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HVAC Tech Turned Wholesaler Salvages Compressor Burnout

Robert Allen is the vice president of the Johnstone Supply branch in Sacramento, Calif., as well as sister stores in Modesto and Stockton, Calif., and Sparks, Nev. He started his HVAC career as an HVAC technician. During his years in the field, Allen ran into what he called, “the compressor burnout from hell.”

That was his description of an inoperative two-ton package residential air conditioner. Allen’s task was to bring this compressor back to life. The question was, “Could he do it?”

TOTAL BURNOUT

The diagnosis first appeared like a routine compressor replacement. Allen’s recovery unit, however, went into a vacuum and automatically shut off. This typically suggests no refrigerant. Burnouts typically produce some light remnants of acid, soot, and carbon deposits, but when Allen removed the valve cores a black tar slowly oozed out of the system.

“I had serviced dozens of burnouts, but this was the worst case I had ever seen,” said Allen. “This was the kind of burnout where you throw your clothes away after the job because the smell can’t be washed out.”

While he initially gave the R-22/mineral oil system a slim chance of survival, the rental property owner’s limited budget made its replacement cost-prohibitive.

This compressor burnout occurred 15 years ago, soon after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the use of R-11 refrigerant flushing methods, and the new environmentally-friendly flushing agents had yet to be developed. Trying his best to revive the rental property owner’s compressor, Allen did what he could with nitrogen flushing, compressor replacement, filter/drier change-out, and system recharging.

Despite all his efforts, a critical concern was the potential for unseen residual acid remnants. His service manager suggested using a four-ounce bottle of Acid-Away®, manufactured by RectorSeal Corp., Houston. Acid-Away, which is a 20-year-old, third-party lab-tested acid neutralizer with more than 2 million applications worldwide, was stocked on his truck, but Allen had never used it.

“I was old school in those days; only oil and refrigerant should go into an air conditioning system,” Allen explained, “but if I had a couple of bottles of acid neutralizer stocked on the truck that day I would have used both on that system.”

Allen returned to the site with his service manager’s suggestion and the acid neutralizing solution. The system was fixed.

A year later, the same customer had a no-cooling service call. Allen suspected the system finally died a long, slow death from the burnout. It wasn’t another burnout though that rendered the system unfixable. Instead, it was a faulty fan motor resulting in an iced evaporator coil.

“Curiosity was killing me though, so I did an acid check,” Allen recalled. “The oil was clean, yellow, and looked brand new. From then on, I’ve been a believer in acid neutralizers.”

PROVIDING CUSTOMERS INFORMATION

Today as a wholesaler, Allen is quick to recommend acid neutralizers to service techs with burnouts.

As a service tech, he went from never using neutralizers to applying them regularly as a preventive measure, especially after an acid test proved positive. Allen and his counter people recommend it for any system with a hint of acid.

“We have a good rule-of-thumb, if you don’t know why the first compressor failed, the second one will probably fail, too,” said Allen.

Burnouts typically occur when acid develops in a refrigeration system and eventually attacks the compressor motor’s copper windings and other metal parts, according to Allen. Neutralizers, which are available in different formulas for mineral oil and polyolester oil systems, are miscible liquids that chemically change acids so they can no longer corrosively attack metals and cause future burnouts. They can be hand-pumped into the high side along with the oil, or poured into the compressor crankcase prior to system charging and start-up. Although dosage instructions come with each bottle, a general rule of thumb for acid prevention is one four-ounce bottle per two gallons of compressor oil. Extreme burnout instances might require two or three times more neutralizer than previously recommended. According to Allen and some equipment manufacturers, it’s impossible to put too much or damage any compressor parts with neutralizers.

“I’ve had customers that believe acid burnouts only occur in mineral oil systems, but the newer R-410A systems burnout too, because their POE oil absorbs moisture, which can develop into acid,” said Allen.

Besides burnouts, neutralizers can also be ideal as a preventive product. Third-party laboratory tests have proven neutralizers can reduce acid to 0.00 levels and maintain an acid-free refrigeration system.

As for Allen and his customers, if any of them question the acid neutralizer recommendation as a burnout clean-up step or as an acid preventative, Allen just tells them about “the compressor burnout from hell.”

SIDEBAR: COMPRESSOR BURNOUT REFERENCE CARD

When compressor burnouts happen contractors have to clean them up and it’s not a simple job. To help his customers, Robert Allen, a former service technician and now vice-president of the Johnstone Supply branch in Sacramento, Calif., recommends the following steps to his customers with burnouts. If this is something distributors want to help their customers with, this list could be posted, laminated on a card, or provided as a handout for those looking for some assistance.

• Remove any metering devices and filter/driers.

• Flush nitrogen through the system both ways to remove debris.

• Use a cleansing system flush agent to remove what the nitrogen couldn’t dislodge. Continue cleaning until the flushing agent eventually comes out clean.

• Pour a bottle of acid neutralizer into the compressor.

• Replace metering devices and filter/driers.

• Recharge and run the system.

• Perform an acid check.

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