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Is it worth fixing the air conditioning on '96 Caravan?

Dear Car Fix: I am hoping you can help with a repair dilemma on my wife's 1996 Dodge Caravan Sport. We purchased this van new. It has been a great vehicle and now has 198,948 miles on it. Over the years it has only needed regular fluid changes and normal repair of things like brakes, etc. Several years ago the air conditioning quit working. When I took it to the dealer, the repair estimate was $1,500. With my wife being the only driver and retired, she only drives about 900 miles a year. The only time this becomes an issue is, of course, in the summertime, but she is sensitive to the heat and when we do get summer temps in Buffalo, she does not look forward to driving the van.

Hence, the dilemma. Is it worth getting the AC fixed on a vehicle with so many miles? At the rate it is being driven, it will last several more years I am sure. Or do I look for a used van (she likes minivans) that has working AC? Why is it so expensive to fix, and is this something a backyard mechanic could do?

K.C., Lockport

Dear K.C.: This is a very timely question; that year Caravan had a cavernous interior, best-in-class drivability and new innovations such as the optional driver's side passenger door. The Caravan is king of the minivans.

My rule is: "If the repair if more than the value of the vehicle -- it's time to replace that vehicle." The current value of your Dodge Caravan with the high mileage is about $1,000. If you sell the van, try The Buffalo News, as it's a great starter for a new driver.

Automotive air conditioning repairs can be some of the most expensive problems that car owners will have to deal with because older systems may need to be updated by law or certain expensive components need to be replaced.

Freon is no longer being used on cars as it destroys the ozone. The newer refrigerants need to have your old system evacuated and all the hoses replaced at a minimum.

This is why I recommend you get at least two quotes before deciding on the repair.

If you have warm air blowing out of the vents in your automobile, expect to pay $250-$650 to test for leaks, replace a few minor parts and then top off or completely recharge the refrigerant in a vehicle's system. The work takes an average of four hours' labor, at roughly $50-$100 an hour, plus parts; for luxury vehicles both parts and labor may cost more.

It can run $800 to $1,200 or more for extensive repairs replacing or upgrading most of the major parts in an existing AC system (upgrades are most commonly needed in pre-1995 vehicles, because of changes in environmental requirements). Vehicles with easy access to the AC system and plentiful low-cost parts could be less; high-end luxury vehicles will often cost more.

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Dear Car Fix: I have a 2004 Nissan Maxima with approximately 72,000 miles on it. Both the brake and ABS lights are on. I had the brakes checked and everything is fine. How can I rectify both lights to be off on the dash?

-- R.D., North Tonawanda

Dear R.D.: Brakes are the most important part of your car. It's the only thing that stops your car and it's amazing how many people overlook how seriously brake problems can affect your safety and the safety of others on the road. I'm happy to hear you've had your brakes checked but there is more to brakes than the obvious these days.

When your ABS light is on, it means that the ABS is non-operational as it shuts down when the light is on. Aside from ABS, the brake light is on when the brake system operation is not working normally. ABS gives you the ability to brake while steering, which can help you avoid accidents. Anti-lock brakes really are important because if the brakes lock up, you have no control but can potentially be a part of someone else's accident. The system comprises sensors and components that should be checked by an ASE-certified technician.

The brake light on the dash may indicate that the emergency brake is not released, but that you should notice. That brake light may also indicate that your brake fluid is low. Check your brake fluid level in the master cylinder first, and add some brake fluid if necessary. If you've lost brake pressure, have the braking system checked for leaks.

Most cars have one or two brake warning lights on the dashboard. When you first start your car, all of the lights on the dashboard should light up. This is the bulb check; they should go out in a few seconds. If a light doesn't go out, your car is alerting you to a problem.


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