How One Twig Almost Costs Us Thousands Of Dollars

We went for our (as of now) final camping trip of the season a week ago Friday.  It’s a typical fall in Michigan, where the weather was hot and steamy when we left on Friday, but cold by the time we returned on Sunday.

As we were running around to get everything ready, it was downright uncomfortable in the house.  The temps were only in the low 70′s, but the humidity was stifling, made all the worse when you’re running up and down stairs and in and out of the camper to get everything packed.

I decided that even though we’d be leaving in a couple of hours, there was no reason to exhaust ourselves, and that I was going to turn the air conditioner on.

mb-201309acOur standard temperature setting for the AC is 74 degrees.  When I turned it on, the temp was 76, so I knew that it would run, and probably just long enough to provide some cool down, but more importantly, some relief from the humidity.

I turned it on and at first everything seemed pretty normal as the house seemed to be cooling down, but it wasn’t too long at all (maybe 15-30 minutes), when I noticed something was amiss.

When the system is running, you can feel the cool air throughout the house as it’s coming out.  You don’t necessarily feel the flow, but you can just tell it’s getting cooler.

I wasn’t getting that feeling.  I walked over to the thermostat and saw that it was now 77 degrees.  Yes, the temperature had gone up from when we turned it on.  This is not good, I thought.

I went over to one of the registers to see what was coming out, and it was blowing pretty warm air.  Definitely not cool at all.

Yet I could hear the system running.  The blower was running in the basement, and at first I thought maybe it was at the end of a cycle, where the system turns off the compressor and runs the blower for another minute or two.

Nope.  I could hear the compressor running too (it’s loud).   Something was definitely not right.

I went over to the laundry room window, where you can see the compressor, and I could see right away that the blades weren’t moving.  I don’t much about how they work, but I know it draws in air from the sides (which is why you have to keep the coils free of dust) and blows it up as the powerful fan runs.

Except the fan wasn’t running.

I ran over and turned the system off, and both the compressor and the blower shut down.

I went outside to see what was going on and two things hit me at once.

  1. The unit was hot – I imagine that the system was trying to cool, but without the air flow, it was getting very hot.  The outside of the unit was warm to the touch (not hot), and you could just smell heat.  It had definitely been on its way to overheating before I caught the problem.
  2. There was a stick coming right out of the grate that was also sticking down into the path of the fan.  It was just big enough to stay wedged in there, and I’m guessing it was just thick enough to impede the progress of the fan.  We have some trees in the area, and the chances of it landing exactly where it did and pointing down and everything else were so slim that I couldn’t help but shake my head in disbelief.

I easily pulled the stick out, and then decided to wait for the unit to cool down.  After waiting a while, I turned it back on, and the compressor started working properly.  Fan and all.

And cool air started coming through the system.

We were home for a few more hours before we left for our trip, and the system cycled on and off several times, and each time had no problems.

Before I found the stick, I had visions of having to replace the entire system.  The entire heating and cooling system is original to the house, which was finished in 1999, so it’s just about 15 years old.  I don’t know if it’s bunk or truth, but they say that most ‘original’ systems generally last 10-15 years.  I’m guessing that the builders don’t put in the top of the line stuff.  I also know from having talked to enough people who have had systems replaced that if you replace one part (either the furnace or the compressor), you are better off replacing both.  So, I was adding up in my head how much this was going to cost, how we were going to pay for it, and the rest.

Then, I found the stick.

Now, I’m hoping that the thing did not in fact overheat, in which case it might have done some damage that will likely shorten it’s life, chances best of failure on the first 95 degree day we get next summer.  I did find it weird that it allowed itself to get as hot as it did without having some sort of shut off.

Would it have burned itself out?  I don’t know.  I’m glad I was home and alert enough to avoid having to find out.

Now we just have to keep our fingers crossed that it was a one time thing and that it didn’t cause any long term damage.

Bonus Story

As mentioned, the weather changed during the trip, and by the time we left, it was freezing cold.  We have a couple of plug in heaters that we use when necessary, and we had one going as we were packing up.  I was taking the bedding off, and elbowed one and it toppled from the table to the floor…and stopped working.

We paid $25 for a set of two at Target.  I suppose karma was with me to have some sort of broken heating/cooling system, so I guess I’ll take the space heater getting busted over the air conditioner compressor burning out.

Readers, have you ever had a one in a million type event almost cost you big bucks?  What are some of your near misses (or maybe you weren’t so lucky)?

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25 thoughts on “How One Twig Almost Costs Us Thousands Of Dollars

  1. Good thing you saw that twig! A few years ago we were renting a house that the landlord allowed to fall into disrepair. The only cooling unit was a window air conditioner which really wasn’t enough to cool the entire house during summers that reached 100-degrees. One summer, the unit went out and we had to replace the whole thing (we didn’t want to wait for him to do it, we would have been miserable). Thankfully, the unit itself was under $350. I’m pretty sure that had it been a central A/C unit, we would NOT have replaced it!
    Little House recently posted..The Heat and the Home: Why Solar Panels Are a Good IdeaMy Profile

    • I’d pretty much assumed our emergency fund was going to be drawn to zero when I thought it was going to have to be replaced. Of course I’m still not convinced this won’t happen anyways.

  2. That’s always a relief when you find something like that. For me it’s usually something with appliances, like finding a dryer vent pipe clogged so that clothes aren’t drying, or something like that. Good job troubleshooting!
    FI Pilgrim recently posted..The High Price of FanaticismMy Profile

    • My wife says the space heater might actually have started working again, so it may be that we dodged two bullets. I left those in the camper, though, so I can’t verify this just yet!

  3. Wow, nice catch! I can’t think of anything specific from my own life, but it kind of felt that way with my old car, which seemed to have something important break every few months. I mean, it was a Honda Civic with only 140k miles. Aren’t those things supposed to be invincible? I guess I got the one that wasn’t.
    Matt Becker recently posted..How to Do an Oil Change for Your Car (Part 2)My Profile

    • Yeah, I think hot water heaters are shot when they start leaking water all over the floor, otherwise it seems there are fixes available that can extend their life.

  4. Yeah, it sounds like you might have dodged a bullet with your old compressor overheating until it stopped working. I am really paranoid about my air conditioning system going out. I am always feeling the vents and checking my compressor for any problems when the a/c is on. The outside unit is only 3 years old but the inside unit was built in 1997 and I know it’s days are numbered.
    zimmy@moneyandpotatoes.com recently posted..What Grinds My Gears : Elected Officials In Washington D.C.My Profile

  5. I hate that initial feeling when you realize there might be a repair that could lead to a big budget expenditure. Great that it was something minor. Our air conditioners are near the exterior exhaust vent for our dryer. So I’m always checking those for lint buildup.
    Brian @ Luke1428 recently posted..Even Jesus Had a Side Hustle?My Profile

    • Yes, ours is a few feet away as well. I always check the line once a year, and I also check the little flap as the lint actually causes it to stick open over time, which is letting cold air into the dryer (and thus into the house) during the winter.

  6. That was a fortunate turn of events. I had a similar situation with our car’s AC this summer. On one of the hottest days of the year, it just stopped working. The car is fairly new too and so for the AC to go out was surprising. After driving across the city in 100 degree heat with no AC, I took some time to fiddle with the controls and it miraculously started working again. It’s been fine ever since.

    At least for you, this event put the fact that your AC is aging on your radar. You can adequately plan for replacement cost and in the meantime hope it keeps on running for a super long time.
    Mr. Utopia @ Personal Finance Utopia recently posted..Life is Not a RaceMy Profile

    • We just did a new roof this spring so our ‘big house project’ fund is currently depleted, though I realize that the HVAC system is probably next. I’m just hoping it can stick around for a few more years to let us save up!

  7. Eeek! That could have been a disaster, so glad you found the stick in time. Nothing major like that has happened to us, but we have got a gas boiler in our old home (which we’re currently renting out) that is very temperamental. I am dreading the day I get the call from the tenants to say that it’s packed up because we can’t afford a new boiler right now. After Christmas, I want to top up our emergency fund to cover it should the worst happen. Fingers crossed it won’t break before then!
    Hayley @ A Disease Called Debt recently posted..Friday’s Fab Links #11My Profile

    • We have some mature trees and lots of squirrels that like to sharpen their teeth, so sticks and twigs are common. It just happened to be the right size stick, land the right way, and in the right spot to cause this situation.

  8. A twig also caused me much grief a few years ago, except instead of getting stuck in the A/C unit, it had gotten stuck in the downspout, causing a huge clog. Now debris getting caught in the gutter is not unusual, and should be expected, but this happened while I was out of town, and when we got one of the biggest storm systems I had ever witnessed. The clog turned into the gutters backing up which turned into a waterfall down the side of my foundation, which turned into an inch of water on my newly installed laminated floor. I was not a happy camper when I got home and saw all the damage that a twig had caused :(
    thepotatohead recently posted..Financial Show Review : Shark Tank Season 5 Episode 3My Profile

    • I have a section of gutter that’s in the same vicinity as the A/C unit, and if I don’t keep a piece of gutter guard over the downspout, it will overflow and wash out the dirt adjacent to the top of the driveway. I’ve had to fill it a couple of times. The gutter guard actually helps, it’s just a small section, but after we had the roof replaced this past spring, I forgot to put it up until a huge rainstorm, when I looked out the laundry roon window during a big rainstorm and saw water just pouring over the side. Dang.

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