Contrary to popular belief, your air conditioning system doesn’t “make” cool air. Rather, it uses refrigerant to remove heat from the air inside your house. Your air conditioner must have the correct level of refrigerant to cool indoor air sufficiently. If it doesn’t, the system may run around the clock without improving your home’s temperature.
If you know very little about refrigerant, you may be wondering how it works and whether you need the refrigerant in your air conditioner refilled regularly, such as at the beginning of every cooling season. Below, we’ll answer these questions and provide you with some basic information that everyone should know about their air conditioner’s refrigerant.
What Is Air Conditioner Refrigerant?
Refrigerant is a gas that moves from the air conditioner’s evaporator coil inside your home to the unit outside your home. When it’s inside, it absorbs heat from the air in your home. Once it gets to the outdoor unit, it is ready to release heat and be cooled down before moving inside again.
A refrigerant known as R-22, also called HCFC-22 or Freon, was used in air conditioners for years. However, this substance was found to be ozone-depleting, and newer refrigerants are currently used in most units that are fewer than 10 years old. Older units can still be serviced with whatever existing supplies of R-22 remain. Newer units are typically installed with R-410A, which is also called Forane or Puron.
When Does Your Air Conditioner Need Refrigerant?
The evaporator coils and outdoor condenser unit are a closed system. This means the refrigerant never leaves the system, making “refills” unnecessary. However, there are some instances that can cause your air conditioner to have low refrigerant levels (also called an insufficient refrigerant charge).
Sometimes air conditioners develop refrigerant leaks. This typically happens in older units due to wear and tear. An HVAC technician can find the leak using specialized electronic equipment or UV dye. If there is a leak, the old refrigerant must be evacuated so that the technician can repair the leak and recharge the system. If you are about to replace your unit anyway, a technician might suggest topping off your existing refrigerant to keep you going until you get a new AC. However, this is not the safest option, as exposed R-22 is incredibly dangerous to the environment.
Your air conditioner might also have an insufficient refrigerant amount if your system was installed incorrectly. If the installer used too little refrigerant initially, you may need to recharge the system to get to the correct level.
How Can You Watch for Scams?
Today, some unscrupulous air conditioning repair companies and technicians take advantage of consumers by regularly telling them that they need more refrigerant added every season. If you have hired a technician to come for a free maintenance checkup and he recommends that you add more refrigerant, this can be a red flag. In addition, you can spot scams when a technician makes this recommendation without thoroughly checking for a leak. The technician should be able to tell you where the leak is.
Adding freon or another refrigerant should not be the automatic response whenever you complain that your unit is not cooling your home sufficiently. Instead, technicians must take the time to discover the root cause of the problem.
How Can You Tell If Your Air Conditioner Has a Refrigerant Leak?
While an experienced technician is the only one who can tell you definitively that your air conditioner has a leak, you can watch out for a few clues yourself.
- Your system has a harder time cooling your home that it used to.
- You hear a hissing or bubbling sound coming from the indoor unit while your AC runs.
- There’s ice or frost on your unit during warm weather.
Most air conditioning units run just fine for years without needing more refrigerant. However, in some cases, a leak in the refrigerant line can cause cooling issues. If you notice strange noises from your indoor AC unit or if your air conditioner is not cooling your home or decreasing humidity effectively, be sure to schedule an appointment with a technician who can inspect the system and safely repair it.