Jay Kline, general manager of Penguin Air, takes you through some tips and advice for having your AC units make it through the heat of the summer.
Patrick Breen/The Republic

The thought of enduring late-summer heat without air-conditioning is grim. It’s typically a burden on the bank account. It’s often exhausting to coordinate repairs. And it can be life-threatening for people who are elderly or ill.

Fourteen out of 23 confirmed heat-associated deaths this year in Maricopa County have been indoors, according to a report from the county’s Department of Public Health. Last year, around 80 percent of indoor heat-associated deaths involved people who did not have functioning air-conditioning or did not have their units turned on. Some units were blowing hot air.

READ MORE: Arizona’s heat is getting worse and it’s killing people

“Losing your air-conditioning is deadly in Arizona,” said Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, a medical director at the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. “Once the temperature gets in the 90s and is above the body’s natural temperature, it’s unable to cool itself.”

So, what do you do if your air-conditioner breaks down in the summer in Arizona?

Watch for signs there is something wrong with your AC unit

Jay Kline, general manager of Penguin Air and Plumbing in Phoenix, said a good way to test if a unit has issues is by monitoring whether it can keep your house consistently at 78 degrees.

“It should always be able to bring it down to that 78,” he said. “If it can’t do that, that’s definitely a warning sign that there’s something going on.”

Other warning signs, according to Kline:

  • Be on the lookout for any unusual noises coming from your unit outside. Sometimes a fan that’s about to go out will suddenly become noisy.
  • If your air-conditioner isn’t blowing cold air, just cool air, you might be running out of refrigerant. Your unit might not die, but it will likely have to run more often to cool your home, costing you more.

Before calling the repair company and panicking, make sure you’ve checked your electrical breakers and the batteries in your thermostat.

Practice proper maintenance 

Kline recommends getting an air-conditioner tuned up twice a year: once in the spring before temperatures start to tick up and once more in the winter or fall before you switch to using your heater.

“That way, if it’s any small issue like a capacitor or if it’s a little bit low on Freon, we can catch that upfront and get it taken care of before it causes a failure in the middle of the summer,” he said.

READ MORE: The Arizona heat is killing people. Just how many? That’s in dispute

Changing filters — as often as every 30 days or even more frequently — is critical in the summer for proper air flow.

“It’s the lungs of the air-conditioner,” Kline said.

Understand the costs when the AC completely conks out

A few common issues Kline sees every summer: capacitors and condenser-fan motors that fail in extreme heat and units low on refrigerant.

The cost of a repair can range from a few hundred dollars to over $1,000, Kline said:

  • A capacitor replacement can cost anywhere from $100 to $350.
  • Fan motors range from $500 to $600 and even carry price tags of over $1,000 on higher-end units.
  • Freon gets significantly more expensive if your unit takes R-22 refrigerant, a type that’s being phased out by the Environmental Protection Agency because it’s considered an “ozone-depleting substance.” These days, according to Kline, HVAC professionals are calling it “liquid gold”.

The average life expectancy of an air-conditioning system in Phoenix is 12 to 14 years, Kline said. Any system more than 10 years old requiring a major repair, one that would cost more than a thousand dollars, may warrant a replacement. A new air-conditioning system is vastly more expensive, anywhere from $7,000 to $25,000.

Financing programs may help some families, but some may be living in more desperate situations and be tempted to endure the rest of the summer with no air-conditioning. Public health officials advise against that.

Countywide and city emergency funds could help bridge the financial gap for repairs, said Richie Taylor, a spokesman for Maricopa County Human Services. It’s best to check with your individual city to see what kind of programs they offer, which usually determine eligibility based on income.

“The county is ready to help in any way we can,” Taylor said.

Be careful if you have a home warranty or are considering buying one

The devil is in the details when it comes to purchasing a home warranty, according to Stephen Briggs, an Arizona Department of Insurance spokesman. The department has received 41 complaints related to home warranties so far in 2017, though Briggs did not know how many of those complaints were due to problems in replacing or repairing air- conditioning units.

Briggs said issues often arise over home warranties when consumers don’t read the fine print in their contracts. Often, they will then be surprised when a company declines to replace a broken unit if maintenance records weren’t properly kept. If a unit is located on the customer’s roof, some companies may also not cover the cost of a crane to install a unit.

READ MORE:Arizona will suffer more as climate change makes the world hotter

“They’re (home warranties) good if you understand your contract,” he said. “They’re bad if you haven’t read your contract.”

Briggs also recommends reaching out to the Arizona Department of Insurance consumer-affairs division for problems with a home warranty. The phone number for that department is 602-364-2499.

If you’re renting, you have rights

For most renters, getting an air-conditioner fixed is a call away, but a situation can get dire fast when landlords refuse or ignore tenants’ calls for repairs.

Every renter has the right to a working air-conditioner, according to the Arizona Residential Landlord and Tenant Act. Individual cities, too, have ordinances that can protect renters with broken units.

Bret Rasner, a senior staff attorney at Community Legal Services in Arizona, said he often hears from renters with broken air-conditioning systems during the summer. Occasionally, landlords are as financially strapped as their tenants and cannot afford a repair.

The legal remedies for inadequate cooling may require money paid upfront, if, for example, renters decide to pay a repairman themselves or go to a hotel.

“Documenting what they’re doing is very important as far as timelines, proving cost and proving that the work is done,” he said.

Before calling a company for a repair or going to a hotel, tenants should consult the law and follow it exactly. For most remedies, tenants have to give written notice to a landlord giving them reasonable time to address a problem before taking other actions.

Community Legal Services offers a step-by-step manual for renters explaining what steps they should take if their air-conditioner breaks.

And in the meantime?

If you have the option, get out of the house, and stay somewhere else while the unit is not working. Fans can only do so much; they are useless once your home heats up to the temperatures in the 90s, according to Sunenshine.  

“If you do stay in your home, you need a portable air-conditioner or a swamp cooler,” she said.

READ MORE:Throwing shade to help beat the heat

She recommends staying with family or friends while the air-conditioner is being repaired, requesting a portable unit from a repair service or heading to a city cooling station, like a library or other locations found at

“If your AC isn’t functioning for more than a couple of hours, you need to go to an air-conditioned space,” Sunenshine said. 

Environmental coverage on and in The Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow the azcentral and Arizona Republic environmental reporting team at OurGrandAZ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


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