1999 Subaru Air Conditioner Nightmare

Okay, Car Talk community, I’m relying on you to solve my unsolveable problem!

I bought my second Subaru Outback, used, in 2006. It’s a 1999, and the history didn’t show any major problems, and it’s largely been a good vehicle to me. It currently has about 133000 miles on it and has all your standard old-car creaks, but nothing major. Except:

In 2010, I noticed that the AC wasn’t blowing cold, so I took it to my mechanic and asked them to check the refrigerant. They reported that the refrigerant was fine, but the compressor was dying. They said that was normal for a car with over 100,000 miles on it. They installed a new compressor, recharged the freon, and sent me on my way.

In 2011, I took a road trip from New Orleans to Asheville (about 700 miles). Just as we got there, the AC again stopped working. This time, I went to a very well-reviewed NC Subaru mechanic. He was wonderful and professional, and told me the compressor had died. I was still in warranty by one week! The battle with the last mechanic by telephone was horrible, and they refused to give me any information on where they’d gotten the compressor in the first place, which lead me to believe it might not actually have been a new compressor–or that it might have “fallen off the back of a truck.”

At any rate, the original New Orleans mechanics finally replaced the compressor again, did the vacuum and recharge bit, and said they’d tracked the underlying problem to a “short or bad” AC Relay. By this time, I really didn’t trust these folks, and I took the car with the intention of taking it to my New Orleans Subaru mechanic that I’d dealt with before. In the meantime, as a favor, the original mechanic installed a “jumper” to take the place of the relay.

Here’s where it’s my fault: I drove around with that jumper for almost a year. I’d pull it out if I were going on a long trip (>1 hr), because the AC would turn into a solid block of ice, since it wasn’t cycling. But as long as I was just piddling around town, I left the jumper in.

No surprise, then, that in late 2012, I stopped getting any cold air out of the AC. As the summer of 2013 approached, I took the car to my reliable local Subaru mechanic, who told me that, yes, the compressor had gone again, probably due to my overuse. I authorized the replacement, warning him that the underlying problem was the relay. He also told me that there was no evidence that the original New Orleans mechanics had a) flushed the system or b) replaced the filters, all of which could ALSO have contributed to the 2nd replacement compressor’s death.

The first compressor (3rd replacement) that the New Orleans Subaru mechanic put in seized up immediately, probably due to, in his estimation–surprise!–something bad electrical. When I asked if he could track it down, he said he could only do that by putting in ANOTHER compressor. We argued. He won. But, in the end, he put in another compressor (4th replacement), and another relay, and everything seemed fine.

In the summer of 2013, I drove from New Orleans to New York to pursue a doctoral degree. Halfway there, in deepest, darkest North Carolina, I stopped getting any cold air. When I opened the hood, the AC system was a solid block of ice. I let the system thaw, then tried to get back on the road without AC, only to find that the car would no longer operate smoothly and was starting to overheat.

I got towed to a very nice nationwide mechanic (Firestone, maybe?). They were absolute darlings and said that the compressor had seized due to some underlying electrical problem, but that, in addition, it looked like whoever had fixed it had Frankensteined the bejeezus out of it. In addition, the dramatic changes in temperature had then caused my spark plug seals (not using the right word, but that rubber protective ring part) to crack. I stayed overnight while they replaced the plugs. I told them not even to bother reconnecting the AC–take the whole thing offline so I can get to New York. They pulled the fuses.

The car has run fine ever since. But it’s HOT.

So, finally, a year later, it’s summer of 2014 and a friend cannot stop recommending this fabulous fabulous NY mechanic. So I take the car in. On all the other issues–brakes, a bad CV joint–he seems legit and helpful. But when it comes to the AC, he insists on starting by checking the refrigerant level (8 ounces short, $55), and then he tells me that I am supposed to have a one-plug compressor, but that the compressor installed is a three-plug compressor. In order to do this, the last mechanic I had has removed the female plug from the wiring harness and wired the compressor in by hand.

Now, this may or may not be the underlying problem. I have no idea how long the system has been electrical-taped together like that. But, again, this mechanic says he can’t diagnose the underlying problem without putting in ANOTHER compressor. I say, well, if the compressor goes, am I on the hook for it? And he says, no, we’ll return it as faulty and then dig around for the underlying problem. Well, why not dig around for the underlying problem NOW?

I am at my wits’ end. This will be replacement compressor #5, and the sixth in the history of the car. All I want is an electrical expert (I had one in New Orleans before Katrina, but, unfortunately, he never re-opened) to get to the bottom of whatever is blowing up my compressors! In one year, I will be driving from New York back to New Orleans in the heat of summer. I would rather not sit on a bag of ice the whole way.

Please, oh please, help me, Obi Wan Cartalk. You’re my only hope.

After all these compressors have seized, it’s quite likely that metal shards from broken compressor vanes have contaminated the entire AC system. Then when a new compressor is installed, the metal shards recirculate and destroy the new compressor.

So throwing another compressor in has about zero chance of working very long, IMO. The only real solution is to have ALL major system compenents replaced or decontaminated by someone who knows what they are doing and will warrant their work. But it will be very expensive. So expensive that you might seriously consider selling the car as is and buying one with working AC.

Then console yourself with the thought that sellling the Outback saved you from another expensive repair down the road when the head gasket starts leaking. :wink:

Ha! Love that bright, cheery outlook, jesmed.

IF (and I do mean IF) I decided to go through with the major system component decon/repair, where would I take the car? Is there such a thing as a reliable AC specialist? How do I find one?

Have you checked “Mechanics Files” above. Or ask friends and coworkers who they use.

Well, the only recommendation I got from a friend was the last place I went (not an AC specialist). I’ve talked to the Subaru dealership here; they want $115 an hour, one hour minimum, diagnostic not included–and not an AC specialist. And, yes, I checked the files, but there’s no one in my area.

Unfortunately, I’m a long way from home and don’t know a lot of people here. Finding not just a good mechanic, but a good specialist–if that’s what’s required–is tough for me.


Almost any compressor clutch can be hotwired. Clutch is simple. You send power to it, it engages. Yes it will not cycle on/off. Your ny mechanic will not/cannot do it to see if compressor can still pump? The system also has a pressure sensor that monitors pressure. If pressure is low, like in a leak situation, the compressor will not engage.

My NY mechanic doesn’t want to frankenwire the wrong compressor in, which would require purchasing a new, correct compressor.

At the very least, I would recommend sitting on a bag of ice all the way back to NoLa. If you get the AC “fixed” in New York and it conks out again after you’ve left, you have no recourse. Again.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I went and picked up the car today and got a full tour of the disaster area that is my AC. From missing relays to wires that have been tied off and go to nowhere…and then this mechanic feels pretty strongly that a flush will not solve the little metal filing problem and a full replacements of the condenser and accumulator are in order.

I can’t thank you enough for all the info and questions. I used almost all of it in my discussion with this mechanic, and I feel that I came away much better informed, and with a clearer understanding of what the problems are.

tl;dr: my darling Subaru is going to have to wait until next summer for the AC repair, if it happens at all. He’s in great shape, but the repair would cost half his street value, so it’s kind of a gamble. In the meantime: buying more cold drinks!

Thanks again, all–especially you, jesmed.

Fare thee well, SubaruGal!