Emily's air conditioning is broken. Should she accept defeat?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Sep 01, 2011

Dear Tom and Ray:

I drive a 1994 two-door Honda Accord (140,000 miles or so) with a lot of personality. One of her "quirks" is that she doesn't have a functioning air conditioner. I personally don't mind, but I have a dog, and I need to take his health into consideration when taking him in the car with me during the summer months.

A few weeks ago, I had to make a two-hour trip on a Friday evening in 95-degree heat, and, being concerned that my dog would suffer heatstroke, I tried an alternative AC system. I filled a 4-quart Styrofoam cooler with water, froze it overnight, put it on the passenger floor of my car and then installed a cigarette-lighter-powered fan to blow across the top of the ice.

Not surprisingly, this didn't work well. After an hour and a half, all of the ice had melted. And when I hit stop-and-go traffic, the water sloshed and spilled all over the car. While amusing, neither myself nor my dog felt this to be a viable option to use in the future. I know the car is old. The driver's-side automatic lock is starting to malfunction, the driver's-side automatic window sticks and I just spent money on it for engine and brake repairs.

At this point, is it worth having the AC fixed? Are there alternative, cheaper options for cooling down the car that I have not considered? At this point, I cannot afford car payments, and buying a new car is not an option.

-- Emily

RAY: Wind and water are the traditional alternatives to air conditioning. When water or mist is combined with a breeze, it evaporates off your skin and makes you feel cooler. But as you've seen, that's messy.

TOM: So, the first thing you should do if find out WHY your air conditioner isn't working. You may just have a slow refrigerant leak.

RAY: If that's the case, you can get the system charged up for $125 or so, and it might last you a couple of months, or even longer. In which case, you can do that once and have a whole summer's worth of air conditioning.

TOM: And if the leak is coming from a hose, or something easily fixable, you could fix it and recharge the system and be good for several summers -- if the rest of the car lasts that long. So it's worth asking a good mechanic to test the system for you and at least give you a diagnosis.

RAY: If one of the expensive AC parts has failed, like the compressor or evaporator, then you're talking $800 to $1,000 or more to have the new part installed.

TOM: But remember, you don't need a new part. After all, every other part on the car is 17 years old! So once you have a diagnosis, you should call a local junkyard and see if it has the part you need.

RAY: The compressor is the part that fails most often. And every car taken apart by a junkyard has the AC compressor removed. So they have tons of them. A used one probably will cost you about $100 for the part, and then you'll have to pay someone a few hundred bucks to install it for you and charge the system. It's risky, because if the used compressor is no good, you can't get the labor cost back. But since you're desperate, it's probably worth a try.

TOM: Yeah, it's worth trying to fix this, Emily. Especially since you say a new car is not in your future. Your dog'll be much happier, and you'll probably recoup your investment twice over with the money you save on dry cleaning. Good luck.

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