DennisBeaverAugust 11, 2012 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

In August of 2008, Christina Couture of Hanford spent close to $9,000 for two energy-efficient Tappan air conditioner units. Less than four years later, both failed because the refrigerant leaked out of the evaporator coils, which are made from copper tubing and aluminum fins.

While the manufacturer’s warranty covered parts, Christina was responsible for labor costs totaling $1,200.

The air conditioners she replaced worked well for more than 15 years, so when these new units failed so soon, her curiosity turned to a feeling of being ripped off by an entire industry when she learned thousands of homeowners across the country are experiencing identical failures — often within two to three years after installation — and it didn’t seem to matter who manufactured the A/C.

Christina thought the customer service people at Nordyne, which manufactures Tappan and many other brands of air conditioners, would be willing to reimburse her for the labor charges in view of these obviously defective, leaking copper/aluminum evaporators. “But the person I spoke with refused help in any way, claiming they didn’t have to as it was a parts-only warranty,” she said.

“Why did the system I replaced work fine for so many years, and this new one fail so soon?” she asked. “Can manufacturers legally shield themselves with parts-only warranties on products with an abnormally high, premature failure rate?”

A lot of people all over America are asking the same questions.

Virtually all manufacturers affected the same way

“The failure of these evaporators is an industrywide problem that affects virtually all manufacturers the same way,” Stephen Stout, president of Hanford-based Kennies Indoor Comfort Specialists, told You and the Law.

“You rarely had a leak in older systems which used R-22 Freon. But federal law required a change to R-410, and after A/C units using it came onto the market around 2006, that’s when the problems developed.”

“There has to be a link,” Stout maintains. “Why are so many copper/aluminum evaporator coils failing on multiple brands of equipment manufactured around the same time? We first noticed the problem in 2010, having an unusually high number of failures, and it was absolutely obvious in the summer of 2011. The industry had to know no later than 2010, yet are still sending out replacement parts exactly like the defective coils, and they generally refuse to cover labor charges.

“Customers are upset, knowing that something is very wrong, and expect the manufacturer to step up to the plate, but that is not happening. Until the industry finds a fix, my advice to anyone looking to replace an A/C is that you need to know what not to buy and to ask the right questions.”

What is the evaporator made of?

Modesto-based Mitchell Bailey, president of Bailey’s Heating and Air, Inc., has been sounding the alarm and “hoping for federal action or a major class action lawsuit” to help protect the thousands of homeowners who are out millions of dollars because of this problem the industry has closed its eyes to.”

“Until the industry finds a fix for these leaks, here is my advice to anyone looking to replace an A/C unit:

1) All-aluminum evaporators are resistant to the corrosion we are seeing. That’s what you want in your A/C.  Some manufacturers are making internal changes, developing coatings or other protective measures for copper/aluminum evaporators, but until we know for sure, try to avoid copper.

2) If you must buy an A/C with a copper/aluminum evaporator, strongly consider also purchasing the 10-year parts and labor warranty that most manufacturers offer.

3) See if your selling dealer will agree to a fixed labor price as part of the contract that is well below what would normally be charged should the evaporator or other parts fail within the time frame of the manufacturer’s warranty on parts.

‘I know when your older system is going to fail’

“While we all want energy efficiency, you do not want all the savings to go for repairs of a new, failure-prone system,” Stout notes, adding:

“Regular service  prolongs the life of an A/C. A technician takes amp reading, observes the condition of the coil, looks for evidence of oil leaks or excessive debris which can be cleaned off. Are the bearings starting to show wear? Are the amps rising? Can we handle repairs now while the warranty is still in effect?

“But if replacement is becoming necessary, regular service allows us time for research and comparison shopping.

“I can tell you, almost to the day, when your system is going to fail. It will be on the hottest or coldest day of the year. But I just don’t know what year,” the 30-plus year Hanford A/C veteran told us with a broad smile.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.