The compressor is the heart of the refrigeration circuit. It pumps and
pressurizes the refrigerant to move it through the A/C system. Compressors
work hard and run hot, up to several hundred degrees and several hundred
pounds per square inch of internal pressure. They rely on only a few
ounces of lubricant to keep their parts moving. If the lubricant is lost
because of a leak, or the lubricant breaks down due to contamination, the
compressor won’t last. Sooner or later, the compressor will call it quits.
The most common
symptom of a compressor failure (besides no cooling) is a seized
compressor. It won’t turn when the magnetic clutch engages, and you may
hear squeals of protest from the drive belt. Or, the belt may have already
broken or been thrown off its pulleys.
lubrication is unquestionably the most common cause of compressor failure.
This can happen when there’s a refrigerant leak somewhere in the system
that allows refrigerant and oil to escape. Typical leak points are hoses,
hose and pipe connections (O-rings and flange gaskets), the evaporator,
condenser or the compressor shaft seal. An electronic leak detector or dye
should be used to find the leak so it can be repaired.
inside the A/C system can also starve the compressor for oil. Oil
circulates with the refrigerant, so if the orifice tube or expansion valve
is blocked it may cause the compressor to run dry and seize.
Even if a
compressor is still turning, it may have to be replaced if it’s leaking,
making excessive noise or not working correctly. Some compressors are
naturally noisier than others, but loud knocking noises can sometimes be
caused by air in the system (the cure here is to vacuum purge the system
to remove the unwanted air, then to recharge the system with refrigerant).
Metallic noises and bearing noise are usually signals that the compressor
is about to fail.
A new compressor
may be needed if the unit is leaking internally or not producing enough
pressure due to bad reed valves, worn piston rings, or worn or scored
cylinders, etc.). A worn compressor or one with internal problems will not
be able to develop normal operating pressures with a full charge of
refrigerant. This kind of problem can be diagnosed with an A/C gauge set.
Poor cooling can
also be caused by a lot of things other than a bad compressor, so don’t
replace the compressor until you’ve ruled out other possibilities such as
a low refrigerant charge, too much oil in the system, air contamination, a
clogged condenser, plugged orifice tube, inoperative electric cooling fan,
operation can be affected by sensors in vehicles with automatic
temperature control systems. Some have an A/C pressure transducer (usually
mounted in the high side line) to monitor refrigerant pressure and shut
off the compressor if pressure gets too high; a compressor temperature
sensor to turn off the compressor if it gets too hot; and/or a compressor
rpm sensor to monitor belt slippage. Mitsubishi, for example, uses a "belt
lock controller" to disengage the compressor if the drive belt slips or
the compressor seizes.
On 1996 and newer
Mercedes-Benz E-Class cars, the A/C control module will disengage the
compressor if the refrigerant temperature and pressure sensors do not show
a rise when the compressor is being driven.
COMPRESSOR CLUTCH PROBLEMS
If the compressor isn’t
turning, make sure the magnetic clutch engages when energized. Underlying
problems here may include a bad relay, fuse, wiring problem or a defective
clutch. If the clutch fails to cycle on and off when the A/C is turned on,
jumping the clutch lead with a jumper wire from the battery will show if
the problem is in the clutch or elsewhere. If the clutch engages, the
problem is the clutch power supply (relay, fuse, wiring, switch or control
module). Refer to a wiring diagram and work backward toward the battery to
find out why the voltage isn’t getting through.
Many A/C systems
have a low-pressure cutout switch that prevents the compressor clutch from
engaging if system pressure (the refrigerant charge) is too low. This is
designed to protect the compressor from damage in the event of a leak. So
if the clutch isn’t engaging, check the refrigerant charge and the cutout
switch. The clutch air gap is also important for proper clutch operation.
If the clearance is not correct, the clutch may slip and burn or not
engage at all. The specs can be found in a service manual along with
adjustment procedures. Generally speaking, most clutches call for a 0.015
to 0.040 inch press fit clearance.
How often do compressors
fail as a result of "manufacturing defects?" Not very often. According to
one compressor manufacturer who examined 75 compressors that had failed
and were returned under warranty, only two were found to have
manufacturing defects. The rest failed because of problems such as too
little oil in the system, air in the system, contaminants in the system,
or "installer error." The latter category included using the wrong type of
compressor lubricant, not using enough lubricant, using non-approved
flushes to "clean" system parts, and using cross-contaminated
refrigerants. Debris left over from a previous compressor failure was the
most common cause of repeat compressor failures.
Always use the
type of lubricant recommended for specific compressors. This is especially
important with rotary vane and scroll-type compressors. A replacement
compressor may or may not contain lubricant from the factory. In some
cases, the shipping oil must be drained before the compressor is
installed. In other cases, the compressor may contain a POE or PAG
lubricant that may or may not be compatible with the vehicle’s
requirements. Follow the compressor supplier’s installation instructions
to the letter to avoid warranty problems later on.
fresh oil to a system, all the old oil should first be removed. This
will prevent cross-contamination of lubricants and reduce the risk of
overcharging the system with too much oil (which can cause cooling
problems). Always refer to the OEM oil capacity chart for the vehicle
FLUSHING AFTER A FAILURE
When a compressor fails,
it may spit metallic debris into the A/C system. Most of this debris ends
up in the condenser where it can block tubes and interfere with efficient
cooling. Some of the debris may be carried to the orifice tube or
expansion valve and create a blockage. Debris can even be blown back into
the suction tube. If not removed by flushing, it can be sucked back into a
new compressor and cause it to fail.
Flushing the hoses is always recommended
following a compressor failure.
Flushing the condenser is also recommended. But with many condensers,
replacement is the only sure-fire way to get rid of contaminants. Older
serpentine-style tube-and-fin condensers can often be flushed
successfully, but parallel flow condensers are very difficult to clean. So
too are newer style condensers with extremely small extruded tubes. For
these kinds of applications, the condenser should be replaced. It’s
expensive, but not as expensive as ruining a new compressor because of
debris or sludge in the old condenser.
install an in-line filter after the condenser to trap any debris that
might still be inside. The filter will prevent anything that works loose
from being carried to the orifice tube.
You should also
install a filter screen in the suction hose at the compressor inlet to
protect the new compressor from any debris that might be upstream inside
the suction hose or evaporator.
Another reason for flushing is to remove
residual oil from the system. This is necessary when retrofitting an older
R-12 system to the new ozone-safe R-134a refrigerant, but it’s also a good
way to make sure the system contains the right amount of oil. Simply
adding oil to the system to replace that which has been lost is a guess at
best, because there’s no way to know how much has been lost due to
leakage. Estimating a couple of ounces here and there for replacing an
accumulator, receiver/drier, condenser, compressor or hoses is not a very
accurate means of determining how much oil needs to be added to the system
when it’s recharged with refrigerant.
Flushing gets rid of
all the oil so the exact amount specified by the vehicle manufacturer can
be added back to the system.
What happens if
there’s too little or too much compressor oil in the system? Not enough
oil in the system will reduce compressor lubrication and may lead to
premature failure. Too much oil in the system can puddle in the condenser
and obstruct the flow of refrigerant causing a drop in cooling
Other parts that should also
be replaced following a compressor failure include the accumulator or
receiver/dryer, and the orifice tube or expansion valve. The former
contains a bag of desiccant that traps moisture and acts as a filter to
protect the system. A new orifice tube or expansion valve is recommended
because the small hole in this metering device can become easily plugged
with debris. An aftermarket "variable orifice tube" can improve low-speed
EVACUATING & RECHARGING THE SYSTEM
After the compressor has
been installed and the hoses are reconnected, the A/C system must be
thoroughly evacuated with a vacuum pump to pull out air and moisture. If
not purged from the system, air will reduce cooling efficiency. Moisture
will react with refrigerant oil and produce acids and sludge. Moisture can
also freeze and plug the expansion valve causing noise, restrictions or a
A pump capable of
achieving high vacuum must be used to pull out all of the contaminants.
When air is pulled out of the system, it creates a vacuum that causes
residual moisture to boil and evaporate. For this to occur, the vacuum
pump must be capable of pulling at least 29 in. Hg of vacuum throughout
the evacuation process (which normally takes about 30 minutes).
One of the best
ways to monitor the evacuation process is with a Thermistor Vacuum Gauge
that reads in microns (one inch of Mercury equals 25,400 microns). It
takes a highly accurate instrument to measure vacuum because even a little
pressure left in the system can prevent all the residual moisture from
boiling out. Only a 1/2 inch of mercury of pressure (12,700 microns) can
reduce the boiling point of water by more than 20° F. Pulling out the last
fraction of an inch of pressure is the most critical step in the
evacuation process to ensure complete removal of all air and moisture.
After you’ve pulled a
deep vacuum on an A/C system, close all valves and shut off the vacuum
pump. A slow rise in pressure (which you can see on the Thermistor Vacuum
Gauge) will occur as the residual moisture continues to boil off inside
the system. Pulling additional vacuum will get rid of this moisture. The
evacuation will not be complete until the system can maintain a stable
vacuum reading below 700 microns for at least three minutes.
The time it takes to
completely evacuate an A/C system can be reduced by preconditioning the
evaporator prior to hooking up the vacuum pump. Preconditioning raises the
temperature so the moisture will boil off faster. The easiest way to raise
the temperature of the evaporator is to run the engine with the heater on
HOT in the RECIRC mode. Turn the blower fan to HI and close all doors and
windows. When the engine reaches normal operating temperature, the
evaporator will be thoroughly preheated and ready to evacuate.
If you have difficulty
maintaining a stable deep vacuum, there may be a leak in the A/C system,
the vacuum pump or the equipment connections. Leak testing should be done
prior to evacuating the system because evacuation is not always a reliable
way to locate or even identify a small leak in an A/C system. Seals and
O-rings that leak under pressure may move under evacuation and not leak.
Finally, recharge the
system with the recommended amount of refrigerant and compressor oil.
Don’t overcharge and don’t add too much oil. Check cooling performance
before returning the vehicle to the customer, to verify that everything is
working properly and that the new compressor is doing its job.