What to Do if Your Air Conditioning Breaks in the Middle of Summer
Anyone who’s ever spent time in Arizona during the late summer months can attest to the brutally hot temperatures. In fact, they’re worse than just brutal—they can actually be deadly, particularly to the elderly and infirm. According to Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, a medical director at the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, the loss of air-conditioning should be treated as nothing less than a life-threatening event. “Once the temperature gets in the 90s and is above the body’s natural temperature,” she says, “it’s unable to cool itself.”
The statistics certainly bear Sunenshine out. According to a 2017 report from Maricopa County’s Department of Public Health, fourteen of the county’s 23 confirmed heat-associated deaths occurred indoors. Earlier than that, in 2016, a whopping 80 percent of indoor heat-associated deaths were related to the lack of functioning air-conditioning. In some cases, the individuals in question did own air conditioning units, but they were malfunctioning—sometimes blowing hot air instead of cold. Others who owned functioning units neglected to turn them on, while still others had no access to air conditioning at all.
Even the youngest and fittest individuals should take care to ensure that their A/C remains in good repair throughout the hottest months of the year. It’s better to be proactive in this situation, as enlisting the aid of a professional can be time-consuming and exhausting—to say nothing of the discomfort that you’ll have to endure throughout the wait. Here are some tips on how to survive the summer heat if your air conditioning breaks down during this critical period.
Keep an eye out for trouble
Fortunately, there are a number of relatively simple tasks you can perform to see if your air conditioner is working properly. The general manager of Phoenix’s Penguin Air and Plumbing, Jay Kline, claims that the unit’s ability to maintain a consistent internal temperature of 78 degrees is a good rule of thumb.
“If it can’t do that,” he says, “that’s definitely a warning sign that there’s something going on. [The unit] should always be able to bring it down to that 78.”
Those aren’t the only tips Kline has for routine A/C maintenance. Here are a few of his other suggestions:
•Step outside to listen to what the fan sounds like from the home’s exterior. If it’s especially noisy, you might want to call for a routine maintenance check.
•Make sure the air that’s blowing from the unit is cold, not merely cool. If it isn’t cold, it’s likely running on refrigerant, which is potentially harmful to the unit in the long run. At the very least, it won’t operate as efficiently when allowed to run on refrigerant for long periods of time; additionally, you could be in for a slew of expensive repairs.
•Check the batteries in your home thermostat, as well as the breaker panel. Sometimes the fix is as simple as flipping a switch or replacing a dead battery.
•Schedule routine tune-ups in the spring, while the temperatures are still at a manageable level; and again in the autumn months, when you’re switching from A/C to heat. The professionals will be able to make minor adjustments—such as topping off the Freon if it’s running low—before the issues get out of hand.
•Replace the filters at least once a month, especially if you’re running the unit constantly (as you should during the summer months). As Kline points out, the filter serves as “the lungs of the air-conditioner,” helping to maintain healthy and proper air flow.
Set aside funds in case of emergency repairs
As a general rule, a standard air-conditioning system will last about 12 to 14 years in a city like Phoenix, according to Kline. Therefore, if your system is upwards of a decade old and it requires a significant amount of repair (say, more than $1,000 worth), you’ll want to consider replacing it instead. The cost of a new system runs from around $7,000 to $25,000, so it’s best to have a fund set aside specifically for home cooling maintenance and repair.
According to Kline, some of the issues that crop up frequently in summer include components that fail in the extreme heat, and units that have been allowed to run for too long on too little refrigerant. When components such as the fan motor and capacitor bite the dust, the new air conditioning costs can be hefty—well over $1,000 in some cases. To give you some idea of what you can expect to spend on one of these replacements, here’s a brief guide:
•Capacitors—generally range from $100 to $350
•Fan motors—$500 to $600 for basic units, but higher-end models can cost upward of $1,000
•R-22 refrigerant—this type of Freon, considered an “ozone-depleting substance,” is being phased out by the Environmental Protection Agency. As a result, the stuff is difficult to come by and quite expensive, with some HVAC professionals referring to it as “liquid gold”.
If money is too tight to allow for a repair fund, there may be help available on the countywide and city levels. Often, there are emergency funds available for citizens who are unable to cover cooling costs on their own. Richie Taylor, a spokesman for Maricopa County Human Services, advises these individuals to check with city officials to see what programs are available. In the case of Taylor’s district, he says, “the county is ready to help in any way we can.”
When it comes to home warranties, read the fine print
According to Arizona Department of Insurance spokesman Stephen Briggs, it’s important to go over home warranty information with a fine-toothed comb, so to speak. That’s because seemingly insignificant details can come back to haunt you after you’ve signed on the dotted line. For example, some companies will include a disclaimer in the warranty, absolving them of responsibility in cases of improper maintenance.
Briggs would also advise residents to learn exactly which services are covered in the warranty. The location of the air conditioning unit can sometimes be problematic—companies may not cover the additional expenses that can incur if the unit is situated on the roof, for example. There’s little point in investing in a warranty to protect your air conditioning unit, only to find that it isn’t covered when the time comes to repair or replace it. “[Home warranties can be] bad if you haven’t read your contract,” Briggs warns.
If you have questions or concerns regarding a home warranty, reach out to the Arizona Department of Insurance consumer affairs division at 602-364-2499.
Understand renter’s rights
Under the Arizona Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, renters are entitled to a working air conditioner. Some cities even have ordinances in place to provide additional protection to renters whose units have malfunctioned. While that sounds good on paper, reality tends to be more complicated.
Some landlords will respond quickly to a tenant’s request for repairs, but not all of them follow this protocol, especially if they’re strapped for cash. As a senior staff attorney at Community Legal Services in Arizona, Bret Rasner often hears from renters whose air conditioning units have broken down during the summer. Many of them have opted to pay for the repairs themselves, attempting to settle up with the landlord later. Others incur additional out-of-pocket expenses when the heat forces them to spend the night in a hotel.
If you’re a renter who finds yourself in this situation, address the issue in writing. Present your landlord with a dated and signed letter that details the problem. Be clear about what action you’ll take should the issue remain unaddressed within your stated time frame. If you opt to pay for repairs yourself, Rasner emphasizes the importance of documenting the timeline and the costs incurred. A manual outlining the proper steps to take is available at Community Legal Services.
What to do while you wait
If possible, stay with friends or family until the unit is fixed. During an Arizona summer, temperatures seldom dip below 90, and that’s the point at which fans become useless, according to Sunenshine.
If leaving is not an option, you’ll need either a swamp cooler or a portable air conditioning unit. Don’t forget to document these expenses.
If the repair is scheduled to take place within the next few hours, find a city cooling station or local library to hang out in. Sunenshine emphasizes the dangers of remaining in an overheated apartment, saying that “if your AC isn’t functioning for more than a couple of hours, you need to go to an air-conditioned space.” A list of air-conditioned public locations is available at heataz.org.