Summer brings a host of enthralling activities. Vacations. Theme parks. Beach volleyball in Kansas. And my personal favorite, complaining about how often the sun tries to kill me. Maybe it’s because I’m a certified ginger, and we’re scientifically known to be more sensitive to heat and cold. Maybe it’s because I’m bitter about losing the three months of total freedom I loved so dearly as a child. Or maybe I’m just tired of walking around with 48 active mosquito bites, a patch of poison ivy, three forms of sunburn, and a constant layer of sweat. Like I’m sitting in a cup of coffee. But I just made summer a little more survivable when I fixed the air conditioning in my 19-year-old car. And I did it on the cheap.
If you’ve driven a car more than 10 or 15 years old, chances are you’ve experienced air conditioning failure. And chances are you’ve tried to ignore it. “It’s an expensive repair bill for a car I might not even have much longer,” you tell yourself. “Humans didn’t always have air conditioning.” No, man, but humans didn’t always roll around in metal and glass boxes with built-in explosion machines, either. Cars are hot, and they can get unbearably hot in the summer.
And you’re right. AC is expensive to fix. That’s because an AC fix involves many steps, and most of them are expensive in themselves. If you take your car into the shop for this, the tech will test electrical, test Freon pressure, and look for a leak via UV dye. The leak is often at the compressor. If this is the case, the tech needs to evacuate the existing Freon (if there’s any left). Freon is dangerous to humans and illegal to vent into the atmosphere, so it has to be captured in a tank. (In a previous life, I worked in a junk yard, and was removing an AC line when it popped and showered my face in Freon and oil. It wasn’t fun.) Once the Freon is clear, the tech will replace the compressor, vacuum the entire system to remove any moisture, and recharge the system with fresh Freon.
It’s an involved process, and thus an expensive one, usually ranging from $700-$1000 in total, but you can make it cheaper by taking care of part of that process yourself (or all of it, if you’re feeling lucky). Here’s what I did when I could no longer stand the lack of AC in my $760 Civic and my personality began to melt into the seat fabric:
First, I tested all the electrical, fuses, wiring, and relays I could find. If this thing could be fixed with a $20 relay or a little electrical tape, it would be. But despite my vast electrical experience, which I acquired at six while putting a nine volt battery on my tongue, and the experience of my engineer friend, we couldn’t find any issues with the lightning juice, so we moved on.
Next, I took it to the shop, encouraging the techs to look for electrical issues first. They found no problems there, but they did find a leaky compressor. Awesome. I wasn’t going to pay the full value of the Civic to get the AC fixed, so I had to trim that down. I ordered the compressor myself. Full disclosure/shameless plug, here. I didn’t use Streetside, not because I didn’t want to, but because AC isn’t really a performance part, and we’re mostly a customization and performance operation, so we don’t carry it. We do, however, carry some AC compressors for some applications, so check to see if we have yours if you’re attempting this job, and we promise to give you a good deal.
After what seemed like a million years of summer, the compressor showed up and I went through the process of oiling it. Compressors, like so many other machines with moving parts, need oil, and due to the pressure and temperatures involved, it has to be special, likely secreted from Pterodactyls and blessed by immortal Druids before it can be bottled up and sent to your local parts store. Make sure you get the right type of oil. Compressor oil comes with a number on the side, which might be viscosity or vintage. I don’t know. Look it up.
A compressor comes with packaging oil intact. This isn’t the magical stuff. You need to drain it so the oils don’t mix. I held the compressor over a pan and, grasping the pulley and clutch, turned it until all the oil had drained out of the Freon line fittings. Then I added the mystical green compressor oil of legend. I did it wrong. The bolt on the back of my compressor looked like an oil plug, but it wasn’t. Try as I might, using a large syringe, I couldn’t force any oil into it.
So I checked the Googles and found out that I could add the oil in either of the Freon input fittings. These are the two sockets where the Freon lines connect, and they come packaged with disposable plugs in them, as not to let the packaging oil out. I used my syringe as a funnel, measured out the exact amount of oil as recommended by the Googs, spilled it all over the place, and finally added enough of it, turning the clutch and pulley to work it through the whole part. Then I put those plugs back in so my Pterodactyl oil (Pterodactoil?) wouldn’t leak out.
It’s always a good idea to disconnect the negative battery terminal when dealing with something electrical.
The 1998 Honda Civic with the D16Y7 straight four engine does not have two belts, like so many other cars, but three, all with their own tensioners. It’s a pretty cool design, because each accessory, alternator, compressor, and power steering pump, has its own belt, making service easier. This also means that if you want to delete any of these accessories, you can do so easily without screwing up the other two. Honda knew they were dealing with tuners when they designed this thing. Alternator deletes are common on drag cars. Power steering deletes are popular among autocrossers and road racers. And AC deletes are a Honda bro’s favorite way to reduce weight. While adding subs in the trunk.
But I digress. So, yeah. Pro tip: Don’t loosen belts you don’t need to. Like I did. Once I had the compressor belt loose, I removed the two 10mm bolts holding the Freon lines to the compressor body. In general, these are pretty proprietary to one another, but just in case, make sure you don’t mix them up. One is for high pressure, the other for low. If you need to, label them ahead of time.
I found it easier to work with the compressor through the front left wheel well, so I put that corner of a car on a jack stand and pulled off the wheel.
Next I disconnected the electrical connector from the compressor and loosened the four 12mm bolts holding the compressor to its bracket. I found that one or two of them were too long to remove entirely. They would hit the condenser fan shroud (we’ll get back to that fan shroud later). But they all came free, so I lowered the compressor out with the bolts still in.
The reverse was pretty straightforward, and the new compressor went in with ease. I only snugged the Freon line fittings, since I couldn’t find the proper torque specs and I didn’t want to ruin the soft aluminum of the compressor body or the lines. And because my torque wrench was made before the Hindenberg, I decided to let the shop tighten them.
My car back together, I took it to the shop to have the system vacuumed and the Freon added. Theoretically, you can do this yourself. Parts stores sometimes rent AC vacuum pumps, and they sell Freon recahrge kits. But this process is one of those pass/fail operations, and I didn’t like my chances, so I let the shop handle it.
It didn’t work.
Apparently, the techs couldn’t get the AC condenser fan to kick on. The system was charged and ready to go, but I’d need to replace the fan. So back to the parts store I went. I bought a new fan, and after an arduous tumult of trial and effort, I got the old one out. And I found out why it wasn’t working.
Did I say nice things about Honda’s belt design up there? Because I’m about to take them all back for this dumb plastic fan. Yes, it’s probably a safety thing (as if human survival instinct and a big red label reading, “There’s a fan here that can handily cube your fingers without warning, ya dingus!” weren’t enough). But I still find it annoying that if not for this cheap, rotten plastic, the original compressor would likely never have burned out in the first place.
I muscled the new fan in, bolted it down, and cautiously, prayerfully punched the little “A/C” button on my dash. Life. Cool. Dehumidified, breathable air. It was glorious. I was a human again. I had a habitation pod capable of transporting me unharmed from one climate controlled structure to another.
How much did I save?
Now, let’s break this down.
Shop Diagnosis: $59
Shop Vacuum/Recharge: $89
Remember, at the very cheapest, a compressor replacement at a shop will run about $700, and that wouldn’t likely include the fan replacement. And yes, this took some time, slaving in the heat, and two trips to the shop, and two trips to parts stores. But now, when I plop into my personal oven, start my explosionator, and jam open the AC with full recirculation, clean, holy air the temperature of a late October evening comes out of the vents, and I’m reminded of a better season, a return to climatic civility, and I begin to forget the several hours it took me, lying in a pool of my own sweat, to get it working.
So if your air conditioning is broken, but you know that a repair will cost more than the worth of your car, half of which is in the “new” tires you installed two years ago, roll up your sleeves and get it done.
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.