Refrigerant, also known as coolant or Freon, is arguably the most important part of your air conditioner. AC refrigerant is a chemical compound responsible for absorbing heat from indoor air, expelling it outdoors, and thus delivering cool air. It changes its state from fluid to gas and back as it runs through the various components in your air conditioner to deliver cool air (or heat in the case of a reversible AC).
Whether you have a ducted or ductless air conditioner, it uses refrigerant to cool your house.
At times, an AC refrigerant can leak, thus severely hampering the cooling ability of your AC. If your air conditioner is not cooling well, your bills are suddenly higher, water is dripping, or you notice any other signs discussed below, you must check for an AC refrigerant leak.
If you suspect a refrigerant leak or just want to learn about it in advance to avoid trouble later on, then this article is for you!
Dangers of an AC Refrigerant Leak
While Freon does not have any taste or smell, it does impact us and our surroundings. A leaking refrigerant is harmful to the environment, your health, and your HVAC unit.
Danger for the environment
CFCs were found to be depleting the ozone layer, due to which they were phased out. However, they were replaced with hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which come with their own set of problems. They are extremely potent greenhouse gases. For example, HFC 134-a, a popular refrigerant, has 3400 times the global warming potential than carbon dioxide. While R410A refrigerant or its upgrades are being switched to nowadays, many air conditioners still consist of Freon or HFCs.
Preventing and immediately fixing refrigerant leaks, along with responsibly disposing of your air conditioner at the end of its life, can go a long way in reducing the environmental impact of HVAC units.
Danger for humans
Freon leak is definitely a health hazard, and in case of a refill, it should only be handled by an expert. If you are exposed to refrigerant for a considerable amount of time, you can suffer from ‘refrigerant poisoning’. Though accidental refrigerant poisoning is rare, it is still necessary to be aware of the possible dangers. Symptoms of mild to moderate refrigerant poisoning include:
- Eyes, ears, and throat irritation
To avoid accidental refrigerant poisoning from a refrigerant leak, have any leak fixed as soon as possible.
Severe refrigerant poisoning is only common amongst people who use a refrigerant as a recreational drug and can cause loss of consciousness, seizures, coma, or sudden death.
Danger for your air conditioning unit
Since a refrigerant is the cooling agent, an air conditioner refrigerant leak can massively hurt your AC’s performance.
When your air conditioning unit is low on Freon, it puts a strain on your unit’s components. Your AC unit has to work harder to achieve the set temperature, which can lead to compressor failure if ignored for a long time. It can also cause AC coils to freeze, increase in bills, and overall inefficient cooling.
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4 Causes of Refrigerant or AC Freon Leak
There are numerous causes behind a Freon leak. Refrigerant is not something that is used up or depleted over time; it leaks because of a problem leading to small holes allowing the refrigerant to escape. Some of the most common causes include:
1. Wear and Tear of AC Unit
Age-related wear and tear are a common cause of air conditioner refrigerant leaks. Over time, the joints and connections in your AC can weaken and erode. In addition, rubber seals around the service valves, or access fittings, can wear out and cause the refrigerant to leak.
Moreover, if you delay or neglect HVAC repairs and maintenance for a long time, you will face this issue sooner than expected.
2. Pinhole Leak
Also known as ‘Champagne leaks’ since they create tiny bubbles, pinhole leaks are very minute holes in your AC coils. They normally occur in older units as a result of degradation over time and the main cause is certain acids such as Formic formed by Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that are generally present in the air. Products such as air fresheners, glues or paints contain VOCs making it very easy for them to reach your indoor air conditioning unit. Overtime, these can eat or corrode your AC’s copper tubing causing tiny leaks.
Due to the vulnerability of copper tubing to VOCs forming formic acid, manufacturers are starting to switch to aluminum coils.
Your compressor motor, located outside, is an important component of your AC. If your outdoor unit is improperly sealed, it can generate severe vibrations, weakening refrigerant lines. Moreover, if your refrigerant lines were improperly installed in the first place, even mild vibration caused by the system’s running could wear holes in the copper coils, leading to an AC refrigerant leak.
4. Physical Damage
Children, animals, and lawnmowers have the potential to cause damage to your outdoor unit. In addition, lawnmowers can project their cuttings towards the outdoor unit, leading to debris build-up. Children and animals can accidentally hit or throw something while playing. This can also cause all sorts of physical damage. To prevent any damage to your outdoor AC unit, surround it with a block wall or install it higher up.
Read our guide to learn how to hide the air conditioner unit outside.
11 Signs of an AC Refrigerant Leak
Has your AC been acting up recently, and you can’t figure out why? If your AC isn’t turning on or its performance has taken a hit, a leaking refrigerant might be the cause to blame. Here are some signs your AC may have an air conditioner coolant leak:
1. Decreased Cooling Ability
The refrigerant absorbs heat from your home and releases it outside. If you have low refrigerant levels, effective heat transfer cannot take place. Thus, if your air conditioner has suddenly lost its cooling ability and doesn’t narrow down to any other cause, a refrigerant leak may be to blame.
2. AC Not Blowing Cold Air
A quick test is to place your hand right in front of your vents. If the air coming from the vents feels warm and you’ve tried everything to fix it but failed, then your AC could have a Freon leak.
3. Long Cooling Cycles
When your AC has a refrigerant leak, it often has a harder time reaching the set temperature on the thermostat. As a result, your HVAC unit must run longer than usual to achieve the desired temperature. If you notice your air conditioner is taking too long to reach a certain temperature, it’s best to get it checked.
4. Low Airflow
Place your hand directly in front of your AC vents. If the air is cold, but the airflow is too low, you may have a refrigerant leak. An air conditioner with a coolant leak cannot produce as much cold air as normal. While there may be many causes behind poor HVAC airflow, it may be due to a leak if everything else seems fine.
5. Unexpectedly High Electricity Bills
Due to a lack of coolant, your AC needs to work harder to cool your room effectively, leading to higher electricity bills.
If your electricity bills have skyrocketed despite no change in consumption, an HVAC refrigerant leak could be to blame. Increased bills indicate your AC is working longer than normal to reach your desired thermostat settings.
6. Frozen Evaporator Coils
Notice your AC freezing up even at the peak of summer? When refrigerant levels are too low, the evaporator coils cannot absorb heat adequately. As a result, the condensation on the coils freezes. Thus, ice crystals on the evaporator coils are often the result of a refrigerant leak.
7. AC Leaking Water
When your AC stops running, the frozen condensation on the evaporator coils melts, and water drips on the floor. If you didn’t notice you had frozen evaporator coils, a puddle of water on the floor near your HVAC unit is also indicative of a refrigerant leak.
8. Increased Indoor Humidity
Dehumidification is a natural result of your air conditioner’s cooling process. A fully functional air conditioner begins to offer serious dehumidification benefits after 15 minutes of runtime. Thus, if your house suddenly feels humid, it’s a sign you have a refrigerant leak.
9. Hissing or Bubbling Sounds
A refrigerant leak is the result of tiny holes or cracks in the coils. When coolant leaks through these holes, due to its high pressure, it produces a hissing noise. If the leak is large enough, there may even be a bubbling or gurgling noise coming from your unit.
10. Tiny Bubbles in the Evaporator Coils
If your evaporator coil has tiny holes through which it is leaking refrigerant, you can detect them by a collection of tiny bubbles near the leak. These are also known as “champagne leaks” due to the presence of tiny bubbles.
11. A Sweet or Chloroform-Like Smell
Your sense of smell can be your strongest ally when attempting to diagnose problems with your air conditioner. Odd smells from your air conditioner often signal a deeper problem.
For example, most refrigerants have a sweet or chloroform-like odor. If you smell any of those, it’s time to contact a professional. However, some refrigerants are completely odorless, so keep an eye out for other signs as well.
What to Do if You Suspect a Refrigerant Leak?
Since refrigerant leaks can be hazardous, never attempt to fix them yourself. Always leave it to a certified HVAC professional. Be wary of any professionals who recharge the refrigerant without finding the source of the leak and fixing it.
The leak will reoccur, leading to expensive repairs in the future. A qualified technician will also be able to judge whether your air conditioner needs to be replaced or if it is worth fixing the leak.
How to Prevent a Refrigerant Leak?
Over time, pollutants and debris can build up on your coils, leading to the formation of formic acid. Formic acid can create holes in copper coils, leading to your air conditioner leaking refrigerant. Therefore, regularly cleaning your AC coils is the first step towards preventing an AC refrigerant leakage.
While refrigerant leaks mostly occur due to age-related wear and tear, you can still take some steps to prevent them. One of these is regular maintenance of your HVAC unit. Schedule annual maintenance, especially before the summer and winter seasons, to identify and repair any issue beforehand.
Though coolant leaks can put a damper on your AC’s performance, you shouldn’t be too worried. Once you know how to detect a refrigerant leak, you can easily contact an HVAC professional to fix it. Your AC will be up and running in no time! Just make sure it doesn’t get ignored for too long otherwise, you could end up with a bigger, more expensive problem.