DIY or Pay: Save hundreds on air conditioner repair you can do yourself

It is Murphy's Law: If your air conditioning is going to go out, it's going to happen in the hottest months of the summer.

[WARNING: Make sure to follow safety instructions to turn off power to A/C]

The heat is unbearable and hiring a professional to make the repair can run you hundreds of dollars. HVAC experts say there is a common failure in AC systems that you can fix yourself. 

Blair Bodensteiner replaces A/C capacitors every day. 

"Sometimes I'll do seven before 11 a.m.," he said.

Bodensteiner has replaced so many with his business Bodensteiner Service, Inc, that he can make the repair in about five minutes. 

"It's quite simple," he said. "You just have to take the proper steps to make sure you're doing it correctly." 

Bodensteiner walked consumer expert Amy Davis through the steps so you can do it too. 

How to know if you need a new capacitor

  • The fan is not spinning on the unit outside, but you can hear a hum coming from the A/C. 
  • The A/C is on inside your home but the air coming out is not cool. 
  • A burned-out capacitor will sometimes have a bubble or round-shape on top instead of having a flat top. 

If you do need a new capacitor, you can buy one at an A/C supply store or online for about $20 to $40. Some A/C supply stores will only sell to licensed contractors, but some will sell to the general public. 

Bodensteiner said some HVAC companies charge a bundle to install  the part. 

"I've seen invoices from companies where they've charged $750 for the part, which is ridiculous," Bodentseiner said.

Depending on the type of capacitor, Bodentseiner Service typically charges between $180 to $220.

Buying the new capacitor

Look at the numbers on your old capacitor and buy one with the same capacitor voltage rating. Make sure the numbers match. 

Before you do any work, turn off your thermostat. 

Turn off the power to your A/C. You want to make sure your A/C is not holding a charge even after you've cut the power. If you begin work and there is still a charge, you could be electrocuted! You can buy a $20 volt meter at Home Depot to make sure there is no charge. A reading between 200 and 240 volts means it has power and you should not proceed.

Before you disconnect any wires from your old capacitor, take a picture of the wires and connections with your phone. You can use this as reference to put everything back together. 

The capacitor has three connectors on top where you will attach wires. There are multiple prongs or terminals on each connector. 

The connector at the top with four terminals is where you will attach the common wire. 

The connector on the bottom right with three terminals is for the hermetic. 

The connector on the bottom left with two terminals (sometimes there is only one terminal on this connector) is for the fan. 

Bodensteiner said you should make sure that the connections are tight. Then put everything back together and chill out in your cool home knowing you just saved hundreds of dollars. 

When you buy an A/C capacitor, it's a good idea to buy two. When it goes out again, you'll have one on hand. Once installed, Bodensteiner sometimes they last 15 years, sometimes they last a year. If a replacement is just sitting in your house it will never expire. 

About the Author:

Passionate consumer advocate, mom of 3, addicted to coffee, hairspray and pastries.