Outdoor Compressor Condenser Unit Problem Diagnosis
Fix an A/C or Heat Pump not working, compressor won't start, condenser fan won' start, no cooling, short or long compressor on-cycles, compressor noises
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Compressor-condenser unit diagnostic procedures: how to diagnose an outdoor air conditioning or heat pump compressor/condenser unit that is not working, won't start, noisy, or humming. This article summarizes common HVAC compressor condenser unit problems and their diagnosis. We link to more detailed HVAC compressor repair procedures.
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 temperaturer, or an air conditioner that won't start.
Air Conditioner Compressor Problems - noisy or hard starting air conditioner compressors
If your air conditioner or heat pump won't start, we suggest beginning diagnostics indoors at the room thermostat. If you haven't done that you might want to go back to see AIR CONDITIONER WON'T START before continuing here.
Compressor problems - Air Conditioner Compressor: problems such as an aging air conditioner compressor motor that is at or near the end of its life may be unable to
properly compress the returning refrigerant gas to a sufficiently high pressure. A service technician will need to evaluate and test the system
and if needed, replace the compressor.
Since this is a costly repair, be sure to ask why the compressor failed and to correct
any underlying cause (such as low voltage).
Variations in line voltage can lead to improper compressor operation and loss of cooling output.
If the Compressor/Condenser Does Not Start At All
Silent compressor/condenser motors: relays on the control board for the compressor/condenser unit start the compressor motor and the condenser unit's cooling fan individually, but they may be related as we'll explain. Check the outdoor components in this order:
1. Is there power to the compressor/condenser unit? Check that the main circuit breaker or fuse is on, that the outdoor service switch is on. If the compressor/condenser circuit's main breaker is tripped or fuse blown the system may have a seized compressor motor or a shorted electrical wire. Back at AIR CONDITIONER WON'T START we reminded you to check that the thermostat was calling for cooling. If you forgot to do that, go back and check that article.
2. Is the refrigerant pressure in the system at the pressure level equivalent for the ambient temperature at the condenser unit? Modern compressor units include both high and low refrigerant pressure safety cut-out switches that can shut down the equipment in abnormal conditions.
3. Is the line voltage delivered to the compressor/condenser unit normal? Occasionally low voltage will prevent equipment from operating or will shut it down. Low voltage can also mean motors have trouble starting or run at abnormal power levels.
4. Is electrical power delivered to the compressor & to the condenser fan? Look for burned, shorted, disconnected wires supplying these two motors.
5. Is voltage being delivered to the start relay - the compressor contactor? If you see control voltage (typically 24VAC) at the contactor and you have line voltage to the compressor/condenser unit but the relay does not pull in then probably the contactor is bad (or there is a blown fuse on the control circuit board). Next we give diagnostic steps for the following situations
If the compressor motor start relay does not pull in (close) then it is not asking the compressor to run. Check:
If there is no control voltage at the compressor's start relay and there is electrical power to the unit and the thermostat is callling for cooling, then one of the safety cut-out switches we mentioned above may have tripped. Check each of those safety relays for voltage on the relay output side. If there is no voltage then that relay has tripped (or failed). Find and check:
Low pressure safety switch: if abnormally high pressures (typically over 55 psi) are found on the low-side of the compressor/condenser unit this switch will open to stop the system. The low pressure switch normally will reset automatically when the low side pressure drops. If it does not re-set this switch has probably failed.
Condenser oil level safety switch: some compressor/condenser units (particularly larger and commercial systems) include a safety switch that monitors the oil level in the compressor motor. Low compressor motor oil levels can shut down the system.
Watch out: most residential cooling systems use a hermetically sealed compressor motor; oil is not normally added tothese systems. If you add oil to a commercial compressor/condenser system you need to check oil levels again after the system has returned to operation to be sure that oil levels are not too high - a condition caused when oil previously left in the piping system has returned to the compressor.
High pressure safety switch: The compressor/condenser over-pressure or "high pressure" relay safety switch. A failed condenser unit fan motor or a damaged fan itself (motor spins but fan does not) can lead to compressor/condenser unit high temperatures and pressures. If refrigerant pressrues in the system reach unsafe or abonormally high levels this relay will shut down the compressor motor. A clogged condenser or a failed thermostatic expansion valve can also cause abnormally high pressures in the system.
We first mentioned at NOISES, COMPRESSOR CONDENSER that we had a field report from a reader who explained that a noisy outdoor compressor unit was, according to his HVAC service technician, traced to a blocked, clogged outdoor condensing coil. We speculate that perhaps the compressor was running hot and that correcting air flow across the condensing coil corrected that condition.
Compressor motor protection switch: some compressor systems include a protection module at the main power terminals for the compressor motor. This switch may have opened.
Voltage safety switch: The voltage monitoring or phase protector relay (not present on all equipment): transient low voltage can trip this relay. It may require manual reset.
Watch out: some electrical motor safety switches require a manual reset. For examples see this separate aritcle on the MOTOR OVERLOAD RESET SWITCH
If the compressor motor start relay pulls in (closes) but the compressor does not run check:
Check for voltage at the compressor motor itself. If there is no line voltage check the main breaker or fuse or the local service switch again.
Is the compressor motor humming?: If you have a hard-starting air conditioner compressor that "hums" but doesn't start, it may be possible to get more life out of the compressor motor with a simple starting capacitor (rather than a costly whole new compressor motor.)
If the compressor motor will run but the condensing unit's fan does not run check:
Check that the fan blades will spin - with power off. If the fan motor won 't turn it's seized and needs to be replaced.
Check the fan relay switch: if the fan relay does not pull in and there is control voltage to the relay then the relay is probably bad. If there is no control voltage check the low voltage transformer and circuit wiring. Note: some systems incude a low ambient temperature control relay that will keep the system from running at low temperatures.
If the fan relay does pull in but the fan does not run, check the line voltage and wiring to be sure power is being delivered to the fan.
Check for voltage at the fan motor and go back to check circuit breaker or fuse if there is none
If spinning the fan will start the motor and it keeps running then the motor's start capacitor is probably bad.
If the fan motor has voltage but will not run at all then the motor may have failed or the motor's run capacitor may have failed.
Air Conditioner Compressor Diagnosis: How to Diagnose & Repair an Air Conditioner Compressor Which has Lost Cooling Capacity
A compressor which appears to have lost cooling capacity can be diagnosed by a service technician who can connect the appropriate test
gauges to the system. Lower than normal discharge pressure and higher than normal suction vacuum will indicate this problem.
But before assuming that something is wrong with the air conditioning compressor, some basic investigation is in order.
Unless there is an obvious indication of a compressor problem (noise, hard starting, compressor
won't start), the service technician, to be thorough and economical, will inspect the system in an order, checking the easy and least-costly
problems first, such as presence of electrical power, proper setting and operation of system controls, condition of filters, condition of duct work, operation
of blower fans, before moving on to check the compressor itself by looking at the air conditioner operating temperatures, pressures, and
current draw in Amps.
Check the Outside Air Conditioning /Heat Pump Compressor-Condenser unit
Cooling Capacity of the Air Conditioning Equipment
The cooling capacity of an air conditioning equipment refers to the ability of the compressor/condenser (usually outside) and the air handler/evaporator (usually inside)
to deliver cool air to the occupied space.
the compressor/condenser draws refrigerant gas from the building air handler, compresses it
and cools it back to a liquid refrigerant, and the air handler/evaporator coil permits liquid refrigerant
to evaporate inside a cooling coil, across which the fan blows building air to cool and dehumidify it.
combination of this equipment has a cooling capacity, usually rated in BTUh or thousands of BTU's of cooling capacity per hour,
documented on equipment data tags discussed
at RATED COOLING CAPACITY.
Long On-Cycles: Air Conditioner or Heat Pump Long on cycle and Insufficient Cooling - Loose or Worn Compressors
A longer than normal on cycle combined with little or no cool air conditioner output could be due to
or damaged air conditioning compressor
Low voltage to the equipment
Improper refrigerant charge (so cooling coil is not sufficiently cool)
A compressor that has lost its ability to "compress" the refrigerant due to internal wear - This condition can be diagnosed by an air conditioning service technician who will install air conditioning
manifold gauges onto the system to check the compressor suction vacuum and discharge or "high side" output
pressure. If gauge ports are not installed on the air conditioner compressor unit the technician cannot
make this test without cutting the refrigerant lines to install gauge ports (adding to the cost of this diagnosis).
Blocked or lost air flow due to a variety of causes (dirty filter, damaged or leaky ductwork) that fails to deliver enough cool air to satisfy the thermostat
Abnormal heat gain in the building (open windows, air leaks, unusual weather) so that the A/C or heat pump cannot satisfy the thermostat
Very low thermostat settings: if the thermostat is set too low the cooling system may not be able to bring the building down to that temperature
Low amperage draw: unlike a high-amp current draw which indicates that the compressor is danged internally in a way that its
piston(s) is(are) tight in the cylinder, a low-amp current draw, if below normal, may confirm internal wear on
the compressor parts, and would support the diagnosis that the compressor is worn and inefficient.
Where there are no gauge
ports to actually measure compressor low side and high side vacuum and pressure, this simple electrical test is a useful
Abnormal air conditioner compressor pressure readings
Refrigerant line pressure readings which are abnormal (probably too low) on the high pressure side (compressor output) or
on the low pressure side (compressor input or suction line) can indicate a problem with the compressor's ability to
develop normal operating pressure ranges and thus will affect the cooling capacity of the air conditioning system.
For more details on air conditioner refrigerant line pressures and how they are examined
see COMPRESSOR PRESSURE READINGS
Details about air conditioning compressor functions, how air conditioner compressors work, what goes wrong with air conditioner compressors, and how to measure and diagnose air conditioner compressors are provided
at COMPRESSOR CONDENSER.
Compressor/Condenser Cooling: Can Cooling Down the Air Conditioner Compressor Motor with Water Keep the A/C Working?
Several readers have described a step of cooling down an overheated air conditioning or heat pump compressor motor to get it running again producing cool air indoors. One reader used a garden hose to spray the outdoor unit (after all it's intended to tolerate being rained-on). Another used a watering can. A third, buckets of water.
All three reported that this step got their cooling system cooling again when before either the compressor had stopped running entirely or it was running but the system was not producing cool air. But for several reasons this is not an effective durable repair:
The "repair" achieved by pouring water over a hot compressor is not lasting and if you wet electrical components it could cause damage or be dangerous
It's hot standing outside dumping water on your A/C unit and you're not supposed to have to do that
The loss of cooling means there is some problem to be found and fixed
While we wait for more comments from air conditioning service technicians and experts (CONTACT us), here are some interpretations of what may be going on:
The A/C compressor motor may be at or near end of life, running hot. An air conditioner motor that is overheating may turn itself off on thermal reset. In this case when the motor cools down it may automatically reset itself and start up again - for a while. Sometimes you can get a compressor motor starting again on its own by adding or replacing a starting capacitor -
see CAPACITORS for HARD STARTING MOTORS.
The A/C compressor motor may be overheating due to its location: for example in hot sun. Most equipment will tolerate this condition but an older unit or very hot sunny conditions may lead to thermal overheating and an overload circuit trip-off.
The A/C system compressor/condenser fan may not be running or may be damaged, failing to adequately cool the refrigerant gas in the condensing coils. Watch the fan to see that it is running while the compressor motor is on, and perhaps even before and after the compressor motor starts or stops. [But not indefinitely.]
The A/C condenser unit coils may be blocked, bent, dirty, damaged. It may be possible to clean the coils of leaves, dirt, grass kicked up by nearby mowing, etc. and thus improve the condenser operation and start making cool air again. COMPRESSOR & CONDENSING COIL
The air conditioning or heat pump system may be very low on refrigerant. You'll need a service technician to check and repair this condition. REFRIGERANT LEAK DETECTION
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?
Question: outside [compressor condenser] fan does not turn on
My AC unit during the hot and humid months here in FL, will not run without some help from me. Lets say it is 80 degrees and you set the thermostat at 75, it will run until temp drops about 3 degrees, then shuts off. You then need to shut the unit off via the thermostat, for approx. 20-30 mins turn it back on in order for the air to start blowing again. I tried changing out the thermostat but this has not helped. What could be the problem?
Renee, often when shutting off the A/C returns the delivery of cool air we trace that problem to frost formation on the cooling coil. Click on FROST BUILD-UP on AIR CONDITIONER COILS check for, diagnose, & repair that problem. But first, make sure that your air filter is not debris clogged.
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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]
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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]