By on November 5, 2012

Ann writes:

Last fall we purchased for my son a 2003 Honda Accord with 78K. When we had it inspected the mechanic pointed out that a few of the fins on the condenser were missing, but the radiator seemed to be working fine so he didn’t think it was a problem worth worrying about. Well, shortly after we purchased the car my son had an accident which pulled off the bumper. He has been driving this winter with no bumper, thus exposing the condenser. When he finally took the car in to the body shop they noticed that ALL of the fins are now missing. He said he’d never seen anything like this, no explanation for why they had begun to fail in the first place and continued to drop off. He checked the radiator fluids and took the car for a ride and said as far as he can tell the radiator and condenser seem to be working fine, and to reduce the expense of repairs he doesn’t think we need to replace either but that if we were going to do the work at some point now would be the time. Obviously the fins are there for a purpose. Should we place the condenser since we’ve got the car open doing the other bodywork? Is there any reason we should replace the radiator at this point too? It seems to be working fine.

This is my son’s car and he doesn’t have enough $ to pay for the repairs so we are helping out. We’re looking for ways to keep costs down but I don’t want to do anything foolish.

Your advice would be appreciated.

Sajeev Answers:

Well, that’s a new one for me! Who knew Hondas shed cooling fins like male pattern baldness?

Apparently you aren’t the only one with this problem, even if yours is much worse given your lack of a front bumper. Yes you should replace condenser, if you live in an area where air conditioning is more than just a luxury. The fins maximize the efficiency of the system, as the extra surface area helps cool down the refrigerant as it circulates through the system.

The (engine) radiator? Hopefully all the fins are there, but if not, that absolutely needs to be replaced: you might save a bit in labor with the bumper removed.  Or not. But still…this shouldn’t happen, even with your bumperless Accord.  Hopefully your Accord just came with poorly constructed parts, and the replacements are fortified with plenty of Rogaine.

Fingers crossed on that.


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15 Comments on “Piston Slap: The Balding Accord?...”

  • avatar

    Sounds to me like it is a case of penny-wise, pound foolish.

    Running the entire winter with no bumper skin (hopefully, not the bumper beam) on is asking for major damage to sensistive components. Considering that Mom and Dad purchased this vehicle (a significant amount of $) it would seem wise to protect that investment by repairing the car when it had an issue post-accident.

    If the cooling system is still running properly and the summer heat does not lead to a spike in temps next summer, just let it be.

  • avatar

    I assume you didn’t put in an insurance claim to repair the bumper… at which time you could have had the rad and condensor replaced by the insurance as well, which leads me to believe that perhaps Junior was at-fault when he had his front-end collision? If that is the case, don’t touch a thing. Let Junior drive the car for as long as it keeps working properly and tell him to start saving his money to pay for the repair himself when it eventually needs to be fixed. Good life lesson…

    • 0 avatar

      Absolutely agree.

      Inform your son about how to maintain a car and help him do so. It’s likely he just doesn’t know. Don’t be lazy and then complain when the car has to be scrapped and YOU have to buy another one for him. My 2003 Accord has 220k miles and I have no doubt that it will last another 220k miles. That’s because I maintain it and fix what’s wrong immediately before it gets worse.

  • avatar

    If the radiator needs replacing I suggest buying the part for you son and having him do it himself. Replacing a radiator is pretty straight forward. If he isn’t a gear head he should be if you’re chipping in for repairs.

    As for the condenser, on most cars I don’t think the bumper is a part normally removed in the course of it’s replacement. Likely, as with the radiator, only plastic shrouds need to be removed. Unlike the radiator, though, there is no way a shadetree mechanic can capture the refrigerant like you can the radiator’s coolant. The condenser is a fairly easy replacement but depending on how much you care about the Ozone Layer this too is a part you could replace (then take it to a shop to have it vaccumed out and recharged).

    • 0 avatar

      R-134a is not known to harm the ozone. It is considered a greenhouse gas and depending on what your belief is on that matter that should guide your decision there. Also it’s not illegal unless the person doing the work is professional who’s supposed to know better. Also, you can rent a vacuum pump and get a couple cans to charge the system if you really want to do it yourself.

  • avatar

    The fins are probably shedding due to corrosion from winter salt, and they may have aged to perfection just now. This problem will only get worse, and the cooling system’s abilities are being compromised.

    Replace the radiator and condenser if you plan to keep the car even another year.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    The account seems to be a year old. Just wondering if there was any recent history? I would fix it as it breaks Using used body parts.

  • avatar

    This sounds like the type of car (and driver) where I would just let it go. If you can drive months without a front bumper, this car must be close to beater territory. And since it took months to repair, it sounds like the owner was at fault, and I doubt it’s the last fender bender the car has.

    The ac won’t be quite as cold, but it will still work, and it will build character.

    Also, I don’t see there being much difference in labor if you decide to swap the condensor out later, it usually has easy access.

  • avatar

    Given the existing condition of the car and the lack of funds, I wouldn’t lose any sleep about leaving it as-is for the time being. It’s not going to be inexpensive to do the job properly – I just checked on a condenser (for a 2003 Accord 4DR EX KA 5AT) and it’s $166 for a US-built car and $319 if the car was assembled in Japan. Add a few hundred for the R&R + freon evac/recharge.

    If you really want to see if things are OK, have the mechanic hang a set of gauges on the A/C system and check the high side pressure – reduced cooling at the condenser will cause the high side pressure to be too high. I’m guessing that it will be OK in the winter months. YMMV

    • 0 avatar

      I’m not clear on why the cost is different depending on where the car was assembled. Isn’t it the same part?

      • 0 avatar

        The domestic and Japanese assembly plants don’t always use the same designs and parts suppliers, especially for auxiliary systems such as air conditioning. This is why it is best to provide the VIN when ordering parts.

  • avatar

    As a former engineer at a major automotive heat exchanger maker, I can say with some experience: “That ain’t right.” Since those fins start out around 50 microns thick, they are naturally the first thing to disappear in a corrosive environment. Their disappearance will absolutely affect the performance negatively, but then again they were meant to survive Death Valley temps, so you can probably get along this winter.

    That sandwich of fins does provide some structural support for the tubes. They are more vulnerable to damage when left hangin’ out in the wind by themselves. Condenser tubes are fairly tough, given the high pressures involved. Radiator tubes not so much.

  • avatar

    If the car isn’t overheating and the A/C operates acceptably, I wouldn’t worry about it. Replace it as it fails. One row of cooling fins missing isn’t going to cause much of an issue. If you were to buy an aftermarket condenser, it may even work worse than the OE part with some fins missing.

  • avatar
    Angus McClure

    I am not certain what the tubes in a car condenser are made of. If they are aluminum like the fins, it’s just a matter of time. Right now it is less efficient. I am a licensed AC Mechanic (residential) and I can tell you that in a home you are putting the entire system in a bad way. In a car I suspect you are not but you will lose a load of refrigerant. Easy enough to fix.

  • avatar

    Unless it’s insanely difficult to replace the radiator on an Accord, I wouldn’t replace it. Should have plenty of life in it yet, and on most cars it’s an easy job. I don’t think I’d worry about the condensor either. If the AC does fail, you can fix it then, it’s not like it will leave you stranded. Just sweaty.

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