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How to Fix Storm-Related Electrical Damage to Your AC System

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A Power Outage Can Take Down Your Air Conditioner in a Second

Even in September, it’s not uncommon for New York City to get those pop-up thunderstorms on hot and humid days. Sometimes they can be severe, with gusty winds that can take down power lines. When that happens, you can suddenly find yourself in the dark. And worse, without air conditioning!

Electrical damage? Maybe not

Especially on a steamy day, when the storm is over and the power comes back up, you just want your air conditioning back on as soon as possible. But you may be dismayed to find that the unit won’t come back on. Before you worry about electrical damage, try the following steps to reset the system:

STEPS TO RESTART YOUR AIR CONDITIONER AFTER A POWER FAILURE:

If you just experienced a thunderstorm, a lightning strike can cause a power surge that can trip the breaker. Even if it was just a seemingly random outage not caused by a storm, there can still be a surge when the power returns. That’s just the circuit breaker doing its job of protecting your equipment. You just have to know the right way to reset the breaker and turn the unit back on.

  1. Turn the air conditioning system OFF at the thermostat(s).
  2. Go to your electrical panel, and find the circuit breaker for the air conditioner. Turn the switch to OFF and then back to ON. This step resets the external circuit breaker.
  3. This is the hard part: wait 30 minutes. Be sure that the thermostat remains OFF so that your air conditioner’s internal circuit breaker can reset. This can’t happen if the thermostat is signaling for cooling.
  4. After 30 minutes, turn the thermostat(s) back to COOL.Most likely, your air conditioner will come back on. If it doesn’t, you may have electrical damage.

How to tell if you do have electrical damage

If resetting the breakers doesn’t solve your problem, you may have electrical damage. Here’s what to do if you have these symptoms:

CIRCUIT BREAKER WON’T RESET

If you find that one or more of your external circuits won’t come back on, then you probably have electrical damage that goes beyond your air conditioner. This probably happened as a result of a power surge caused by lightning, or even a surge that happened when the power came back on. In this case, you’ll need to call in a licensed electrician to repair the damage.

AC CIRCUIT BREAKER KEEPS TRIPPING

If your breaker keeps tripping after you turn it back on, this may not be a sign of electrical damage to your air conditioner. If it’s only the air conditioning circuit breaker that’s tripping, your air conditioner is probably overheating, which causes it to draw too much power.

IMPORTANT! If a circuit breaker is tripping repeatedly, don’t turn it back on! The circuit breaker’s job is to protect your building, wiring, and equipment by shutting off the flow of electricity when the current flow gets too high. If it keeps tripping, you could risk a fire if you turn it back on.

Read on to learn about air conditioning issues (including electrical damage) that can cause breakers to trip.

Electrical damage symptoms caused by neglected maintenance

If you neglected to have your air conditioning preventative maintenance this spring, then your unit may have decreased air flow due to contaminants in the system. When the air filter and the coils get clogged with dust, grime, and debris, your air conditioner has to work harder and run longer to cool your space. First you may notice that the unit seems to run constantly. Eventually, the evaporator coil will freeze, which can not only use too much power and cause the circuit to trip, but can cause damaging water leaks.

If your system has not been cleaned and tuned up in a while, this could be the result. Call in your air conditioning service company to take care of it right away.

Related article: AC Troubleshooting: 10 Common Causes of a Constantly Running System.

Electrical damage symptoms caused by AC components

If your air conditioner’s electrical damage symptoms are not caused by lack of maintenance, then you could have a repair issue on your hands.

REFRIGERANT LEAKS: If the unit is consuming too much power and causing the breaker to trip, the most likely cause is a leak of the refrigerant that flows through the coils to cool your space. When the refrigerant charge gets low due to a leak, the unit can’t cool as effectively and has to run longer.

FAN MOTOR: If the fan is damaged and the speed is reduced or stopped altogether, the coils can’t cool properly and again the unit has to work harder and consume too much power.

COMPRESSOR FAILURE: In the worst case, you could have a bad compressor, which is the heart of the system and a serious issue. You’ll need to call in an air conditioning service professional for a diagnosis.

Related article: 4 Power Issues That Cause AC Failure.

Electrical damage within the AC unit

When you’re experiencing symptoms of electrical damage, the problem could also be a simple electrical issue within the air conditioner itself. Causes include as a loose electrical connection, a bad capacitor, or a short in the equipment’s wiring. Even though this could be an easy fix, you should NEVER attempt to fix this yourself. Electricity is deadly if you don’t know what you’re doing! Call in your air conditioning service company.

For more information about preparing for weather-related HVAC issues, check out our free HVAC Emergency Preparedness Checklist.


If you’re having repeated issues with your air conditioner, you may be wondering if it’s time to replace the system or if you can buy some time by fixing it again. It’s a common problem, so grab our handy guide that can help you understand your options and make the right decision: Repair or Replace? A guide to making an informed choice when your HVAC system is down.

Should you repair or replace that broken HVAC equipment? Download the complete guide.