Back in the early 1980s as a service manager for a major HVAC distributor, I had been asked by an apartment management company to look at a problem it was having with a fairly-new A/C unit it had purchased. 

And they pointed out to me that this garden-apartment community still had most of its 20-year-old original units, which were mostly still operating quite well. So, why couldn’t the new unit survive its first two years of operation? Good question!

As the result, I looked around and checked several of the old units, and I found they were truly in surprisingly good shape, despite the fact that there was no indication or record of the units ever having been provided “routine maintenance.” 

And this caused me to wonder what had changed over the years. Was the longer life due to better material and parts in the old systems, or was I missing something?

Well, today I live in a retirement community that was built a couple of years after I looked at those old A/C units, and I notice that quite a few of these “newer systems” here are still operating, though they had been originally installed back in the mid-1980s. Meanwhile, several people who have replaced them are already having major service problems with the modern R410a A/C systems. Why?

Of course, the fact these local units had been installed in the 80s is a pretty-good indication that the short-life problem that I went to look at several years earlier wasn’t necessarily due to any change in the quality of the parts and materials. Rather, what seems to have changed is the quality of installation and servicing, and the active promotion of “routine maintenance” programs.

It’s a fact that the parts that go into modern A/C units are actually better today than they were back in the 60s, 70s or 80s. Scroll and rotary compressors are much better than the old reciprocating compressors, and sealed-lubrication fan motors are more reliable than the type that had to be oiled regularly. But still, as I hear every day from friends and neighbors, there is a reliability problem with these supposedly better units. Why?

I have a friend who sells equipment for a local supply house who claims that the problem is with the new refrigerant (R410a), because, he says, that he is aware no units made with the new refrigerant last any time at all. Yet, the R410a unit at my house is more than 10 years old, and it has no problems, other than with a small snake that crawled up and got stuck in the fan blade a year ago.

What is different about my unit? I watched it being installed and made sure that the system was properly evacuated, that no extra refrigerant (other than the installed charge) was added to the system, and I haven’t allowed anyone else to service or maintain it. 

No “foaming lye coil cleaners” have been used to destroy the condenser coil, and no one has contaminated the system with air or moisture, or overcharged it by connecting their gauges and “topping the charge off” (typical common maintenance procedures). Yes, it could fail tomorrow, but I doubt it.

What’s the point of this rant? As I tell my friends; the life of the system depends less on the brand of equipment than on the quality of the installation and servicing. 

And because people will usually never again buy a “lemon” brand, it is vital for all HVAC manufacturers and supply houses to do everything they can to improve the installing and servicing of their product among their customer base.

Also, you might choose to stop promoting the use of questionable servicing materials, such as foaming potassium hydroxide (lye) coil cleaners. Yes, they provide income, but they destroy systems. And our industry may someday be sued for manufacturing, selling and using such a destructive product.