Timberline Blog

How to Identify Commercial HVAC System Compressor Failures

August 23, 2021 by Timberline

Commercial HVAC systems have many components, but one of the most important is the compressor. It’s essentially the heart of the air conditioning function, continually transforming refrigerant from liquid to gas and back again in a cycle that produces the cold air used to cool a building.

air compressor unit maintenance

As every property owner or property manager knows, when the compressor fails, that’s a serious problem. Fortunately, HVAC system compressors rarely fail without warning. If you know and watch for the signs that a compressor is struggling, you can take action promptly to get the unit serviced and prevent extended downtime.

Look for These 8 Symptoms of an Ailing HVAC System Compressor

It’s said that “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In the case of an HVAC system compressor, that ounce of prevention comes in the form of periodically looking at, listening to and considering the performance of the unit.

It takes a little time to do this regularly, but that investment can save you a great deal of time, effort, and expense from dealing with a compressor failure and system shutdown.

Here are eight signs to look for:

  1. Unusual noises. A clicking sound or other unfamiliar noises when the compressor comes on can indicate that its motor mounts are worn out and allowing undesirable movement. Often, compressor failure isn’t far behind.
  2. Vibration during startup. Like unusual noise, excessive vibration when the compressor is activating can be a sign of impending failure.
  3. Warm air. If an air conditioning system starts putting out warm air, it’s possible that the compressor is unable to cycle enough refrigerant to generate proper cooling and that its failure is imminent. Note: Another possible cause here is a refrigerant leak.
  4. Reduced airflow. If an air conditioning system starts putting out less air than it previously had, that can be a sign of a struggling compressor.
  5. Difficulty starting. As a compressor gets closer to the failure point, it may struggle to start. Adjusting the thermostat may bring it to life in some instances. In other cases, the compressor simply won’t start.
  6. Circuit breakers being tripped. An overheating compressor can strain a commercial HVAC system and cause a circuit breaker to trip and shut the system down. This is an important safeguard that can keep a fire from starting.
  7. Continual operation. If an air conditioning system seems to be running continuously or nearly so, it may be a symptom of a compressor that is ready to give out.
  8. Moisture or puddles around the air conditioning unit. If your air conditioning system develops a leak, the refrigerant may pool in different areas. If all of the liquid leaks out, the compressor can overheat. And even if the system develops a small leak, people in the building may start experiencing eye irritation, coughs, nausea, or headaches.

The Consequences of a Failed Commercial HVAC Compressor

As a building owner or property manager, you’re probably a very business person. Consequently, it’s understandable that the condition of your HVAC system compressor isn’t a top priority. However, if the compressor fails, especially in hot weather, there are serious consequences you’ll be facing as the issue shoots to the top of your list. Those issues include:

  • Costly repairs. Servicing a compressor and/or replacing worn parts is much more cost-effective than doing a complete overhaul or replacing the unit altogether when it fails.
  • Unhappy tenants. Nobody likes spending time in a hot, muggy space—especially people who are paying for a comfortable, climate-controlled space. And if a tenant has to welcome their customer or potential customer into an uncomfortable environment, they will surely express their frustration with you. Plus, if mechanical issues occur too often, they may not be renewing their lease when it’s up.
  • Lost opportunities. It doesn’t take long for stories of long, hot days spent “sweating it out” as a compressor is repaired or replaced to get around to your potential tenants. All other things being equal between your building and another, if you have a reputation for ignoring preventative maintenance, a tenant is likely to sign a lease with the other owner.

The unfortunate thing if any of these scenarios should arise is that they can all be prevented. All you have to do is pay attention to your system and contact an HVAC expert if you notice any of the symptoms of a failing compressor.

And, the sooner, the better, of course. It’s highly unlikely that any of the symptoms above will miraculously resolve on their own. In some cases, they may continue unchanged for weeks or months, but you don’t want to bank on that. It’s very possible that a compressor might exhibit one or more symptoms for a very brief time before it fails.

Connect with a Commercial HVAC Leader

Just like preventative maintenance is a good idea, it’s never too early to connect with a skilled, experienced and trusted HVAC company. Waiting until you have a problem—or think you have one—can mean scrambling to find and vet providers. A better approach is to contact providers, find one with the expertise you need and with whom you have a good rapport, and add their phone number to your contacts.

If you have questions about the services we provide—everything from the design and installation of new heating and cooling solutions to the repair, servicing or upgrading of existing systems—or just want to get to know us a little better, we would be happy to talk with you. Contact Timberline Mechanical at your convenience.

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