally shorted or gounded. A service technician will use a VOM and typically will find low resistance (low Ohms) between one or more compressor terminals and ground.

A VOM connected to the compressor circuit indicates that no current is being drawn, but the condenser fan is running properly.
Watch out: before assuming that the compressor motor is bad, when the unit won't start at all, check for a loose or disconnected electrical connection or a bad contactor relay. An overheated motor may also leave the compressor motor "off" due to a tripped internal overload switch or a switch that has simply failed. If this is the problem, the motor should start normally once the unit has cooled down. (Some readers describe spraying water on the condenser unit to speed cooling - (don't wet electrical switches & components.)

Basic Electrical Tests on Air Conditioner or Heat Pump Compressor Motors

Watch out for shock hazards or equipment damage: see DMMs VOMs SAFE USE OF.

When an air conditioning compressor has "burned out" by shorting of internal components - it will fail to start at all. This failure is detected by disconnecting all power and wiring from the unit and measuring resistance (ohms) between the motor start/common and run/common terminals.

Zero resistance: If there is zero resistance there is (probably) no break in the wire or circuit being tested.

Watch out: while finding very low or zero resistance would be normal for a simple length of electrical wire, for some circuits and equipment, finding low or no resistance where there should be some can indicate a short circuit. Another problem to watch for is testing electric motor windings; a winding may appear intact, with low resistance, but it may open (showing high or infinite resistance) only when the motor begins to spin. More details are just below and also at ELECTRIC MOTOR DIAGNOSTIC GUIDE.

Infinite resistance: If you measure the resistance across a compressor winding and your meter's needle is stuck over at infinity, or "OL"/"OVER" on a digital meter, that would indicate the compressor winding is open (burned through). The same effect can be observed from simply connecting the meter to absolutely nothing. Typically if just one widing is "open" you'll see infinite resistance at one check point and in contrast (for the non-open windings) you will read zero resistance ("continuity") between the Common terminal and the Start or between the Common terminal and Run terminal.

Low resistance: If the resistance measured across the air conditioning compressor winding is too close to 0 ohms, it's shorted. The compressor should blow the fuse or trip the circuit breaker when power is turned back on. But watch out: we get field reports of equipment burn ups and even fires when the air conditioning circuit breaker for the compressor happens to be an old FPE Stab-Lok or Zinsco unit.

If there is resistance but not infinite resistance between the motor terminal and the motor casing, the motor has become shorted to ground internally and the unit needs to be replaced. If there is no resistance between the start and run terminals to common, but there is resistance between the start and run terminals, this means that the internal motor overload protection circuit is open. In this last case, allow the motor to cool and re-test it before replacing it. See REPLACING A COMPRESSOR.

For details about measuring RLA / FLA, and definitions of RLA, FLA, and LRA, see see TIGHT or SEIZED AC COMPRESSORS

Other (Non-Electrial) Refrigeration Compressor Failure Modes

Watch out: for a mechanically frozen compressor: a compressor may pass all of these electrical tests and still require replacement. The tests above only test electrical connections and windings. An air conditioner or heat pump or refrigeration compressor that has jammed up mechanically internally will still refuse to start (perhaps will hum) when all of the electrical tests, contactor relay, start capacitor, etc. are tested as perfecliy fine.

A compressor with broken internal parts may also not be frozen, that is its internal electrical motor may start and run, but the compressor fails to produce any refrigerant pressure at its outlet side. In this case internal parts or valves in the unit have broken without jamming the motor itself. In this case, all of the electrical components and tests will look "OK".

A compressor with broken internal motor mounts may make a rattling or clanking sound and needs replacement. It will continue to run but could become shrapnel at any time.

A compressor with bad internal valves will continue to run but is inefficient and should be replaced. The symptom is very quick equalization of high and low side pressure as soon as the motor stops.

When to replace a sealed-unit air conditioning or heat pump compressor?

Burned up electric motor in the HVAC compressor

Some compressor motor failures are so apparent that there's no question: an electric motor burnout that draws high amps or is internally shorted, for example.

Abnormal HVAC compressor pressures

But what about a compressor motor that may be just "worn" ? An HVAC compressor should be able to pull at least 15" of vacuum against 100 psi head pressure or else it is inefficient. Of course to make this test you must be able to isolate the compressor from the rest of the cooling or heat pump system, so this test is not rapidly made in the field.

Bad HVAC compressor refrigerant valves

Bad air conditioner reed valves will be unable to pull pressure down on the low side of the system. A leaky discharge reed valve (on the compressor output side) pulls hot gases back into the compressor cylinder and recompresses them, causing abnormally high head pressures at the compressor motor. And as a result the compressor won't be able to move vapor.

In sum, HVAC compressors do fail and need replacement, but only when you have tested and ruled out the other 80% of the causes of common air conditioning, heat pump, or refrigeration problems (usually electrical in nature) do you go ahead and replace the compressor unit.

General advice: Electrical Tests to Check HVAC Blower Fan Motor or Outdoor Compressor Fan Motor Winding on Heating or Cooling Equipment or on Other Electrical Motors

Air Conditioner Compressor/Condenser Fan Not Working?

Details of compressor/condenser unit fan inspection, diagnosis, and repair are at FAN, COMPRESSOR/CONDENSER UNIT. Basic advice follows:

A failed compressor/condenser fan can cause the air conditioning system to shut down due to an overheating compressor or excessive pressures developed inside the compressor. If your compressor/condenser unit does not include a safety override switch to perform this shutdown and if the condenser unit fan is not working, your compressor motor may be permanently damaged. At NOISES, COMPRESSOR CONDENSER we include some condenser fan noise problems are traced to the cooling fan motor, bearings, fan blades, obstructions, etc.

Watch out: if your compressor/condenser unit motor is running but the fan itself is not blowing air, the system will not work and may be seriously damaged. The outdoor cooling fan or condenser unit fan is needed not only to cool high pressure, high temperature refrigerant in gas form so that it can condense back to liquid form.

That cooling step also cools down the compressor itself and keeps the compressor internal pressure from becoming too high. Most modern compressor / condenser units include an overpressure sensor that will shut the equipment down if compressor pressures become too high. Some older models and some modern economy air conditioner compressors may lack this function.

See DMMs VOMs SAFE USE OF. Example: testing a blower fan motor winding: referring to the electrical diagram for your equipment, unplug electrical connectors at the fan motor. Measure the resistance between each lead wire with a multimeter or VOM. The multimeter should be set in the X1 range. For accuracy, don't measure when the fan motor is hot, allow it to cool off.

When the resistance between each lead wire are those listed in the specifications for your equipment the fan motor should be normal. Zero resistance or infinite resistance are indicators of a problem. More examples of checking wiring: see BURNED-OUT COMPRESSOR. See HARD STARTING COMPRESSOR MOTORS also TIGHT or SEIZED AC COMPRESSORS for more details about old or failed compressor motors. Also see Test a Motor Starting Capacitor

Common Causes of Burned Out Air Conditioner Compressors

  • Contamination of refrigerant, piping, or devices in the refrigeration system: contaminants, including air, moisture carried in by air, and dirt can enter the refrigeration system as contaminants due to a leak on the suction side or improper service procedures such as mis-handling of service port valves or opening the system for repairs without adequately drawing a vacuum and without proper use of filter/dryer canisters. Air in the system can also lead to refrigerant flooding discussed above.
  • Cooling problems - compressor motor overheats: a compressor motor that keeps on running when the compressor/condenser fan has failed or when air flow through the condensing coil has become blocked by debris or damage can cause abnormally high compressor head pressures and operating temperatures.

    If the condenser fan is running but airflow is impaired the system may continue to "run" but at reduced cooling capacity and shortened compressor life. We found a stack of nine A/C compressors improperly installed without adequate cooling air flow at a wealthy client's home in Pawling, NY. Compressor motors were being replaced every year or two because the owner installed a stockade fence to "hide the ugly equipment".

    A compressor may also run too hot due to too-high temperatures at the suction line and low-side of the compressor system. Under-charged refrigerant levels or lack of insulation on the suction line piping can cause these problems as might a TEV that is not quite flooding the system but is releasing refrigerant too fast through the cooling coil. [2]
  • Refrigerant Pressure problems - excessive high side pressure may be caused by a restriction or blockage such as in the condensing coil, refrigerant metering device, or even at the cooling coil. Excessive high side pressure causes hot compressor operation, lost cooling capacity, and ultimately damage.
  • Refrigerant flooding - sending liquid refrigerant into the compressor motor is a quick way to destroy its moving parts or valves. We discuss refrigerant flooding and six common causes of liquid refrigerant slugging the compressor at THERMOSTATIC EXPANSION VALVES, and aside from TEV (TXV in some literature) problems, a mistake like overcharging the system can lead to liquid refrigerant can end up in the compressor bottom where only refrigerant gas is expected - causing the same failure problems. Christopherson, [2]
  • Refrigeration oil lubricant - lost due to system leaks (most likely you'll know there has been a history of refrigerant leakage too); also refrigeration oil can travel in the refrigerant lines where it reaches a capillary tube or TEV , clogging it and causing abnormal system pressures that can damage the compressor. On commercial refrigeration systems that us a separate oil pump to deliver lubricant to the compressor motor, an oil pump failure also leads to compressor motor failure.
  • Electrical problems that can damage A/C or heat pump motors are cited by Christopherson, including improper voltage (hooking up to an incorrect voltage level supply (110V to 220V or 230V applied to a 208V motor), poor power quality delivered to the system such as at homes subject to significant fluctuations in actual voltage levels in the incoming mains, loss of voltage on one phase of a three-phase electrical hookup (more common on commercial than residential refrigeration equipment), and finally, unbalanced current across the individual phases of a three-phase electrical hookup. [2]
  • Worn out compressor internal parts - a compressor motor may fail due to mechanical wear, though in our OPINION and having seen some refrigeration compressor motors that ran for decades with no trouble, we think mechanical wear is likely to be traced to a refrigerant, lubrication, contamination, or perhaps mounting problem. See our contamination comments above.

The text above describing causes of refrigeration compressor damage is indebted to HVACR experts Norm Christopherson [2] and Joe Marchese [6], as well as Warren Hilliard [1].


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BURNED-OUT COMPRESSOR at - online encyclopedia of building & environmental inspection, testing, diagnosis, repair, & problem prevention advice.

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