1997 Sentra – is replacing AC condenser worth it?

So we recharged the AC only a couple of months ago, and it’s already running warm again. We took the car in for unrelated reasons, and the mechanic, at that time (about 6 weeks ago), recharged the AC again, this time including fluorescent dye to show the source of any coolant leaks.

Bad news today: he says the AC condenser is cracked, and replacement will cost about $600. I’ve gone to this mechanic for many years, and he’s never steered me wrong (no pun intended).

We were planning to keep the car a while longer: it may be 14 years old, but it only has 67,000 miles on it. Other than a couple of rust spots by the rear wheels, it’s been in good condition, and other than the AC issue, it’s in perfectly fine mechanical condition. Ideally I’d keep it another couple of years, until my student loans are paid off for good. We could afford to buy a new car, but would rather not have to – we like the budgetary wiggle room and have been throwing a chunk of extra money every month toward the mortgage.

So our choices are either recharging the AC every couple of months in hot weather, or fixing it for real. OTOH its resale value, already not much, will certainly be worse with semi-functional AC.

If you were us, would you fix it, or just limp along with the occasional recharge? Thoughts?

I would fix it or let it stay dead. I wouldn’t keep filling it. The leak will just get worse too.

I tend to run cars until the wheels almost fall off, so I’d spend the money (which isn’t all that pricey as car repairs go) and look forward to getting many more years out that car.

Some Nissans are like tanks. I had a 1985 Pulsar that was 19 years old when I junked it in 2004. If I’d been able to get a fair quote on replacing the brake lines, it might still be on the road today.


As long as the car is an effective grocery-getter, a broken AC isn’t going to do much to the value of the car. Someone’s not buying a used 97 Sentra from you because of its exotic looks or ultraplush luxuries, they want a car that goes from point-A to point-B reliably.

As far as whether to fix it, I’d be willing to bet there is a you-pick junk yard within a reasonable distance of you that would have a trashed out car with a functional AC condenser. A Nissan mechanic can likely tell you the part number for your condenser and what models you can find it on. Go to the junk yard with a ratchet set and a utility knife and you’re walking out with a condenser (of unknown reliabiity, but certainly not worse than what you’ve already got) for significantly less than $600.

If I’m going to fix it, I’m going to have it done with known parts by someone who knows what he’s doing. My whole issue here is reliability. I’d be less concerned if we weren’t about to take a 400-mile road trip in a couple of weeks.

FWIW, he didn’t seem at all worried about the road trip (or topping up repeatedly); he did say to top the fluids up as close as possible to the day we leave.

What do the recharges cost you (both in $$ and time)? Compare that to the $600 over two years. Add in something for however green you are relative to pumping the AC coolant into the environment.

Re: junkyard. Assuming you (or a friend) are mechanically handy enough to find and pull a compressor, find out the breakdown in your mechanic’s fee between parts and labor to see how much you’ll actually save yourself. If you’re willing to go for used parts - your mechanic may actually have a source also (which would presumably be somewhere between new and what the junkyard would charge you).

It’s entirely your call. It was just a suggestion.

I would get it fixed unless you are really broke. Also, how much are you paying to have the refrigerant topped up? You might actually save money in the long run by getting it fixed.

Recharge will run $50/per, plus schlepping to and from the mechanic. I don’t know anyone local who would be comfortable mechanically doing what you describe. (I do have a friend, but he’s 1200 miles away.)

So figure 1 charge for the rest of this summer, then 2 - 3 next summer if it doesn’t get worse.

Anyway, all food for thought - we will have to discuss when I get home from work. I’m not so worried about the AC for now as about the declining reliability of the car generally. We just did another $400-some in unrelated repairs a few weeks ago after it died in the Costco parking lot. The thing that made it die was just a corroded battery terminal, but I wonder when we are reaching diminshing returns.

Just my .02. With only 67K on the car, you are nowhere near that point yet, but summer is almost over, so you could probably get away with a recharge and revisit the situation next spring. Keep maintaining the safety-related stuff and defer the optional as long as practical, IMO. Do you have a timing chain or belt replacement interval coming up? That will be a bit pricy, and it’s not an elective service.

Regarding resale value two years down the road, doing the full a/c repair now will mean little given the car’s overall age, so it’s mostly a matter of comfort and convenience for you.

This is kind of the way we are heading right now, but I want to sleep on it. Last I remember, the mechanic said timing chain replacement is ~ 80k miles, and at our current rate, that’s a couple of years down the road. I’m just worried that the car has died maybe 3 - 4 times with no warning over the past couple of years, always for different reasons, so who knows? Which is pretty much what the mechanic said when I asked him what he would do - he kind of waffled.

Nosey question: would you pay cash for the new car? Otherwise, an interesting calculation is how many car payments various repairs would set you back - often, you’ll find that you’re only spending 3-4 months of payments on repairs. Now, reliability/getting stranded is another cost to figure in, and that’s of course subjective.

As others have suggested, 67K is not that many miles - although if they’re mostly short trip around the city, they’re harder on the engine. I’m not any kind of car guy, but assuming you’ve kept up on the oil changes, the engine should be good for a long time yet. Belts and hoses I think have both an age (being rubber) and a wear-and-tear component, but your mechanic should be able to give you a guess on those - and a general changeout of those shouldn’t be terribly pricey (compared to a new vehicle). Similarly, the transmission should also be good - if you know of a reliable transmission shop (our local Cottmann is good, but YMMV), they should be able to give it a once over (does anyone do courtesy checks any more?).

Also - your AC probably runs when your defroster is on (warm, dry air does a great job of taking fog off of the inside of your windows) - so you may need/want to keep it topped up even in the winter.

We would not pay cash for a new car, and the currently needed repair would be ~ 2 months of car payment, but who knows what else may be coming up? Our mechanic (and many other friends) have said there is just no way to tell - we’ve kept up with all routine maintenance and oil changes, etc., but most of our miles are city miles, and we live in a relatively harsh climate where the streets are heavily salted in winter, so corrosion is an issue. The reliability issue is a big one - we were left stranded in the Costco parking lot a few weeks ago, but that was just a cab ride from home. It would really suck to have that happen in, say, rural Ohio on our upcoming road trip.

FWIW in some locations it is illegal to top up a leaky system. Not an EPA regulation, but it can be a local one.
Also the price of R-134 is going UP. Way up. The last tank we bought at work was over 3X the cost of the previous tank.
Some shops around us are charging $3.00/ oz for R-134. Depending on the size of the system that could make a recharge about $200 with labor included. :eek:
Me? I would fix the leak.

I count my ‘diminishing returns’ as car payments. If I’m spending less than $200 a month in repairs, it’s still worth it (though, in practice, that would depend a lot on how regularly things broke, not just the money).

But, there is an age at which taking an old car on long road trips becomes a gamble. I take my '99 Corolla with ~180k to my dad’s house (less than 300 miles away) without fear, but I wouldn’t drive it to Chicago again (1000+ miles).

Last summer my girlfriend’s car broke down (permanently) in Indiana on I-90, basically in the middle of nowhere, at 5:30 in the afternoon on a Friday. After a tow, 70 mile cab ride to Toledo, a hotel room, and a one-way rental from there to Vermont, I will think very carefully about any long road trips and the condition of my car.

I’d keep the car, repair the A/C, and rent a car for long trips. For your daily driving needs the car is just fine, and a new car would be expensive. If, as you say, fixing hte A/C would be about 2 months of car payment, and you don’t really have to do that for another 8 months or so (beginning of next summer), it makes sense to keep the car.


I think you should replace the condenser because it might be easier to do the big fix than schlep in every so often for more coolant. I have a 97 Pontiac Grand Am.

Does the OP need a condenser (looks like a small radiator and located at the front of the car) or a compressor? (lumpy round thing driven by a belt) If it’s the condenser, can it be brazed, or must it be replaced?

Either way, I’m not sure it’s legal for people to open refrigerant lines if a system hasn’t been “vampired” and the refrigerant removed. I think most you-pick places take care of this, if only to prevent fools from intentionally releasing refrigerant and making that ozone hole a bit bigger. I’d be really leery of a used compressor - you have no way to tell if one is any good until after your AC tech has cleaned it, installed it, pumped down the system, put in the refrigerant charge and fired it up. If you picked a dud, you’re out a pile of labor and a bunch of expensive refrigerant.

Not coolant, refrigerant. Coolant goes into the engine’s cooling system (radiator etc.) and keeps the engine from melting. Refrigerant goes into the A/C system and keeps people from melting. :smiley:

It’s the condenser, which has a crack in it (see post #1). Compressors don’t crack, and cost more than 600 (more like 1000) to replace at a shop. Condensers are made from aluminum and are not feasibly repairable.

ETA: Forgot this part: “Either way, I’m not sure it’s legal for people to open refrigerant lines…” There are no EPA regulations prohibiting individuals from opening the system and dispersing the refrigerant. There are regulations prohibiting repair shops from doing so – shops must have and use refrigerant reclaiming equipment.