Why A/C units fail: Dayton heat wave triggers medical worries, mechanical issues

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

Scorching heat in the Dayton region this week has led to some minor medical issues, major inconveniences and temporary store closures when air conditioning units have conked out.

There’s more chances for trouble over the weekend, because temperatures are expected in the mid-90s again today when tens of thousands of people are expected to be out and about at events like the CenterPoint Energy Dayton Air Show.

Extreme heat is a safety concern, and public health and fire department officials urge residents to stay indoors in air-conditioned buildings whenever possible. People who must be outside should try to stay in the shade and hydrate frequently.

“Public Health would remind people to find air conditioning, if at all possible,” said Dan Suffoletto, a spokesperson for Public Health — Dayton & Montgomery County. “In addition, watch for signs of heat illness such as headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness and muscle cramps and seek medical attention when needed.”

Extreme heat has a significant impact on people’s air conditioning units, making them more likely to fail, said Haithem Murgham, associate professor of built environment/HVAC with Sinclair College in Dayton.

Hot weather and health risks

Exposure to heat and humidity and inadequate fluid intake can lead to heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Symptoms of heat-related health problems include sweating, dizziness, nausea, dry mouth, rapid pulse, confusion, headaches, sunburn and fainting.

Premier Health had about 20 patients visit its emergency departments this week who were dealing with heat-related issues, said Sharon White, Premier’s system director of community and government relations and site communications.

During heat waves, people should stay hydrated, use sunscreen and check on their senior neighbors who tend to be more sensitive to high temperatures, White said.

Dayton Children’s said it had not yet seen an increase in heat-related illnesses this week. But kids face some unique risks during scorching hot weather.

Children and teens adjust more slowly to changes in environmental heat. They produce more heat via activity than adults and sweat less; and they may not know or remember to rest more and increase fluids when it’s hot out, says Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

Lora Scott, the division chief of pediatric sports medicine at Dayton Children’s, said community members can venture outside in this heat for yardwork, play and exercise, but it’s not safe for people of any age to do that for long periods of time until the body finishes acclimating.

“Even after acclimating, it is still important to allow rest breaks, plenty of access to water and an area to cool off,” Scott said. “Avoid intense exercise in the heat and save workouts for early morning or late evening.”

Suffoletto, with Public Health, says people should limit their outdoor activities during the hottest parts of the day. He said people who must be outside should drink plenty of water, take frequent breaks and stay in shaded areas.

“Never leave children or pets inside unattended vehicles,” he said. “Check on other vulnerable individuals such as the elderly and children to ensure they are staying cool and hydrated.”

Community members looking to cool off can seek refuge at cooling sites like Dayton’s three recreation centers or at city splash pads.

“The community is welcome to come in to our centers, sit down and relax in our lobby areas and get a drink of cold water if need be in order to stay hydrated,” said Lisa Barhorst, Dayton’s division manager of Recreation and Youth Services.

Air conditioning problems

On Wednesday, The Barrel House bar as well as Grist restaurant in downtown Dayton both closed early after their air conditioning units went out. Their owners believe the extreme heat probably played a role in why the units failed.

“The A/C unit’s compressor bit the dust; it was 12 years old and it’s been pushed pretty hard that entire time,” said Gus Stathes, co-owner of the Barrel House. “The extreme heat is almost certainly what broke the camel’s back.”

Barrel House and Grist reopened on Thursday.

Credit: Photo from The Barrel House Facebook page

Credit: Photo from The Barrel House Facebook page

Stathes said replacing the compressor is going to be very expensive. He said this unexpected cost is a major setback, since his business was still recovering from economic damage during the COVID period.

Sara Levin, co-owner of Barrel House, said she was worried the business might have to close for multiple days, which would have been very harmful financially.

“The fact that we’re ... able to reopen (Thursday) is a huge, huge help, compared to what we were expecting,” she said. “At the same time, the replacement itself will be a huge chunk of change.”

Grist, located at 46 W. Fifth St., closed on Wednesday night because its A/C units were not working.

Technicians made repairs at the restaurant on Thursday morning and Grist reopened for regular lunch and dinner service that day, said Casey Van Voorhis, who owns the business with her husband.

The technicians said the A/C units iced over, and they think it’s because they were overworked due to the extreme heat, but it’s hard to tell for sure, she said.

“I had to turn them off last night to thaw them so I could recharge them with refrigerant,” she said. “My landlord is replacing the other unit as soon the part arrives.”

Murgham, an associate professor at Sinclair College, said compressors run continuously in extreme heat, which can cause them to overheat and fail.

High temperatures also can affect electrical components such as capacitors and fan motors, he said, adding that a capacitor failure is the most common reason AC units stop working.

Murgham said repairing or replacing a one-unit compressor can cost between $1,350 and $2,300, and replacing a capacitor in one unit often runs between $90 and $500. Replacing the fan motor can cost between $1,350 and $2,300.

Tips for avoiding A/C problems or failures

  • Ensure all air conditioning components are functioning properly;
  • Clean the coils regularly to increase heat transfer efficiency, which decreases refrigerant pressure and reduces the load on the compressor;
  • Change the air filters;
  • Check the refrigerant level;
  • Provide shade for the outdoor unit to prevent overheating and increase the efficiency of the AC unit;
  • Set the thermostat to a reasonable temperature;
  • Improve insulation and sealing of the building to reduce the load on the AC unit.

Source: Haithem Murgham, Sinclair College professor

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