The business of repairing air conditioning systems should be straightforward, but as more than a few technicians untrained in the fine art of cold air have found, it can be fraught with many problems.
Certainly there are some standard repairs that should pose few difficulties (a holed condenser or seized compressor for example), but even then a few unexpected hurdles have been known to arise.
With a view to getting some insight into this, I visited Sean Devine, owner of Maxwell Auto in Mississauga, Ont. and a long-time source for reliable air conditioning service information.
Appropriately for our discussion, we retired to the hottest possible location within his shop: a lunchroom on the mezzanine of his shop, uncomfortably close to a very steamy metal roof. “The sun really beats down on the roof,” says Devine. (I noticed.)
Seriously though, there are keys to Devine’s ability to have his people, and himself, able to repair air conditioning systems efficiently and effectively. That is easier said than done.
“With our techs, the number one is a fast diagnosis of systems. The techs have to have a straightforward, clearcut way to diagnose the systems. It has to not be guesswork.”
That is the battle. The tendency is to go straight to the typical repair.
“If it’s an Intrepid, it needs an evaporator. I won’t allow that here. Everything gets tested here, from the start to the finish.
“If system comes in empty or with a charge, what’s in it? There are so many blends out there.” Plus you need to guard against contaminants like air, and to know if there are sealants used in a system.
Devine says that he has changed his tune on blends over the years.
“What I pushed at the beginning, when it went from R-12 to R-134a, was no blends, no sealants. What I am finding now is that the old Corvettes and old Chrysler show cars that people are holding on to, what are we going to do for them?”
Devine says that some of these cars had marginal cooling systems anyway, and with the reduced cooling power of R-134a, the results suffered.
“I have found that retrofitting them just didn’t work. So, after 10 years of not pushing blends or alternative refrigerants on any vehicle, I have started using an alternative. I have found that it works well. It’s only about four or five cars a year for me, so it’s not a big number, but it is still a number that has to be dealt with.”
His big bugaboo, however is the ubiquitous O-ring.
“I find that it is almost insane to find a proper A/C O-ring assortment. [I wish] someone could come to me with an assortment with every seal and every O-ring that I need, properly labelled, and have a proper listing for it. I have to get my old Vernier caliper out and measure them.
“It is getting to be brutal. I have seven different kits, and I don’t have the ones I need.”
The biggest shortcoming is GM seals.
“GM has a washer-type seal with impregnated rubber for the compressors and condensers. Nobody has them in the kits. Please get me something that will fit!”
That is a void that he needs filled. (Big hint to jobbers here.)
Further to repairs and availability, and the jobbers supplying them, the quickest way to his heart is to have a strong inventory with catalogue resources at hand.
“Lately, it seems that A/C lines are becoming more of an issue than they used to be. Before, it was condensers and compressors and evaporators. There seem to be a lot more failures from rubbing up against things. There are crimps that aren’t holding, and leaking. There are a lot of A/C switches leaking.”
Those realities force him to be creative.
“Sometimes we can. We had a Ford Taurus SHO V8. I don’t blame the aftermarket for this one. It was, I think, a 1996. We couldn’t get the high-side line. It was in two pieces and we could only get one. So I ordered the next year as well. And it just so happened that that newer year had the line I needed.
“I was hoping that I could cut and weld and splice, but I got lucky in that I only had to unbolt it and put it on.”
He says that the spotty availability of parts such as this forces him to press counterpeople for more information and for some leeway in parts ordering and returns.
“I say okay, a year older, a year newer. Are they available? Can I return them? Send them all. Send me pictures. Usually I take it out of their hands and match it up. That helps me out immensely.”
He says that aftermarket jobbers tend not to want to send all the information in terms of pictures, or at least they don’t seem willing to pass it along.
It’s an old issue, but one that still ends up pushing him to buy from the dealer more than he would like. Still, there are exceptions.
“A case in point: the old Mercedes, in the early 1990s. The compressor was $1,400. I looked at it and noticed that it was a Tempo compressor but with a speed sensor. Guys didn’t want to spend the money, but the speed sensor on the back is for one thing: if the compressor seizes, it will shut off the compressor so it doesn’t burn out the belt. That’s the way it should be, but $1,400 is a lot of money.
“So I would sell them a Tempo compressor, bypass the circuit, and run a relay. I would charge them perhaps an hour and half extra on labour, but then they had cool.”
He says that it is important to look beyond the cut-and-paste solution. With a short season in Canada, being able to be innovative and provide a solution that complies with the existing provincial regulations that the customer is willing to pay for can make all the difference.
“If you have a failure in August and it’s a $1,400 repair, they say I’ll just wait.” At that point, taking on the service advisor role is important.
“If it’s a non-compressor failure, something like a condenser in the middle of August, I say that’s fine, but realize that if you have no refrigerant in there you’re most likely going to hurt the compressor. And if you hurt the compressor, come springtime, it’s the condenser and the compressor.”
And if you end up with all sorts of moisture and contaminants in the system, you can end up with a real mess.
“It’s the old ‘pay me now or pay me later.'”
One final tip to make life a little better: removing Ford spring locks.
“Those are a real problem to get off. What we learned to do was to put 150 to 200 psi of nitrogen in the system.”
Overall, what he looks for in a jobber, and what he expects everyone in his position to look for, is a reliable supplier.
“[I wish] the counterpeople and the jobbers could have a good supply so you don’t have to wait two hours for it. My main jobber does a fabulous job for me, but he’s shy on A/C. Another jobber close by is strong on A/C, so when summer comes, our business with him goes up considerably, because he inventories a ton. Time is of the essence for me.”
* Take a creative view. If the specific model, make, and year aren’t in stock, check other years for applicability.
* Be flexible. Sometimes parts can’t be guaranteed to fit so it may be necessary to ship everything and accept the return of some parts.
* Find sources for diagrams and images. This will help you and your customer determine the suitability of parts.
* Go the extra mile. A reliable source of information and parts will earn loyalty.