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AC Troubleshooting: Refrigerant Leak

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If you’ve got an older air conditioning system (and you’re reading this article!) chances are you’re familiar with what happens when you’ve got a refrigerant leak.

You begin to notice that your AC is not cooling very well, even though the fans are blowing and the air flow seems fine. Over time, days or even weeks, the problem gradually gets worse, even though the system is running more than usual. Finally, you put your hand up to the register and you feel warm air blowing out. That’s a classic sign of a refrigerant leak. Not again!

Read on to learn about what causes a refrigerant leak to happen, how to get it fixed right, and options for making sure it doesn’t happen again.

What causes a refrigerant leak?

For those of you who have not been through this before, here’s a quick primer about your air conditioner refrigerant.

In air-cooled AC systems, refrigerant is the substance inside your air conditioner’s coils that does the job of removing heat from the air in your space. When your system was installed, the proper amount of refrigerant was added. Your air conditioning system does not “use up” refrigerant; if everything is correctly sealed, that refrigerant should stay in the coils and be constantly recirculated.

However, sometimes holes and cracks develop in the coils that cause a refrigerant leak. When that happens, your system can’t cool as effectively. As the refrigerant level drops, your space gets increasingly warmer.

A refrigerant leak can happen simply due to the age of the system. The metal coils can wear over time and develop small holes or cracks, especially at the joints and connections. Sometimes vibrations can cause the joints to separate slightly and develop a leak.

Another possible cause is corrosion on the coils due to exposure to contaminants. This can happen when maintenance is neglected and the coils get coated with a layer of grime and pollutants.

Related article: 5 Reasons Your Home May Need Indoor Air Quality Testing

Why you shouldn’t ignore an AC refrigerant leak

A refrigerant leak is not something you should ignore. If you do, prepare to face these consequences:

System damage. When your system has low refrigerant levels, it tries to compensate by running longer as it attempts to cool your space. This causes increased pressure within the system that can damage many other components and eventually cause your compressor to fail.

Energy consumption. The more your AC runs trying unsuccessfully to reach set temperature, the more energy it consumes. As the temperature in your space increases, so does your electric bill. Your system can use as much as 20 percent more electricity with a 10 percent drop in refrigerant volume due to a refrigerant leak.

Environmental damage. Refrigerants are dangerous chemicals that are proven to deplete the earth’s ozone layer. That’s why the handling and disposal of refrigerants is controlled by the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s fine when it stays where it belongs: in your AC coils. When you have a refrigerant leak, on the other hand, the chemical evaporates and ends up in the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming.

Potential health concerns. This doesn’t happen frequently, but if you have a large enough refrigerant leak, breathing evaporated refrigerant can damage your lungs. You should also know that contact with skin can cause burns, so if you suspect a leak, don’t touch your AC coils. Leave the inspection to the professionals that are trained in safe refrigerant handling practices.

How to fix a refrigerant leak properly, and how NOT to fix it

Let’s start with how you should NOT fix a slow refrigerant leak: by simply adding more refrigerant to the system to get you through the rest of the summer.

This may be the course of action recommended by some unscrupulous HVAC companies, since it’s quick and relatively inexpensive. This is a shortsighted solution, due to all the reasons mentioned above, and also because of the rising cost of refrigerant. If you need to keep recharging it, in the end you pay just as much as fixing the refrigerant leak properly the first time.

Another ill-advised fix is using leak sealants, which can temporarily stop a small refrigerant leak. The problem is, the fix won’t last and the sealants can sometimes cause blockages in the system that result in further damage.

So how do you fix a refrigerant leak the right way? There are two options:

  • Find and repair the hole(s). In the old days, it was time-consuming and expensive to find a refrigerant leak since it meant manually inspecting the entire length of coil to find a tiny hole. Today, qualified HVAC service providers have equipment that detects leaks and makes it quicker (and less expensive) to find and repair holes. (If you’re interested in the details about detection methods, read this article in ACHRNEWS.) If you’ve got a slow refrigerant leak and your technician finds only one or two small holes or cracks, this will probably be the recommended course of action.
  • Replace the AC coil. If your system is old or in poor condition, or your technician finds many leaks in the coil, he may recommend replacement of the entire coil. That can happen when your equipment has been exposed to contaminants and the coils have not been cleaned in a long time. While this is the most expensive option, when your system is properly repaired you’ll experience much better performance, lower energy bills, and no more recurring leaks.

Here’s an important fact you should be aware of: refrigerant leaks are one of the most common causes of air conditioning problems, and in many cases they are entirely preventable with regular system maintenance.

Related article: Air Conditioning Maintenance Doesn’t Cost. It Pays.

At least once or twice a year, typically at the beginning and end of the cooling season, invest in maintenance to keep your air conditioning system in good condition. The service typically includes a detailed inspection of all parts, cleaning fans and coils, clearing drain lines and pans, changing filters, and repairing wiring or electrical parts that may be worn.

It’s also important to know that all service contracts are not the same. You can customize your agreement based on the requirements of your equipment, your budget, and your system usage. Get this informative guide to learn about getting preventative maintenance that works for you: HVAC Preventive Maintenance Contracts: How to Find The Right One For Your HVAC Infrastructure.

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