Popular with builders. Not the best investment for homeowners

The current product line of York AC units has minimal to moderate energy efficiency, and given my website’s focus on energy efficiency I think it’s important to say from the outset that there are other air conditioner brands that score higher on the efficiency scale. But even I acknowledge that there are factors that matter more than energy efficiency, and one of them is quality, and I have to say that York AC units are among the worst, in my opinion, of the major central air conditioners available today.

First, let’s consider who tends to buy York AC units. As I mention in the headline, they are popular with builders. Right off the bat, that should be a warning signal. Given the poor quality of many cookie-cutter built homes these days, you might guess that builders of subdivisions, or spec builders who put up a house and then look for a buyer, will buy a unit that doesn’t cost that much, to keep their price down and still make a tidy profit. For this type of business model, York AC units fit the bill perfectly, as they are quite inexpensive to buy and install.

If builders like it, should you?

If you’re a builder looking for an inexpensive air conditioner for a home (or a subdivision) that you’re going to sell to some unsuspecting and poorly informed first-time homebuyer, you might not care that much about how long the air conditioner lasts. Instead you just want a model that looks attractive, works for at least the first few months, comes with a warranty that makes it sound dependable, and costs as little as possible. Exactly what you’ll find in York AC units.

York air conditioners typically come with an outdoor unit that has a choice of seven colors, although the range of choices is pretty much limited to the grey spectrum (from light grey to dark charcoal grey) with a couple of browns thrown in to spice it up. If you’re pre-ordering a home in a subdivision, it might seem like a treat to be offered a choice of color for your outdoor unit, and by the time you realize the choices are flavors of brown or grey you may already have signed on the dotted line. But builders like to be able to offer customizable features.

The subdivision or spec builder does not have to keep the unit operating for its twenty-year expected lifespan. That means they’re probably not as concerned with quality, maintainability, or noise levels as the average home owner. They also don’t have to pay the energy bills for the unit, so the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating or SEER of the unit doesn’t matter that much to them, except perhaps as a selling feature. If the unit should prove not to live up to its rated efficiency, that is also not the builder’s concern. Unfortunately in the case of York AC units, quality, maintainability, noise levels and efficiency are all used as selling points by the manufacturer, and on all four counts, these York air conditioning systems typically fail to live up to their promises.

Noise and York Air Conditioners

As one example of the risks of owning a York AC unit, consider the noise level of a typical outdoor compressor. Although your windows should be closed when the air conditioning is on, you’ll still hear the unit operating while you’re out in the yard – having dinner on the patio, or gardening, or talking with neighbors in your front yard. Ideally the compressor should operate quietly. I’m a big fan of the Nordyne air conditioner, which is sold under the brand names of other companies such as Maytag, Frigidaire, Westinghouse, and Gibson, partly because of its very high efficiency but also because it is very quiet. Its iQ Drive technology allows the compressor motor to run at a continuously variable speed, so the unit can slowly increase or decrease its speed as cooling needs change. A traditional compressor, on the other hand, typically has only one speed (or perhaps two) and so the unit produces a big burst of noise when starting up.

York claims to have very quiet units. For example, their Affinity Series air conditioners and heat pumps come with the QuietDrive system in which the compressor supposedly operates at 69 dB, compared to a hair dryer which they say operates at 75 dB, or a lawnmower which operates at 110 dB. But noise levels change with distance from the unit and there are wide ranges of expected sound level for things like hair dryers or lawn mowers. For example, hair dryers can range from 60 to 95 dB, which puts them potentially much quieter than the York QuietDrive system. 70 dB (only 1 dB more than the QuietDrive York AC unit noise level) is considered by some to be the level of noise of a noisy restaurant, vacuum cleaner, dishwasher or washing machine.

Meanwhile, some competitors such as the Nordyne air conditioner rate as low as 59 dB, significantly lower than the 69 dB for York AC units.

But initial noise rating is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to York air conditioners, because, if you’re like many people who have been saddled with a York AC unit, you’ll soon discover that the initial relative quiet soon gives way to a much louder whir as things start to go wrong. How does ‘extremely noisy’ or ‘very loud’ sound to you? Or how about a York AC owner who could hear the whirr of the outdoor unit at the back of the house, while she was inside the closed off basement near the front of the house? These are some of the many consumer complaints about York air conditioners after the honeymoon wears off. I’ll have more to say about quality – a lot more in fact – a little later on.

But let’s first talk about energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency of York air conditioners

York, like most other air conditioner manufacturers, likes to point out that the units they sell today are much more efficient than just about any already installed air conditioner that is 10 years old or more.

While that may sound admirable to you, in fact they are mandated by the US Department of Energy, the Canadian Office of Energy Efficiency (part of Natural Resources Canada), and probably other government agencies in other countries, to meet minimum standards for energy efficiency well above what the standards were 10 years ago. This is true of most big energy using appliances, especially those that use a refrigerant loop such as air conditioners, heat pumps, refrigerators, freezers, and dehumidifiers. Efficiency standards are raised, manufacturers comply, and once everyone has met the new standards, the standards are raised again.

The current minimum standard for a central air conditioning unit is an SEER, or Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, of 13. The entry level York AC units start at an SEER of, you guessed it, 13. This means that they are achieving essentially the absolute minimum required energy efficiency of the new standard; manufacturers are not allowed to sell units that do not meet this minimum standard. Not only that, but their product literature makes claims such as:

The Latitude™ TCGD 13 SEER Series Air Conditioner is the most efficient unit in its class

I presume the class in question is the class of air conditioners that meet the absolute minimum efficiency standard.

ENERGY STAR certification is given to units rated SEER 14.5 or higher. That means they must be at least 11.5% more energy efficient than the bare minimum required efficiency. Let’s look at the energy efficiency of a number of York AC units:

Product line Model SEER ENERGY STAR? Above minimum / ENERGY STAR standard
York Affinity 8T 18 Yes 38% / 24%
York Affinity 5T 15 Yes 15% / 3.4%
York Affinity 3T 13 No 0% / NA
Affinity wall mount/narrow YCHD 13 No 0% / NA
LX YCJD 13 Yes 0% / NA
LX YCJF 14.5 Yes 11.5% / 0%
Latitude TCGD 13+* No 0% / NA
Latitude TCGF 14.5 Yes 11.5% / 0%

*Note: Manufacturer claims “13+” SEER but actual specification appears to be exactly 13 SEER.

What you can see from the above table is that except for the York Affinity 8T, which has an SEER of 18 and is therefore 38% more efficient than the minimum standard and 24% more efficient than the minimum for ENERGY STAR certification, none of these models is more than a basic air conditioner, or for those with ENERGY STAR labels, a basic ENERGY STAR air conditioner. In other words, York has focused largely on meeting the bare minimum requirements, with one higher end model for those wise enough to look for a super efficient model.

Before you get excited about the York Affinity 8T model with its SEER of 18, you should know that several other manufacturers (who also happen to have better reputations for quality and service) have gone significantly beyond that. For example:

In other words, while it’s hard to do much worse than York in terms of energy efficiency in a new air conditioning unit available for sale today, it’s not hard to do a whole lot better.

Ozone friendly refrigerants

All air conditioner manufacturers like to sell you on the fact that they offer at least some new central air conditioners that use ozone friendly refrigerants. The two most common refrigerants in use today are R-22 and R-410A. R-22, also known as Freon, is made of chlorodifluoromethane, a type of CFC (chloro-fluoro-carbon) that causes severe depletion of the ozone layer. R-410A is made of chlorine-free ingredients that as a result do not cause any damage to the ozone layer; it is a 50/50 blend of R-32 – Difluoromethane – and R-125 – Pentafluoroethane.

Most York AC units use R-410A, and their product literature will highlight the fact that this is a more environmentally friendly refrigerant than R-22. Some current York models are listed as using either R-22 or R-410A, namely the Affinity 3S, LX YCJD, and Latitude TCGD. But there’s something amiss here: R-22 is being phased out because it is not ozone friendly, and the fact is that no new refrigeration or air conditioning equipment can be manufactured after January 1 2010 (six months ago as of current writing) that uses R-22.

I’m not clear why some units claim to support R-22. Maybe the York website is just six months out of date, which says something about their attention to detail. It is possible that some unscrupulous installers will use R-22 because it is cheaper than R-410A (especially if they use unrefined R-22 recaptured from an air conditioner they’ve decomissioned). But if you do decide to buy a York air conditioner you should definitely choose R-410A, because if a refrigerant leaks into the atmosphere you don’t want it causing damage to the ozone layer, and unfortunately, as you’ll read a little further down, York AC units have a significant likelihood of leaking refrigerant.

The environmental problems with the refrigerant in York AC units don’t end at ozone considerations. As I just mentioned, and will expand on in the Quality section, York air conditioners have a reputation for leaking refrigerant. While R-410A is not ozone depleting, it shares another unsavory characteristic with R-22, in that both refrigerants act as greenhouse gases, helping to trap heat in the stratosphere and increase the impact of climate change.

As you probably know, carbon dioxide or CO2 is the greenhouse gas that contributes the most to global warming. Heat radiating from the sun into the earth’s atmosphere enters as visible spectrum light, and the visible spectrum can pass through greenhouse gases unimpeded. But when that light strikes a solid or liquid, much of its energy is converted to heat, or infrared radiation, and greenhouse gases restrict the flow of infrared radiation back out into space. As a result, the more greenhouse gases, the hotter our planet tends to get.

The problem with both R-22 and R-410A is that both are very powerful greenhouse gases. Any gas can be assigned a “global warming factor” or GWF, representing its impact on climate change. The GWF of CO2 is, by convention, 1.0, since CO2 is the base upon which the scale was created. R-22 meanwhile has a GWF of 1700, while R-410A has a GWF of 1725. In other words, a leak of one cubic foot of gaseous refrigerant from your air conditioner is equivalent to 1700 cubic feet of pure CO2 (the equivalent of 195 lbs of CO2 emissions). So any central air customer who is concerned about climate change would like to rest assured that once the refrigerant is pumped into their AC unit, it stays there and doesn’t leak out.

The problem, in the case of York AC units, is that there’s a good chance it will.

Quality problems with York AC units

If you’re still thinking about buying a York AC unit even after reading about their lackluster energy performance, some of the quality problems people have experienced with York air conditioners may give you pause. There are a number of common complaints against this brand of central air conditioner. We’ll consider leaks, compressor failures, electrical issues and warranty problems. But first, a word about installers.

Is the problem the installer?

Setting aside for a moment the brand of HVAC equipment you buy, or even the type of unit (furnace, heat pump, central air conditioner), it’s important to realize that the vast majority of problems homeowners experience with their equipment is a result of faulty, rushed, careless or incorrect installation by the HVAC contractor who installs the unit. So to a certain extent, the perceived quality of a given brand is outside the control of the manufacturer – unless that manufacturer sets minimum standards for companies that install its equipment.

For air conditioning systems, there are steps the installer needs to follow, and quite often steps are skipped, or done incorrectly. Piping for the refrigerant is often done incorrectly if the installer is inexperienced, lazy, or hurried. To keep your compressor properly cooled you need to have the correct pipe length and diameter, and be very careful about the number of bends and elbows. And the installer should perform a series of tests or measurements when the system is installed, to verify proper operation; you should see the results of these tests on your work order. Look for temperature readings for the outdoor ambient air, return and supply air, superheat and subcooling, the temerature split across the indoor coil, and amperage readings to the compressor and fan. If you see these readings it’s reasonable to assume the installer took their time and did a decent job. If none of it is present, they likely took short cuts (or worse, didn’t know what to measure).

But let’s consider the most common situation where York AC units are installed – in cookie cutter homes, or homes built on spec without a buyer lined up to start with. As you can imagine, the builder of such homes may be trying to get the cheapest AC installation for their money, to maximize their own profit at the final customer’s expense. They are therefore perhaps not as interested in a top-quality installation by an experienced professional who follows all the right steps. Instead, they may incline towards HVAC installers who bid the lowest cost on installation. That may translate into increased problems for the homeowner down the road.

The fact that so many York AC units are installed in manufactured homes means that there is a built in bias against these units among people who provide customer reviews on the web. If you go to any air conditioner review website looking for York air conditioner reviews, you’ll find loads of people raging about how bad their York air conditioner is, and very few praising it for being of high quality and problem free.

But the manufacturer does bear some responsibility for ensuring that its authorized installers know what they’re doing, and do the installation professionally. So on this front at least, I would say York itself has failed to protect the consumer against quality problems, whether those problems started at the manufacturer, or are the fault of the installer.

Let’s look at exactly what some of these problems are.

Refigerant leaks in York AC units

Reports of refrigerant leaks are rampant with York AC unit owners. In some cases the units begin leaking within days of installation. Customers report having to have their York air conditioner recharged with more refrigerant every year, or of needing repeated replacements of various leaking components. Leaks have been reported in the evaporator unit, the condenser unit, or the piping between them. In some cases, the compressor or evaporator needed to be replaced, One customer who bought two units discovered the coils were leaking in both units within the first year. Another had to replace every major component of their unit at least once.

Apparently York issued a recall on the air conditioner coil on some of its units, because of manufacturing defects from 2006 to 2008. This is an indirect acknowledgement that there appears to be a systemic problem with refrigerant leaks in York AC units. However, read the fine print in your York warranty: it does not cover the labor for any replacement parts covered under warranty. That means you can wind up paying a hefty sum to get the manufacturer-issued recall repair. Some customers report paying $600 or more for the labor on this work. Others have been successful at getting their installer to do the work for free and then bill York.

One customer had their evaporator spring a leak, then replaced the evaporator, four separate times. That means four new evaporators and four service calls to the HVAC company – and no air conditioning for a period after each service call. When the customer called York’s service line he was told there were no problems with that model, but the HVAC installer that provided the system told the customer he had had hundreds of such complaints.

Why are leaks such a serious problem? You might think repairing a leak and recharging the unit is not such a big deal. If you’re fully covered under warranty, this may not be a major issue, at least not the first time. But even then, it may lead to more serious problems down the road. In general, leaks are a bad thing because:

Refrigerant leaks are an environmental concern. As I mentioned earlier, Freon or R-22 is ozone depleting. York claims to sell some current units that take R-22 (even though they should not be selling such units after January 1 2010). The newer R-410A is ozone friendly but has almost exactly the same global warming factor as Freon – about 1700 times more potent a greenhouse gas than Co2.

Low refrigerant levels reduce energy efficiency. One of the most common reasons people check out my Home air conditioning problems page, based on the search terms that lead people there, are air conditioners that run continuously without cooling. That is often caused by low refrigerant levels. Many York AC unit customers complain that they purchased an energy efficient model or an ENERGY STAR York air conditioner, only to find that their electricity bills went through the roof after purchase – in some cases, $400 or more per month to keep their home cool. The net here is that while an air conditioner may have an SEER rating of 18, it won’t operate efficiently once the refrigerant leaks out; its efficiency can, in theory, drop to SEER 0! (That would be obvious – the thing would run constantly and provide no cooling. But it might take a while to work its way down to that level.) One customer cited “ridiculously high” energy bills after they installed a York air conditioner.

The lower efficiency caused by leaking refrigerant means the compressor and fan motor run more. They have to run more often because the system can’t provide as much cooling for a given input of energy, a given amount of work by the compressor or fan. That means the units wear out sooner.

Refrigerant leaks can also mean refrigerant oil leaks, which can shorten life of your compressor. Oil may be added to the refrigerant in order to lubricate the compressor. When the refrigerant leaks out, so can some of the refigerant oil, which wears the compressor out faster due to lack of lubrication.

As you can see, things don’t look that great for York AC units when it comes to leakage. A good quality AC system, properly installed, should operate for 20 years or more without ever leaking any refrigerant. Unfortunately this would seem to be the exception, rather than the rule, for York air conditoiners.

Compressor and fan failures

Remember what I said earlier about York offering a QuietDrive system on their Affinity models? That’s a great feature, as long as it actually works. But a number of customers have complained about the noise their York AC units start making a few weeks, months, or years after installation. These problems may well be a result of the above problem of refrigerant leakage: if your system loses refrigerant, the rest of the unit will run more often, wearing it out faster, and the lubricant leakage will exacerbate things. Customers have complained that their unit sounds like the spin load on a washer when the load is unbalanced, or sounds like a diesel truck starting up. Whatever the metaphor they choose, it seems like York AC units are not living up to the promise of their QuietDrive system or their modest 69 dB noise rating.

Of course, these units do become extremely quiet when their compressor or fan fails, and compressor or fan failures seem to be another common problem with York AC units. One homeowner had two condenser failures in five years, with a repair cost of $650 or more each time. A property manager who managed a housing complex that had both York AC units and Bryant air conditioners, found that the York AC units were a perpetual source of tenant complaints including problems with the compressor and fan failing, while the Bryant air conditioners were virtually trouble free.

Another customer had the compressor explode on them after three years, and even though they had serviced the unit regularly and it was still under warranty, the installer would not honor the warranty.

Electrical issues

A less frequent complaint with York air conditioners, though still something to worry about, are failures with the electrical system or the circuit board that controls the unit’s operation. A number of homeowners have found that the circuit board needs to be replaced, or wiring shorts out. One installer notes that the units are underbuilt in terms of electrical components: the wires are undersized, so they short out under load, they even melt.

Warranty and service problems

Finally, many customers have complained about trying to get warranty repairs or even paid service on their York AC units. It seems that York customer service representatives could use a little training in – wait for it – customer service! Many customers report that the representatives are unfriendly, unsympathetic, even rude, and will often deny that there is any systemic problem with York air conditioners. York AC units have a warranty that is typically 5 or 10 years, but it is usually for parts only, so you are on your own for the labor. And, perhaps because York AC units have developed such a bad reputation over the last few years, it can be hard to find an installer willing to service a unit that fails repeatedly. Most service people don’t like to provide service to a customer who keeps complaining, or who is deeply unhappy with the quality fo the product they have bought, and that may be why some consumers report that they can’t get their installer to service the unit once it has passed out of warranty.

And good service is important for these units, since by the sound of it, customers need service frequently. One customer had ten service calls within the first year. Another had their unit serviced every six months and it still failed after three years.

If you go with York, get a full ten year service contract

As you can see from all the above, I wouldn’t recommend York AC units to anyone looking for a quality, energy efficient air conditioner. But if you do have a York air conditioner and it is still under warranty, or if you are about to buy a new house that comes with a York AC unit, make sure you get a full ten year service contract that covers all parts and all labor. And make sure that you read all the fine print in the service contract, because they may decide not to honor your warranty if you don’t comply with all the conditions (such as getting the unit serviced on their service schedule by a technician who meets their requirements).

I would recommend a full service contract on any home air conditioner, simply because it seems that quality has dropped over the last few decades (as more and more components are offshored to the cheapest bidder) and corporations are more and more geared to short term profits and less and less geared to keeping a satisfied customer base coming back for their next purchase. But in the case of York AC units, if you don’t have a full ten year service contract, you will pay three times for your unit: once for the purchase price and installation, once for all the lost energy efficiency that may occur because of refrigerant leakage and other problems affecting the unit’s operation, and once for the inevitable service calls.

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