Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

A/C out on '97 Honda Civic--what's the worst case scenario?

I have a '97 Honda Civic w/ about 168k miles, am hoping to get at least another year or two out of it before I go looking for a used Honda Fit or something similarly budget-minded to replace it. I just ran the A/C on cold for the first time this season (I realize I was running it all winter when I defrosted the windows), and it was clearly not working, just blowing hot air. Now, the last time I had anything done with the A/C was in 2005, when I was in a minor accident and the very nice mechanic flushed it and replaced the freon (if I have that right) for no extra charge in the course of uncrumpling the front of the car for me. Which brings up two issues: 1) I no longer have a trustworthy mechanic where I live, and have had much difficulty finding one, and 2) the car already has a salvage title so is worth about $500 max. Now, obviously it is worth more than that to me, since it will still be cheaper to fix than get anything else, but I have the impression that A/C repair could get quite expensive, and it is enough to make me wonder if I could afford the monthly payment and insurance increase on that used Honda Fit…so, just wondering if anyone can give me a ballpark range of how bad the damage might be, so I will have an idea if any future estimates I receive are wildly inflated, and how seriously I should consider that Fit. Thanks so much!

Might just need a recharge. If you can pump up your tires, you can use an a/c recharge kit–costs about $25 at WalMart or any auto parts store. I used to have the same car. Takes under 5 minutes.

If that doesn’t work, do you live somewhere that rolling down the windows is an option?

I have 94 civic with 300 K, every year (in fall-for bigger discount) I get a can from Target of 134a recharge fluid and have a/c working great all year. Try it, super easy-follow directions on the can.

Worst case scenario is the compressor is gone, a new one needs to have a new condenser as well. That will run some pretty big $$$, perhaps $500+ depending on where you live.

It could be many other less expensive things. The AC switch went bad on my '03 Civic and that was less then $100 to troubleshoot and get a new one installed. A new recharge is of the refrigerant is common and not a big deal.

I dont like the term that it may just need to be recharged. If it needs to be recharged there is a problem. It is a sealed system that should never need anything. If it needs coolent something in it is broken and needs to be fixed. A recharge will not fix the problem. Finding out why it no longer works…compressor, pulley, valves, evaporator, etc…needs to be fixed and then it needs to be recharged and possibly filled with new compressor oil, if that is gone its a bigger problem. You need to find the problem. Could be a cheap fix could be replacing a major part of the system. A recharge could work as a temp fix but its going to stop working again sooner or later until you find why it needs to be recharged.

Friedo82 is spot on. A/C systems are designed to be closed systems, although I have heard discussions from service advisors that have said that a recharge is to be expected every so often. I do not agree with this philosophy. If the system needs recharging on a routine periodic basis, then there is a defect that needs to be addressed. But, you have managed to get 7 years usage since the last situation. If you go to a mechanical shop, the system will be charged/leak tested/visually inspected for conditions and you will know exactly what you are dealing with. A reasonable fee would probably be $100-$200 for materials and labor for this service. Repairs could very easily exceed the value of your vehicle. Use the mechanic’s files on this website to help you find a reputable technician in your area. Also, call the BBB in your area and see if they have any recommendations.

Yep, recharging kits are sold to make money, not to actually solve your problem. With the car at this age and money being an issue, I would cut the A/C belt off and live without it. Of course if you live in a place like Florida or Arizona, this is easier said than done.

Get an estimate then decide.

Personally I would never drive a car without working AC even in NorthEast. I have owned some beaters over the years(albeit luxury).

Worst case scenario the compressor suffered a catastrophic failure and will need to be replaced, plus the whole system flushed out and the receiver/dryer replaced. Maybe $1,000 or more depending on where you get it done.

Best case, it has slowly lost enough of its refrigerant charge over time that it will no longer operate and just needs to be topped off. $100 or so if you have someone do it, or $20 if you get one of the cheap recharge kits. If you’ve never worked on AC systems before and don’t understand how they work, I’d strongly recommend that you have someone do it for you, and not the AC service at Jiffy Lube.

Agree: A/C is a sealed system and if the coolant has leaked out, you need to find the leak and not just “recharge”. If the system has been “empty” for a long time, then air and moisture could well have gotten into the system which will turn the freon acidic if merely recharged. It needs to be evacuated, probably have the dryer replaced, and that’s to say nothing of actually finding the leak.

Disagree: While the compressor is the most active component in the system, I don’t think it’s the most expensive replacement. The evaporator is not as expensive, but it is a lot more difficult to replace - so the part may be less, but the labor will be higher (think $1500 or so).

Also, with a car this age it will probably be charged with R-12 and not R-134. I don’t think that R-12 can be purchased legally by anyone but a certified professional since there are specific environmental bans against venting it to the atmosphere.

As a '97 it will be on R134a rather than R12.

I have used the DIY recharge kits. While it is true that it is a bad strategy in the long term, AC work is excessively expensive for what it is and its very difficult to find a shop that has something other than the machinery for servicing the refrigerant - i.e. perhaps one where there are people with actual expertise in AC systems as opposed to just some half baked training with operating the machinery. The last time I had an AC system issue I brought to a shop that I thought should be able to handle it. Well, they just charged me over $100 to recharge the system & said they couldn’t anything wrong. They obviously didn’t know b/c it took 2 visits there, and then about $500 at another shop to actually find & fix a leak.

Frankly, if it hits the beginning of summer & I have a lack of A/C, I can spend $20-30 on refrigerant, add it, and then I know whether my issue is just refrigerant loss. Then, after that I can tell how bad the leak is by how long the AC functions. And…if I picked up a can of refrigerant with dye in it, I can also find the dumb leaks myself. This will not allow me to properly repair the system. I don’t have the equipment for that. But it does not leave me completely at the mercy of the bumbling fools I can’t seem to avoid in the A/C service world.

On a newer car that you know you want to own for really long time, you just find your best local AC shop and have them fix it. On a 16 yr old car creeping up on 200K miles, other things might make sense.

Then there’s the oh no scenario where a forklift runs into the car at the shop. Then the body shop puts the car together and the lights never work right after that. You look at the underdash wiring and hit your head on the rear view mirror, severely cracking the windshield. You then get out with a small cut on your head, slam the door and lock the only set of keys in the car. The locksmiths brakes then fail and he breaks the power pole and puts the lights out in your neighborhood for five hours. You call 911 for help and inadvertently dial a 900 number in Surinam which costs you $450. The AC was fixed for $79.95.

First things first . . . what happens when you turn the AC on? I know that you said it “just blowing hot air” . . . but what actually happens? Is the AC light on in the dash? How about the compressor . . does it click on or off when you activate the AC button? What about the cooling fans? Do they switch on when you turn on the AC? Before I recharged the system for $25 I’d make sure that everything worked. The recharge will be a waste of $$ if you find a non-working compressor or something else. We have a '95 and I’m looking for a junkyard compressor 'cause I can’t get it to switch on with the dash button. The '95 always had a compressor “click on” noise when you turned the AC on and always had one fan come on at the same time. I’ll bet your '97 is similar. Good luck! Rocketman

The problem with trying to check the compressor is that if the system is too low on refrigerant the compressor won’t come on at all. So you could find no compressor activity and no AC light and no cooling fans, but that’s b/c the low pressure switch won’t allow any of it to activate.

The only way to check the compressor operation independently of anything else is to hot wire 12V to it. Most people aren’t going to do that.

That’s what I mean Cig . . . hotwire the compressor just to make sure it spins I think that when the compressor runs the second cooling fan will come on. You could hotwire that too just to make sure it works, but not critical (yet) to the AC system, I’d make certain that the compressor works first. Rocketman

Thanks for your comments everybody! You have convinced me that there is a reasonably good chance that the recharge will be sufficient to get me through another year or two, for a reasonable price. Since I am not very experienced with car repair and don’t have a family member or friend who can guide me through it, I’m going to bring it in to a mechanic who has a good reputation, so I’m pretty comfortable that he at least won’t try to charge me for anything unnecessary (doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be expensive, though!). He’ll do the recharge and the dye, and then hopefully it will just be a minor leak and I can get by without a major fix. If it is a major leak, well, then I will have some soul searching to do! Thanks again for the feedback!