How To Scrap An Air Conditioning Unit

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Scrap Air Conditioner Condensor Coil Radiators with Aluminum Copper Scrap Metal These Scrap Copper-Aluminum Coils are the most valuable scrap in an air conditioner.

Welcome to ScrapMetalJunkie! The interent’s finest scrap metal recycling resource. This entry in the Scrapper’s Handbook is an overview to recycling an AC unit for the copper, aluminum, and steel scrap value. 

Every scrapper’s dream is to find a “jackpot” of metal that is ripe for the picking. If you have any type of experience under your belt, you’ll know that “jackpots” are not happened upon often… unless, of course, you happen to find an old AC unit.

That’s right, AC units are a ripe cocktail of non-ferrous metals, and contain many pounds of copper on average! They are a specialized scrap item at most scrap yards, and they can easily get picked up or bought off of an HVAC  man. The more you know about the value of a scrap AC unit, the more money you will find yourself making.

WARNING: AC units contain freon and other refrigerants regulated by the U.S. federal government under the Clean Air Act. Briefly breathing freon will cause little harm to you physically; but if you are caught releasing freon by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) without an HVAC license (even with the proper equipment) you will be fined tens of thousands of dollars and/or jailed.

Now that I’ve gotten that line out of the way, lets discuss the three main types of AC units:

Portable/rolling AC units are built like humidifiers/de-humidifiers. They usually have a little more plastic than other types of AC units. These are worth taking apart.

Window AC units are small and densely packaged devices. They have relatively small radiators/condensers, and are heavy for their size. These are worth taking apart. 

Larger AC units have a rather flimsy build, with very large radiators/condensers. After taking out several screws (depending on the model) the whole thing will basically fall apart. These types of machines are the real money makers! They are packed with non-ferrous with very little contamination! These are worth taking apart.

It should be pretty clear; every type of AC unit is worth taking apart. Never just throw them into the scrap heap if you can otherwise help it. I realize that time is not unlimited, and for many people selling scrap metal is just a part time job or hobby; but if you are in any way serious about getting the most money for your scrap, you need to learn to tear AC units apart.

Scrap Compressors And Scrap Sealed Units

These things are the big black spheroids that weigh down the AC unit. They are a thick layer of steel plate, inside of which is a rather heavy duty motor used for compressing the working fluids in the scrap AC unit.

Some scrap yards buy these “sealed units” as is, and others want nothing to do with them. I know many scrappers who swear by sealed units, save them up for months, and then spend days non-stop breaking them down into copper, steel, etc. (The only problem is that there is always a lot of oil left over.)

If you can’t find a scrap yard that buys the sealed units as-is, and don’t want to break them down yourself, consider finding another scrapper that does! Post a selling ad, or look for a wanted ad in our Forum! Many scrappers in your area would love to buy your sealed units to break down. (If that doesn’t work, you can always network at the scrap yard, or on Craigslist.)

Scrap sealed units can be cut open with an angle grinder while being held in a vice; The wire can be stripped from the motor, or the motor can be sold as is.

Before cutting open the sealed unit, let all of the compressor oil drain out. It will take several minutes for the last dribbles to come out. This can be saved and recycled as well.

Scrap Radiators and Scrap CondensersScrap Copper Aluminum Radiators and Scrap Copper #2

These are the non-ferrous tube systems that are used to compress air and radiate off heat. The bigger the AC unit, the larger its radiators are and the more valuable it is.

Scrap radiators come in a few different flavors: Aluminum, Copper-aluminum, and copper-brass. When it comes to scrap air conditioner radiators, however, they are almost exclusively copper-aluminum. That is to say, they have aluminum fins with copper tubes.

To get the best prices for your scrap radiators, you will want to clean them up! This doesn’t mean you should pull out the soap and water. This means you need to remove all steel contamination from the aluminum/copper. This means cutting off the steel with a sawzall or circular saw. (And wear eye protection!) After cutting off the steel, be weary of the hydraulic oil that will drain out of the scrap AC units and scrap radiators/condenser coils.

Scrap Copper Lines
There are numerous scrap copper lines in a scrap air conditioner, besides those in the scrap radiators. To assure that you get the best prices for these scrap copper lines, be sure to cut out any solder joints. Copper tubes without soldered joints are worth at least 10¢ more then copper tubes with soldered joints. (Copper tubes without soldered joints are called “Copper #1″ and copper pipes with soldered joints are called “Copper #2″) The difference between them is ~10¢ per pound, so it is worth separating if you have the patience.

How To Break Down A Scrap Air Conditioner

To master breaking down a scrap air conditioner, you will need practice. I recommend a hybrid of two methods: The Disassembling method, and the BFH method. 

We start off by disassembling the outside of the AC unit to get to the insides. Take the outside shell of the AC unit off by finding whatever type of drill bit or socket is necessary to remove its fasteners. If you are taking apart a central air conditioner, like pictured right,  then you can just cut the condenser lines and pull it out. Otherwise, work taking off appropriate fasteners until you strip the machine down to the condenser(s).

This leads us to the second method: Remember that many components are fastened to bent sheet steel, and the screws and bolts can easily get smacked out of place with a BFH.

Once you have the steel components separated as much as possible, you can next cut the copper lines out. This is usually done easily with a large pair of copper wire cutters, or a bolt cutter.  Avoid leaving any small pieces of copper by cutting close to connections, but not close enough to leave steel contamination. Cut out soldered joints in the lines as they are worth Copper #2 price; If what is left is not painted, then it is copper #1.  Be sure to have some type of oil pan ready to collect the compressor oil left in the copper lines.

Using side cutter, bolt cutters, or wire cutters, isolate any other copper rich components like insulated wire or fan motors. The fan motors in large scrap air conditioning units are generally very good motors for tearing apart.

Save all of the left over steel. It adds up  much quicker than you realize. I know it sounds crazy to most of us reading this, but there are still many people who will just throw out the steel because they don’t think it’s worth saving. (If you don’t like dealing with steel, I know many people who will “recycle” it for free. :D )

Don’ts

  • Don’t sell your AC units as shred, if you can help it.
  • Don’t release refrigerant, because if you get caught it is a serious fine and possible jail time.
  • Don’t sell your scrap radiators and condensers without first cutting off any steel contamination.
  • Don’t forget about sealed units: They are worth more than shred. Network with other scrappers, or scrap yards, to find a buyer if you don’t want to tear them apart for yourself.
  • Don’t throw out the steel. 

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