Cars are awesome, until they’re not. Or...., they get way too hot.
I call it the absence of malice problem: I only notice something is wrong because I take for granted how often everything is right. Turn the key and go; it’s what we demand of today’s cars, and it’s what we overwhelmingly get.
When things do go awry, it’s always interesting to see how people cope. When your brakes go from spongy to making that funny grinding sound, you immediately call your mechanic. If the engine suddenly starts cutting out, or a tire blows and you thwap to a halt by the side of the road, same thing.
But if your air conditioning starts blowing hot air, you do other things. You punch the dash; you adjust the little vents. You jam away at the settings. You turn it off and turn it on again. And again. Then you leave the car in the driveway overnight, and go out the next day and actually believe it might be OK, like it just needed a little rest so it could become air conditioning again.
Back in the day, my Dad didn’t believe in air conditioning, so we stuck to the plastic seat in the back of the station wagon, our small legs requiring skin grafts when we tried to move. There was a choice, of course. We could sit on a blanket instead; the temperature at sweltering levels, and we could pick between itchy wool and molten plastic. We’d fight over the windows and stick our heads out like puppies, which was fun until Mom and Dad did up their windows and my father would yell “buffeting!” and make us close them. I liked that sound, the suction of air that whumped around the interior of the car, making me think this was what outer space must sound like. Children without air conditioning develop excellent imaginations.
Very basically, your car’s air conditioning system is made up of three major components: the compressor, the evaporator and the condenser. There are lots of hoses, tubes, valves and sensors connecting them all. A technician has to figure out where the leak is occurring, and will pressurize the system with nitrogen to find out.
Find the leak, fix the problem, easy. Sort of. All of the parts of that system are the same age, which means if one goes, why shouldn’t the others? Finding the leak and replacing one is zero guarantee that you can’t develop another leak in another part in a week or a month. Generally, an A/C refrigerant recharge will return a well maintained system to good working order. In the event the system will not hold a vacuum a full system refit may be required to get back that arctic air back.
The theory on expensive mechanical repairs to older vehicles is pretty simple: if a car you trust has cost you little in recent years and needs a couple grand to keep it going for another year or two, that's cheaper than new car payments while you take some time to consider your next purchase - you go for it. AC repair can often be more of a budget choice.