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Opinions on this Failed Heat Pump System

Williamwright80 | Posted in General Questions on

Hello,

I’m William. I have read GBA for several years. This is my first time posting. Thanks in advance.

My situation:

My 10 year old, Heil 3 ton heat pump apparently failed the other day, the compressor lost pressure, along with a burnt odor and tripped the breaker.
I called the HVAC company who’s name is on the equipment. They are NATE certified. Please note, no service records exist for this equipment and I have had 3 trouble free, comfortable and efficient years of service from it since taking ownership of the home.

The tech checked his gauges on the outdoor unit quickly and said it’s leaked out and pointed to the oil stain on the plastic stand. Thats it.

Options presented:

1) Replace the compressor only, drain and recharge the system. $3000-$3500
No warranty. Tech thinks it could last a couple years.

2) Replace HVAC equipment: $7000.
New 3 ton Daikin DZ14SA0361 heat pump. 14 SEER single stage.
New air handler Daikin ARUF37C14 multi speed psc motor.
New electric heat strip Daikin HKSX10. Honeywell T6 thermostat included.
12 year warranty on compressor, parts and labor.

The problem(s):

The tech only showed me a text from his office that said $7000 for the new equipment. Thats it! I then asked for a detailed proposal, but they only listed the equipment I mentioned by email with a dollar amount along with a price increase of 8% by June 1st, if deposit not placed. Wow.

Im trying to get in writing a proposal that includes a complete job, all equipment, labor, line sets, refrigerant, environmental fees, equipment stands, disposal, tax, etc. on one piece of paper so I have confidence in what I am purchasing.

Meanwhile, the tech is trying to sell me an aftermarket product called “iwave” technology, recommended adding a humidifier to my system and wants to get rid of my MERV 12 filters for a deep pleated version.

I have no comfort issues at all, and the previous equipment was efficient to operate I stated originally when contacting this company.

In closing. This company is NATE certified and professional appearing but I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone. I’ve been a carpenter for 15 years, and been around all the trades. What happened in my basement today seems crazy, possibly unethical. Not to mention I paid $100 for the consultation.

Thoughts on proceeding appreciated. I am also reaching out to another company an hour away who is BPI certified, does HVAC install and energy conservation work.

Sincerely,

William

SIDENOTES:

HVAC  system 10 years old. Single zone. Single stage. 3 ton heat, ac, 10 kw backup.
All equipment/ductwork in conditioned basement.
1400 square foot ranch with unfinished and conditioned basement.
Home is 18 years old and located near Roanoke, VA.

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Replies

  1. Expert Member
    BILL WICHERS | | #1

    Option 1 is risky. If the compressor smelled like it was burning, the insulation on the windings is probably damaged. Burned windings will contaminate new refrigerant and shorten the life of the equipment. At a minimum, make sure they replace the dryer prior to evacuating the system for a recharge. It's better to replace the compressor and flush the old system prior to recharge. If their number includes replacing the compressor, then that's not unreasonable. I don't see how they could "repair" a sealed compressor unit though, and I'm assuming that's what is used in this unit -- most smaller units are. Even most large units are sealed!

    The compressor's lubricant is mixed in with the refrigerant, so a leak can blow out lube too. Chances are you had either something fail from brittle fracture, or a fitting came loose. These are the usual failures that cause refrigerant leaks.

    Deeper (thicker) pleated filters last longer, so that's a good idea as an upgrade if you can do it. You can still get MERV 12 and better filters in the thicker versions, you aren't loosing anything in that regard.

    Regarding equipment costs, everything has gone crazy this year. Copper is up well over 250% from last year, lumber is up, steel is about double. Lead times are looong too. I have redesigned power system projects for customers over the past two months just to save on copper costs. The most recent project I just awarded saved some ~$16,528 on copper alone, and to give you some perspective, the electrical component of this project is only about $75,000! I pulled those numbers from the job costing sheet that I have open in another window, so those are real numbers! I was just talking to one of my vendors today who said he's never seen the market like this before.

    The short of that is that I wouldn't be at all surprised if there really is an 8% price hike expected in the near future, that might not just be a high-pressure sales tactic. I would get a few bids, and lean towards a new system. You don't want to put a lot of money into a repair in an older system that may well fail in some other way in the near future.

    Bill

    1. Williamwright80 | | #2

      Bill,

      Thank you for the response. I mistakenly wrote REPAIR the compressor, I have corrected that. I am leaning toward a new system, but wanted to mention replacing the compressor on the old equipment was half the cost of a completely new system. Not to mention this is a simple 1400 sq ft ranch, one level with basement in rural Virginia. I will try to gather at least a second quote.

      thanks again. Stay tuned!

  2. Jon_R | | #3

    I don't understand the pessimism about the longevity of flush (with a liquid solvent, maybe RX-ACID SCAVENGER), new drier/filter and new compressor. The failed compressor is 410A?

    Some lame criticism of lower cost options and a push towards more profitable options isn't uncommon. Even more so when there are other questionable practices.

    1. Expert Member
      BILL WICHERS | | #6

      As I understand it, something about the burned insulation on the compressor motor windings (which are immersed in the refrigerant and oil) reacts with the oil in the refrigerant and you end up with an acid that tends to drastically reduce the life of the compressor, and sometimes other things in the system. That's how it's been explained to me in the past. I've also seen it happen when we tried a quick fix on a 20 ton A/C system with two 10 ton carlisle compressors. The compressor failed within a month or three (I forget exactly how quick, but it wasn't more than a few months) after the work.

      The "dryer" is the sealed cylinder-like thing in the refrigerant line. It's main function is to filter out little remaining bits of moisture in the system, but it will also try to filter out other contaminants. After a major event like a burned out compressor, the dryer should really be replaced so that it can continue to function -- it will usually have been "used up" when it is exposed to all the gunk in a system with a failure like this. The dryer is a chemical device with a finite capacity to absorb contaminants.

      When a repair starts to be 50%+ the cost of a new system, especially when you have an older system, it's worth considering a new system.

      Bill

      1. Williamwright80 | | #9

        Bill,

        Again, your response are helpful and informative. Much appreciated. I agree that older equipment(10 years) is probably not worth repairing unless you plan on leaving town before it breaks.

    2. Williamwright80 | | #8

      Jon R,

      Thank you for your time. To clarify, the failed compressor is r410a and was of decent make and model. Zepher7 is correct, there is acid present after a blowup in the system and it will likely remain in small quantities that shorten service life. The tech didn't suggest replacing the filter-drier as Zepher7 mentioned but it makes sense to me to replace it. However, a new compressor with flush and fill was already $3500 with no warranty. The tech recommend against it. So new equipment it is it appears. working on it.

      Thank you.

  3. kyle_r | | #4

    Check out this other GBA thread on a Mr. Cool DIY install. https://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/question/mr-cool-universal

    I’m not sure if you would consider going this route, but an option.

    1. Williamwright80 | | #10

      Kyle R,

      Hello and thanks for the input. I am familiar with the DIY Mr. Cool systems by name but need to brush up on the literature. If the system provides heating and cooling, I will take a closer look at it.

      Thank you.

  4. jonny_h | | #5

    Do you happen to have any data on how much your current system ran, and how often the electric backup was needed? How well insulated is your house? A 3 ton system for a 1400 square foot house in a relatively mild climate sounds oversized -- but of course the safe and easy thing for the contractor to do is to just put in a replacement sized exactly the same as the current one. Try getting some load calculations done -- possibly by a third party that;s not the same as the installer -- you may find that new equipment could be smaller and lower cost, and you may not need the electric backup with the performance of more modern equipment at low temperatures.

    1. Williamwright80 | | #11

      Jonny H,

      Thanks for your thoughts. To answer you quickly but accurately...

      Electric back up was never needed in all my 3 years of home ownership, and the equipment was 7 years old when I took over the home. Always heating to 67F/ cooling to 73F.

      The home is efficient for a code built home from 18 years ago, in this zone, in my opinion. 2x4 walls, osb, Tyvek, builder grade windows, roof trusses(attic), full span joists contain ductwork, 8 foot basement. The GC opted to not air seal besides loosely attached Tyvek but it's a comfortable home. I reduced my electric bill from an average of 1000 kwh monthly in 2018, to under 700 kwh in 2020. Mostly attic insulation(r49), basement wall insulation(r10) and as much air sealing I had access to which was a lot. I personally did all the work.

      3 tons is probably oversized, especially with the weatherization I performed. But then I question what is the next size down? is it like sizing pants? The Tech also has $100 in the proposal for "transition work" to mate the existing ductwork to the new similar sized air handler. Like you said, "safe and easy thing for them to do."

      I will speak to the HVAC company about deleting the emergency 10kw heat strip from the proposal and possible resizing of equipment due to my weatherization performed. When I originally spoke with the tech about this he didn't respond or adjust his offer. Im glad he didn't try to sell me on bigger equipment, well, he sort of did actually.

      I have also contacted a BPI certified company from an hour away to start over from scratch.

      Thanks for your thoughts! Stay tuned.

      1. Expert Member
        BILL WICHERS | | #13

        Under 3 tons, it's usually easy to find 1/2 ton increments, so you should be able to find a 2.5 ton, 2 ton, etc., sized unit.

        BTW, it is generally recommended to not have the contractor installing the system also do the sizing -- you'll often end up with oversized equipment that way. It's better to have an energy rater or engineering firm do the sizing, then have the installer just put in the system the rater or engineer specifies.

        Bill

        1. Williamwright80 | | #14

          Bill,

          Thank you for the sizing information.

          I honestly wonder what the price difference (to the consumer) is between these smaller sizing increments, along with available inventory at hand and a HVAC company who has time for you (the consumer) but not all the time in the world for you. I prefer to be pleasant and not a bother, I only hire for what I can't do.

          I strongly agree about right sizing equipment and having the project spec'd by an independent party, Im hoping for that in search but likely would settle for load calc's performed by a BPI installer who recycled his data from similar homes vs no mention of load calc's at all. Im also on a tightrope with warm weather approaching!

          All comments are appreciated, stay tuned.

          1. charlie_sullivan | | #16

            The cost savings from going to 2-ton instead of 3, for example, are often a little disappointing. But the benefit is quieter operation, better dehumidification, and more consistent temperatures.

  5. user-2310254 | | #7

    I imagine you want a new system before the weather gets too hot, but I'd try to get an independent engineer to calculate the Manual J and also spec a replacement system. You might not save much (or anything on the system) but at least the system would better match the actual loads inside your home. GBA has a relevant article here: https://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/article/who-can-perform-my-load-calculations.

  6. Williamwright80 | | #12

    Steve Knapp,

    Greetings. Thats what I would like ultimately. Unbiased information, and an HVAC company to perform the work correctly and in a way that is informative and comprehensive to the homeowner.

    Thank you, stay tuned.

  7. walta100 | | #15

    The smart move is to always get 3 bids and not signing when you feel pressured.

    Before you throw in the towel on the old I would want to fully understand the current fault. It seems clear this company does not want to put anything in writing that combined with high pressure tactic make me not trust them. I think it would be worth the cost of having a competitor give you a second opinion.

    Your 3 symptoms do not fit neatly together for a single common failure 1 refrigerant leak 2 tripped breakers 3 burned smell.

    If you had a sudden major leak is a very rare event and is unlikely to trip a breaker you may smell something if you happened to be near the leak when it was actively leaking. Normally leaks are slow at first and you have service call every year then every 6 months then every month just keeps getting more frequent. A system with a leak would normally stop cooling and the compressor would continue to run after many hours the overload may cycle the compressor on and off and should not trip the breaker.

    A tripped breaker is a very bad symptom as the breakers are sized to protect the wire in the walls from overheating and being damaged. When any part of the AC system fails the system should have its internal protection devices that should kick in.

    If the refrigerant /oil smells burnt that symptom is the kiss of death requiring a total complete replacement of anything the refrigerant touches. One of the most common failures is a capacitor in the outdoor unit sometime the failed cap will discharge a fowl smelling liquid and sometime trip the breaker.

    If you end up shopping for a new heatpump system this is my list of must have features for a modern system.
    1 Variable speed compressor.
    2 Variable speed indoor blower motor.
    3 Two electronic expansion valves.
    4 Commutating thermostat made by the equipments manufacture.
    5 Oversized air filter.

    Walta

    1. Williamwright80 | | #17

      Walta,

      Thank you.

      In short, until I have more time to respond, I did witness the outdoor unit(heat pump) fail while the AC system was running. Honest! I believe the compressor released refrigerant due to a long lasting hissing sound like a tire deflating, a sense of burning smell in the air and steam like vapor cloud being emitted. I was only 15 feet away.

      3 years ago I paid for a home inspection, the inspector who also is a structural engineer was satisfied with all electrical in the 200 amp panel. I revisited his report, nothing in there, I was present at the inspection.

      I am aware of the capacitor you mention, I originally called an HVAC company (3 in total now) an hour away in another direction, who's emergency technician was kind enough to educate me the possibility of capacitor failure or compressor failure over the phone, BUT didn't recommend the emergency service fee $175 as he would unlikely be able to fix the compressor with what he had on hand. It was Sunday. Getting an appointment was vague by their office so I moved on. Sadly, they were my first pick.

      Again, thank you. More to come.

      1. Expert Member
        BILL WICHERS | | #18

        I've seen brazed connections fail from brittle fracture, usually at or near clamps or sharp bends. The result is a rapid release of refrigerant, which also means loss of oil, and then a seized compressor. The seized compressor burns up pretty quick and then it's game over for the unit.

        Internal protection on compressors doesn't always work. I have seen things fail with the protection never operating (so the unit burns up), and I've seen the protection operate and then stick open, so you can't reset it (so you can't repower the compressor). I've seen this on little units, and I've seen it on the big 10 and 15 ton Carlisle compressors in the datacenter cooling units (CRACs) too.

        Slow refrigerant leaks, in my expierience, tend to be at flare fittings and other things with seals/gaskets, and sometimes at fancy things like TXV valves.

        Bill

        1. Williamwright80 | | #19

          Bill,

          I do have a txv per the placard on the air handler, instructions are labeled on the cabinet face for compatibility etc, but its a bit over my head.

          I think Im going to decommission the heat pump tomorrow. Safety first. The outdoor fuse is in the service position and all circuits in panel are already off. I'll cut the line-set carefully and proceed to find a visible sign of fault in the outdoor unit. It won't change much, it will satisfy some curiosity and possibly vouch for the technician who put his gauges on the unit quickly this morning before declaring it to have lost all refrigerant.
          It's been a long day still a good day.

          Thanks everyone!

  8. walta100 | | #20

    Ok you just happened to be present at the very moment the unit suddenly vented all its refrigerant, strange but possible.

    Was the unit making its normal sounds?

    Will you please post a photo of the spot where it leaked?

    I see no reason for you the cut up the line set since all the gas is gone nothing left to leak. It sound like you have pulled the electrical disconnect making the unit safe. Chopping up the copper line will make you seem like a nut to the people giving you bids making you less likely to get the best bids.

    Did any other electrical item fail at the same moment?

    Please note that TXV are assumed to be mechanical unless proceeded by the word electronic. Mechanical TXV was the best technology 20 years ago. The electronic TXV allows the computer to very precisely control the flow of refrigerant and get the perfect super heat for and the best efficiency.

    Walta

    1. Williamwright80 | | #21

      Walta,

      Witnessing the failure, I did notice a few sounds, It was loud overall. The event would have disrupted any social gathering. Im not able to recall due to the amount of stimuli placed upon me suddenly in the moment. I am not aware of any other failures that may have also happened like electrical, besides the breaker tripped.

      However, the past 6 month when heating/cooling I noticed the outdoor unit to have a SUBTLE, CONSTANT, METALLIC RATTLING SOUND that had become louder over time and was clearly audible when the heat pump ran heat/AC mode. I had mentioned this to all the techs.

      The metallic rattling sound certainly originates from the outdoor unit, I am certain it is not the fan on the outdoor unit because sometimes the fan stops but the compressor continues to complete pumping/completing a cycle. From inside the basement directly thru the solid concrete wall the sound is easy to hear and from the outdoor unit. It's got to be the compressor?

      The air handler is quiet, besides the occasional condensate pump kicking in.

      Again, we were happy getting 3 years of comfort and efficiency from the 10 year old equipment.

      PHOTOS:

      The best I got of the oil/refrigerant leak is that the pad is covered in oil, not condensation. It's a film of oil and the bottom of the outdoor unit where the compressor is bolted is also coated in oil. I have not gotten down into the unit yet to poke around the compressor, its shrouded in a black blanket type insulation.

      Oil does not smell burnt.

      Thank you again.

  9. Williamwright80 | | #22

    Update:

    The BPI certified HVAC company from an hour away declined to be of service due to their busy schedule(2 months out). I had reached out to them by email, they were pleasant at least.

    Its edited, but here was my inquiry to them.

    """Furthermore, with this opportunity to replace the old equipment, I would like to find a HVAC contractor who is willing to evaluate any pertinent information regarding the home/occupants such as but not limited to:

    1) Perform any necessary load calculations.

    2) Take into consideration all energy efficient upgrades performed previously by the homeowner.

    3) Spec all necessary HVAC equipment in detail.

    4) Provide a written proposal for the complete job that totals all labor, materials, disposal, tax, etc.

    5) Install/commission the HVAC system.

    I appreciate the time you've taken reading this letter, and I look forward to discussing this further with you.""

    One door closed another opened.

    I spoke with a small HVAC company (Number 4) this morning who is local and speak of energy efficiency/direct supervision by the business owners. They seem a good fit but more to come.

    At least they don't participate in the massive advertising that covers billboards along our local highways with empty blanket statements about comfort and efficiency.

    Im doing OK don't worry guys, and thanks again!

  10. Williamwright80 | | #23

    Update on contractor 4.

    Contractor 4 was able to provide a seemingly reasonable solution than the higher priced/vague proposals from Contractor 2, who's contract has a short fuse and would climb in cost soon by 8% or offered other remedies with no warranty for similar money as Contractor 4's proposal with full warranty!

    The details. A new matching 3 ton 14 seer outdoor unit, Txv valve in air handler and filter-drier on the line set along with evacuation/recharge r410a of the system. The job is under $4000 with proper warranty. Its not exotic equipment but it performs well for us in this climate. This was basically the price of a compressor only job with no warranty at all from Contractor 2.

    The Tech also spoke about acid NOT being present even though it is possible. It would have a strong, unpleasant odor he assured. He was stumped as to why a fail-safe didn't activate. I asked specifically if the heat pump had been altered in some way. He couldn't find any reasonable fault without doing a teardown I imagine.

    He also priced components being swapped in the outdoor unit plus the txv and filter-drier but additional refrigerant cost/labor/less warranty support subtracts from the value.

    He also looked carefully in the air handler, and remarked how clean the interior cabinet/coil/pan appeared. I maintained this area of the system myself for the past 3 years.

    Overall the Tech and the his company appear reasonable and straight forward in approach.

    I will update in the days ahead but this project won't be completed until later next week hopefully.

    It's rural Virginia so a little slower it goes but Im ok with that.

    Thanks again for insight and all questions are welcome.

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