Don't Let Your HVAC System Spell HAVOC

by Mark Goldwich

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Tucked away in hallway closets or in corners of garages, air conditioner air handlers quietly go about their business of keeping the temperature of your living space at a comfortable level. Year after year they go about their duty, all while out of sight and out of mind. Wrapped in an unassuming metal box filled with wires, tubes, and fans they use gases that convert warm air to cool air. In the process they create a surplus of condensate (water), that must be carried away by a drain pipe (if all goes according to plan).

You might not expect this to be the case, but air conditioner leaks – especially from the inside air handlers on central air units – are a very common source of water leaks that result in millions of dollars in property damage every year. 

Now, I am not an expert on WHY central air conditioners leak, or even HOW they work, but in my experience, both as a homeowner and also as a property damage insurance claim adjuster for nearly 30 years, these A/C leaks are typically the result of two main problems: 1) algae forming in a condensation line; and 2) ice forming on air handler coils. To really understand the whys and hows better, you need to talk to an HVAC professional.

When algae forms inside a relatively narrow condensation line, leading from the air handler to the exterior of the property, it eventually blocks the line, causing the condensed water that is trying to escape, to back up (technically, this is a “fill up”, not a back up). This creates an overflow inside the limited space inside the pan. From there, the water having nowhere else to go, winds up on the floor, and depending on the location of the air handler, and how long you go without noticing, you can have anything from a small puddle, to gallons and gallons of water everywhere.

Have you ever gone outside and watched water stream from a condensation line for a few minutes? If you have, you know the stream can be fairly heavy, and surprisingly steady. Now imagine how much water would drain from that line over the course of an entire day (or several, if you are away from home). It could be a lot of water. Finally, imagine the damage all of that water can cause inside your home!

Think about the damage that could create on flooring, baseboards, drywall, paint or wallpaper, vanities and kitchen cabinets, furniture, and anything else placed on the floor (from books to clothing to electronics, and more). If you are lucky, the cleanup can begin before mildew and mold start to grow, but the costs can still be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

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The same can be true for ice forming on the coils, usually because the air filter is not changed as often as it should be, and the coil fins get clogged and fail. Once the frozen ice thaws (and it always will), the melting water usually ends up on the floor, causing the kinds of damage noted above, but usually in smaller amounts.

Fortunately, there are ways to greatly reduce the risk for having one of these air conditioner “meltdowns”. Proper maintenance is key. Replace the air filters regularly, and check the coil fins for dust and dirt. You can also have a shut-off switch installed so water won’t continue to back up if the condensate line is blocked, and regularly use a solution to keep algae from building up in the drain line to begin with.(Check out a blogpost by an HVAC professional at 

If the A/C unit is in a rental property, don’t assume the tenant is maintaining it properly. Either you, a property management company, or a professional HVAC firm should be inspecting the unit regularly to ensure it is being well maintained.

But let’s say you do have an A/C leak, which is almost always a covered loss (unless your insurance company has added an endorsement to exclude water loss claims, as more and more seem to be doing) – what can you expect as a result of submitting this type of insurance claim?

As is too often the case, the answer is…that depends. It depends on the type of policy you have, the extent of the damage, and the insurance adjuster assigned. It also depends on whether or not you are skilled and experienced in handling claims like this, or if you have professional claim representation to assist you in getting all the policy and claim benefits you are entitled to.

I have personally seen cases like this denied because, as you can imagine, A/Cs may leak some water from time to time, and sometimes it appears as if the A/C was leaking for a prolonged period of time (which is often excluded), rather than leaking small amounts at various times over the years, and then suddenly leaking a large amount of water all at once (which is usually covered).

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The claim adjuster for the insurance company make look under or behind the A/C, see what appears to be long-term damage to flooring or baseboards, maybe even some rot or mold from years ago, and quickly conclude the loss is denied based on it being a “continuous or repeated leakage or seepage of water which results in wet or dry rot or mold”. This happens all the time, and not just with A/C leaks, but all types of water leaks in various places in the home or property.

And while the insurance company will send out an official denial letter on company letterhead, with all kinds of technical language captured directly from your insurance policy, that does not mean you have to accept what they say. We get these types of claims paid in many cases – most of them, actually! Oddly enough, what can look like a slam-dunk denial to an insurance company, very often ends up being a paid claim when an experienced public adjuster is involved.

Mark Goldwich is president of Gold Star Adjusters, a group of public insurance adjusters dedicated to helping citizens get the maximum settlement for any insurance claim.  


  1. AC systems are one of those "Out of sight, out of mind" things. Those are usually the ones that bite you the hardest when you least suspect.

  2. As with so many things, a little awareness and maintenance goes a long way.

  3. I just had my AC serviced. I get it done once a year by a pro so I won't run into these types of issues.