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What to check if your air conditioner or heat pump just won't start at all. Here we give a diagnostic sequence of things to check if the A/C is just not working. Checking these simple items, switches and controls, including some you may not know about (overflow pan switch for example) may get your system running without a costly service call.
This article forms part of our series on how to diagnose an air conditioner or heat pump that is not cooling: this article explains
how to diagnose and correct air conditioning problems like lost or reduced air conditioner cooling capacity, reduced or no cool air flow, reduced or no actual lowering of the air temperature, or an air conditioner that won't start.
What to Check First if the Air Conditioner or Heat Pump Won't Start
Air Conditioner Won't Start - Air conditioning system is not running at all:
Is there no cool air at all coming out of the supply registers?
Is the air conditioner or heat pump indoor or outdoor unit silent?
If so it's not running. Here is what to check first.
Check first that
the air conditioning equipment is turned on,
the thermostat is calling for cooling, and that
the blower unit or air handler is actually blowing air through the ductwork.
Here are the details of what to check in what order if your air condtioner or heat pump doesn't start at all when you set the room thermostat to call for cooling:
Check the Room Thermostat Temperature Setting: Set the thermostat to at least 5 degrees below room temperature. Our elderly mom has no patience with switches and controls. She regularly calls her air conditioning service company with a service request, sometimes late at night, because she has simply failed to set the temperature on the thermostat lower than the room temperature. Don't drive your A/C like our mother.
Check that the Room Thermostat is set to "Cool" not "Off" or "Heat". If the thermostat is not set to "cool" it is simply turning off your A/C. If the thermostat display is blank then it's not receiving power (for modern digital thermostats). Check that electrical power is on at the air handler and to the the low-voltage transformer that supplies power to the thermostat.
If the thermostat has power, check that when you set the thermostat temperature down at least 5 degrees below room temperature the thermostat calls for cooling. If it doesn't then check for broken or shorted thermostat wires anywhere between the wall thermostat and the control board at the air handler.
You can easily eliminate possible thermostat problems as a cause of failure of the air conditioner to start by simply eliminating the thermostat from the picture: disconnect the thermostat wires at the blower unit's control board and instead connect the two thermostat terminals directly together with a jumper wire. If the system starts then the problem is in the thermostat itself or in its wiring.
If the thermostat is working but the compressor condenser unit won't start, you could skip ahead
to COMPRESSOR CONDENSER DIAGNOSTICSbut I wish you'd double check the remaining steps in this article first because there are some sneaky snafus listed below that might still be the problem.
Check that electricity is on for the equipment.
Check all of the electrical switches and controls that can turn electrical power off at the indoor air handler or at the outdoor compressor/condenser unit. There are more of these switches than you might guess. Here's a list of what to check:
Electrical power switches and service switches outside by the compressor, inside at the air handler, and fuses or circuit breakers in the electrical panel. Don't forget to check that the access covers to the equipment are properly closed and latched. Otherwise a BLOWER DOOR SAFETY SWITCH could be keeping the equipment from running.
There are several other safety switches and controls, both manual and automatic that can leave an air conditioner or heat pump turned "off" such as a blower compartment door interlock safety switch, an electric motor overload or overheat switches, and a condensate tray spillage detector switch.
And if your blower fan is driven by a fan belt and an electric motor, of course check to see that the drive belt is in place and un-damaged. If the blower fan belt is broken the electric motor will run just fine (you may be able to hear it) but the blower fan assembly itself won't be turning.
Air Conditioner Won't Start - electrical problems
If the air handler or indoor blower assembly does not start in response to a call for cooling the no-start problem is probably at the indoor thermostat or at the blower assembly itself.
If the indoor air handler blower runs but the outdoor compressor/condenser unit never starts then the problem is more likely there. If the indoor air handler runs but the outdoor compressor/condenser does not,
see COMPRESSOR CONDENSER DIAGNOSTICS
CONDENSATE PAN SWITCH LOCKOUT - a condensate tray spillage detector switch (water in the overflow tray shuts down the air handler) Below in this article we give more details about condensate drip tray or overflow tray safety switch problems.
See A/C - HEAT PUMP CONTROLS & SWITCHES to be sure you have found and checked every manual or automatic electrical switch on the system both at the outdoor compressor/condenser unit and indoors at the air handler and duct system.
Electrical problems: air conditioning system won't start: it may sound silly, but is the air conditioner turned on?
Has the cooling thermostat been set to "cool" and the temperature set below ambient room temperature?
Do both the outdoor compressor/condenser unit and the indoor blower fan/evaporator coil unit have electrical power?
Has the air conditioning electrical wiring been physically damaged or cut? Photo courtesy of Tim Hemm.
Are the power switches on at these units, are the fuses good, are the circuit breakers in the "on" position, and is the thermostat set correctly?
Air conditioner compressor problems, including compressor noises, hard starting, and burned-out compressors, are explained in detail beginning
at COMPRESSOR & CONDENSING COIL and including topics such as
3. Check for a blown fuse locally inside the air handler, such as on or near a control board.
4. Check for a bad contactor or start relay inside the air handler or outside at the compressor/condenser unit
5. Check (or your service tech will check) for a bad or failed starter capacitor for the fan motor in the blower assembly or outdoors at the compressor/condenser unit could also be leaving your system shut down, failing to start a blower motor fan indoors or outside the compressor condenser unit's fan, or compressor motor.
If an electric motor hums but won't start or won't keep running the problem could be a bad start/run capacitor. Of course a frozen bearing or burned-up compressor or motor or even low voltage can also mean a motor hums but won't start - we give links to those diagnostics in step 2 above.
Air Conditioner Won't Start or Stays Off Due to Condensate Pan Switch - details
Condensate pan switch lockout: an attic or other air conditioner air handler condensate drip tray or drip pan located under an air handler is installed to catch air handler condensate leaks if the normal condensate drain system fails.
Some condensate pans have their own separate overflow drain (a proper installation) or share their drain with the normal condensate drain (an improper installation).
But on some air conditioning air handlers the installer may provide a condensate overflow pan switch rather than a separate pan drain line.
In this installation the switch is designed to turn off the air conditioning system if it finds condensate water in the overflow pan. The idea is to shut down the air conditioner before there is a more costly leak into the building insulation or ceiling.
Condensate leaks into the condensate pan can shut down the air conditioner.
In tracking down an air conditioner condensate leak, I found that the the condensate pump drain line, a small-diameter PVC pipe, was clogged with water mold.
That was why my air conditioner wasn't kicking on. It would of ended up costing at least a hundred dollars just for a service tech to fix something as simple as that. I had to take the pump apart and clean it. I took off the PVC drain line coming out of inside air conditioner and blow and clean it all out too. - Jacob Behrends, FL
(July 24, 2014) Randy said:
The central a/c in my Florida home (in late July) would not turn on and the temp in the house was well above the preset temp of 78. Fearing a complete failure (the system is 17 years old) I googled my problem and eventually found this very clear and concise Inspectapedia site.
The past few days I could hear water dripping in the condensate drip pan and new something was up as this never happened before. I climbed my ladder at 11:30p and sure enough the condensate float switch was parallel to the tray meaning it tripped and turned the a/c system off. Grabbed my shopvac and within minutes the immediate problem was solved - Now to clear the drain...Excellent DIY website!
So if your air conditioning system seems to be normal in all other respects but it simply won't turn on, check for a flooded condensate pan or a defective condensate switch. See these condensate overflow or drip tray fix-it articles:
My Air Conditioner won't turn off - what to do?
Carla said: My outside air unit will not turn off on its own. I have to manually turn the breaker off to turn it off. Does anyone know why or how I can fix it?
Carla if your A/C won't turn off it could be that the thermostat is set to a temperature that the system cannot reach - due to lost cooling or due to a setting below the capability of the system. If your A/C won't turn off even if you set the thermostat to a temperature that is above the current room temp, then the thermostat or an A/C control board or switch is bad and needs replacement - in that case you need a service call from a trained HVAC Technician. See OPERATING TEMPERATURES HVAC and also CONTROLS & SWITCHES, A/C - HEAT PUMP
Question: My Air Conditioner (or heat pump) keeps cycling on and off too rapidly - what might be wrong? short A/C on-cycle problems
Joe said: short cycling air conditioner compressor diagnosis: I have the same problem as Mathew: my A/C compressor cycles on and of every ~10 seconds. I is about 5yr old. What can we do to fix this system. Please help. Thanks!
Matthew said: short cycling air conditioner problems: Our air conditioning compressor cycles on and of every few seconds or minutes. What can we do to fix this systems not even a year old
Five causes of a home air conditioner compressor short cycling on and off too rapidly - Short Cycling Air Conditioner Diagnosis & Repair
DanJoeFriedman (mod) said to Joe and Matthew (re questions just above):
Loss of air conditioner refrigerant - a refrigerant leak in the system. You may be able to repair the short cycling problem temporarily by recharging the air conditioning system but the proper repair is to find and fix the leak. Otherwise you will have to keep repeating the costly service call to just add refrigerant. See REFRIGERANT LEAK DETECTION.
A/C Coil Icing - the evaporator coil (cooling coil) is iced over (such as due to improper refrigerant charge or dirt or a reduced air flow due to a dirty filter) - take a look in the air handler to see if the coil is blocked by ice or dirt.See FROST BUILD-UP on AIR CONDITIONER COILS
Oversized air conditioner - if the short cycling has always been a problem since the day the system was installed, there is a good chance that the unit is too big (too many BTUS) for the space being cooled. A more subtle version of this same problem is that you've done something like closing doors or adding a partition that had the effect of reducing the size of the space being cooled. Sometimes we can mitigate this problem by running the blower fan at a lower speed or by opening interior doors to increase the size of the space being cooled or even by moving the thermostat. See AIR CONDITIONER BTU CHART and OPERATING TEMPERATURES HVAC
A/C control problem - it's less likely, but a damaged control board or switch could also be causing rapid equipment on-[off cycling.
Compressor damage or compressor start-troubles: - I've seen these other causes of air conditioner short cycling: if someone manually turns the air conditioner thermostat up and down or on and off too frequently, a hard-starting compressor may find that it has been shut down with high internal head pressure inside the compressor. Normally that head pressure bleeds off over time, making it easier for the compressor to re-start (against low head pressure) the next time it turns on. See HARD STARTING COMPRESSOR MOTORS
But if someone is turning the system on and off quickly, the compressor may have a hard time re-starting against the pressure on its outlet side. A starter capacitor addition or replacement might fix the problem. If your A/C compressor is showing this symptom but works OK if you leave it shut off for 30 minutes or longer, that may be the trouble.
We have also see or a damaged compressor internal refrigerant valve causing high head pressures;
In sum, you need a service call from a professional to correctly diagnose and repair the problem. Ask the service tech what she/he found and let us know - what you find will help other readers.
Question: Why is my A/C not producing enough cool air?
A/C not producing enough cool air - I had my air conditioning system gassed up last week - $210. ! The unit is not producing enough cold air. The unit is set on 72 and does great at nights but during the day where the temp. outside is reaching mid 90"s it's getting up to 80 in the house. Is my duct work screwed up? How do you repair trailer metal ducting? - Amanda
90 degrees outside and 83 inside with thermometer at 76. Cools off to 76 when sun starts to go down and house then gets cold. New capacitor and condensor just put in. Help. - Ginny 5/17/12
Amanda: if your system is not cooling there could be any of a number of problems - see the article above as a place to start. If your basic complaint is that the A/C temperature at the supply registers is cool enough but the volume of air flow is too weak, we'd start by:
Install a new clean air filter
Check that the air supply registers are open
Check that ductwork has not become disconnected or crimped or crushed
Weak air conditioner air flow - is there a relationship between refrigerant charge level and weak cool air flow rate?
Les said: Weak air conditioner air flow: Our A/C was serviced two months ago and the repairman said it had a leak. $400 later it was recharged with coolant and now the ac is doing the same thing. Very little pressure coming out of vents and no cold air coming out. Does anyone know what I can do for the weekend? It is stifling!!!! See A/C Air Duct Problems
DanJoeFriedman (mod) said:
Les: A leak that was fixed by a re-charge is not as good a repair as a leak that was fixed by finding and fixing the leak - you'll just have to keep adding refrigerant.
But weak air flow out of the vents would not be due to a refrigerant leak; more likely a clogged filter or crushed or disconnected ductwork, or a blower fan problem.
Weak air Flow traced to Clogged Air Filters: Can Clogged Air Filters Affect the Room Thermostat?
(May 13, 2011) Jim said: If air conditioner filters are clogged will it cause the thermostat to shut off?
Jim: clogged A/C filters won't cause a room thermostat to shut off. The thermostat responds to room temperature. However clogged A/C filters that reduce air flow, cause coil frosting, or otherwise reduce or stop the flow of cool air into the room where the thermostat is located would mean that the thermostat would remain "un-satisfied" and should mean that the thermostat says "on" - continuing to call for cooling. See AIR FILTERS for HVAC SYSTEMS
Air Filters & Cooling System Amperage Draw: Could Removing the Air Filters Cause the Electric Motor in the Air Handler to Draw Higher Amps?
Question: got one for you. i put an ammeter on my air handler and it read 8.25 amps, I removed the filters and it went up to 9.75 lmao at the situation the amperage should have gone down. what gives here
Reply: causes of variations in electric motor efficiency and current draw measured in amps
Lost: this amps variation is beyond my expertise, but in general reducing the load on an electric motor will show up as lower amps or current draw, not higher amps. Here are two interesting explanations of amps or current variations on an electric motor that I found when researching the question:
1. Voltage variations and current draw at electric motors: If your supply voltage is varying from your power company that can show up as higher amps draw on the motor (though it's a suspicious coincidence to see it exactly when you removed the filters and supposedly reduced the load on the motor). Quoting from motorsanddrives [dot] com: "The effect of low voltage on electric motors is pretty widely known and ... The amount of power the motor draws is roughly related to the voltage times current (amps). Thus, when voltage gets low, the current must get higher to provide the same ... To summarize the situation, low voltage can cause high currents"
2. Load variations and electric motor efficiency: A second possible source of seeing higher amps or current draw on your blower motor when you pulled out the air filters and thus reduced the load on the blower motor might be illuminated by this U.S. DOE pamphlet "Determining Electric Motor Load and Efficiency" - Quoting: "Most electric motors are designed to run at 50% to 100% of rated load. Maximum efficiency is
usually near 75% of rated load. Thus, a 10-horsepower (hp) motor has an acceptable load range of
5 to 10 hp; peak efficiency is at 7.5 hp. A motor’s efficiency tends to decrease dramatically below
about 50% load."
Question: what causes warm suction lines in an air conditioner or heat pump system? Warm A/C suction line (should be cold) and zone control dampers that stopped working
JMONTE said: warm A/C suction line question: After my condenser is turned on for about 4 minutes the suction line starts to get warm to the touch. can you tell me what the problem may be
If the HVAC suction line gets warm, you may be out of refrigerant, or the system may be running in heating mode if it's a heat pump. See OPERATING TEMPERATURES HVAC.
Becky, If a motorized HVAC zone control damper is not opening or closing, most likely the motor has failed, or the thermostat that operates that zone control is off or set in an incorrect position. See ZONE DAMPER CONTROLS
Becky said: motorized air conditioning zone dampers not working
My house has "zone" control with dampeners to close off the upstairs over the garage room unless that thermostat is on - the room is not cooling. I have located the damper under the house. What are some causes for the damper not opening and how to repair them? condensation, motor to damper? silicon glued properly?
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Questions & answers or comments about air conditioner system diagnosis & repair
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Timothy Hemm, Yucala, CA, contributed photographs of electrical wiring and equipment installed in California buildings. Mr. Hemm can be contacted at TimHemm@yahoo.com
A/C - HEAT PUMP CONTROLS & SWITCHES: air conditioner controls and switches - begin here if your A/C won't start. Here's an important tip: most refrigeration problems, in air conditioners, refrigerators, or freezers, are electrical, not mechanical. In air conditioning school, we used to drive out and collect abandoned refrigerators that people were tossing out during our community's spring cleanup week. Taking these appliances back into the shop we found that almost always the problem that had caused the owner to dispose of their air conditioner or freezer was in an electrical connection or electrical control. So it's worth checking out switches and controls on an air conditioner before replacing more costly components.
OPERATING DEFECTS: major air conditioning problem symptoms and how to get the air conditioning system working again,e.g. compressor or fan noises, failure to start, and inadequate cool air volume
A/C DIAGNOSTIC FAQs: air conditioning system diagnostic FAQs: Q&A about air conditioner repair - a detailed air conditioning system diagnostic checklist
Thanks to reader and research scientist Cyril Roberts, Barbados, for technical discussion and investigation of air conditioning system dehumidification problems (April 2009).
Thanks to readers Beth & Dennis for asking about how to improve an inadequate air conditioning system supplying cool air through crawl space ducts and floor registers. (May 2010).
Thanks to reader William Smith for discussing cooling coil leaks and lost cooling capacity diagnosis - June 2010
Thanks to reader Jacob Behrends, FL for discussing how a clogged condensate drain line can overflow condensate into a condensate pan that in turn may contain a safety switch that shuts down the whole air conditioning system. August 2010.
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Determining Electric Motor Load and Efficiency, U.S. Department of Energy, web search 08/01/2011, original source: http://www.p2pays.org/ref/40/39569.pdf [copy on file at InspectAPedia.com]
Books & Articles on Building & Environmental Inspection, Testing, Diagnosis, & Repair
The Home Reference Book - the Encyclopedia of Homes, Carson Dunlop & Associates, Toronto, Ontario, 25th Ed., 2012, is a bound volume of more than 450 illustrated pages that assist home inspectors and home owners in the inspection and detection of problems on buildings. The text is intended as a reference guide to help building owners operate and maintain their home effectively. Field inspection worksheets are included at the back of the volume. Special Offer: For a 10% discount on any number of copies of the Home Reference Book purchased as a single order. Enter INSPECTAHRB in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space. InspectAPedia.com editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author.
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"Air Conditioning & Refrigeration I & II", BOCES Education, Warren Hilliard (instructor), Poughkeepsie, New York, May - July 1982, [classroom notes from air conditioning and refrigeration maintenance and repair course attended by the website author]