Dear Angie: How do I decide if it's smarter to repair or replace my air conditioner? — Nancy T., Cowan Heights, Calif.
Answer: In checking with top-rated HVAC technicians, our team heard an interesting approach to this conundrum that one expert calls "the $5,000 rule."
Here's how it works: Multiply the age of the equipment by the estimated repair cost. If the result is more than $5,000, replacement is probably your best bet. If it's less, you might do better to invest in a repair.
For example, if you have an estimate of $350 to repair a 10-year-old air conditioner, $350 times 10 is $3,500. The $5,000 rule of thumb indicates that repair is the best value.
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Many top-rated technicians say that if your unit is working, you can wait until it's 15 or older before replacing it.
But according to Energy Star, the Environmental Protection Agency program, it might be a good idea to consider replacing an A/C unit with something more energy-efficient when the older unit reaches 10 years. A new, energy-efficient air conditioning unit will cost $3,600 to $7,200 and will save you an estimated 20 percent on energy costs, according to Energy Star.
Refrigerant is another factor to consider when determining whether to repair or replace. If your unit has a leak or otherwise requires additional refrigerant, topping off a system with R-22 refrigerant can cost $40 to more than $175 a pound. The price of repairing a leak and adding several pounds of refrigerant can range from $550 to $1,000.
The price of R-22 has soared in recent years, as its production is phased out in favor of the more environmentally friendly R-410A. HVAC manufacturers stopped making units that use R-22 in 2010. R-22 production will cease in 2020.
Pros say if your unit requires R-22 refrigerant, a leak might be a good reason to replace the unit because the cost of repairing a leak and adding R-22 can approach the cost of buying a new unit. Also, they say, a leak is often a precursor to a failed compressor, which costs about $2,000 to replace.
Other factors to consider when determining if you need a new A/C:
■ How well does the unit actually cool your home?
■ How often do you have to call a technician?
■ How much are your utility bills and how long you expect to live in your home?
If you're not sure what condition your A/C's in, consider scheduling an inspection by a HVAC company that has earned good reviews on a trusted online site.