Air Conditioner Refrigerant Leaks

RefrigerantThe weather’s started getting milder, but we’ve still got some more hot weather in store for us before the cold finally takes over. In this tumultuous time between the hot and the cold season we still rely heavily on our air conditioner to keep us comfortable. And, this being the end of the summer season, there’s no better time than now to take a full top to bottom look at your air conditioning system to see how it held up through the hard work it had to do over the long summer and spring. In Austin, we don’t have mild summers. Our hot season, the time when we have our air conditioners running all day long, every day, lasts well over half the year. This can put a lot of strain on the system, and system strain could lead to damage. Damage can lead to costly repairs.

Luckily, like with our health, the earlier problems are detected, the less of a threat they pose, both to our air conditioners and our wallets. One problem that falls under this category is refrigerant leaks. Refrigerant leaks can cause catastrophic problems with your air conditioner but the earlier they’re remedied, the less it will cost you in the end. What is a refrigerant leak? Well, it’s when refrigerant escapes the air conditioner at some point in the path it follows. Refrigerant is the substance that is used in the air conditioning cycle to cool the air that is then blown into the house. To learn all about these leaks that can happen, the signs of one, the causes, and what it might cost you to fix it, read on.

Signs of a Refrigerant Leak

The reason we call refrigerant leaks potentially catastrophic is because the potential problems they can cause are grand, both on your side and on the machinery’s side. Refrigerant is the lifeblood of the air conditioner and without enough of it, the air that’s being blown into your house won’t be cool enough to cool you down. Not only that, but a low level of refrigerant can severely damage your air conditioner, just like a low blood count damages your body.

I’ll go over five common signs of a refrigerant leak and how to detect and diagnose them. The first sign to be on the watch out for is that your house takes longer than usual to cool off. This will be especially noticeable in the cases such as when you come home after work and turn down your air conditioner after having left it set higher when you were away. The air conditioner is going to operate at full speed for a while until it reaches the desired temperature. If you always set your thermostat at the same high temperature while you’re away and the same low temperature when you’re home, you might notice it takes significantly longer all of the sudden to get to that lower temperature. This could be the sign of a refrigerant leak. A lack of refrigerant is going to cause the air conditioner to have a hard time cooling the air it’s cycling around.

Another sign that is directly related to the first one is higher electricity bills. If you notice the first sign, you can probably expect this one. And if you notice this sign first, look out for the other. The reason being, if your air conditioner is running longer than usual and taking more time to cool the place down, it’s naturally going to be using more energy, hence the higher electricity bills.

The third sign is also related to the first although it is a more specific sign. I mean that in the sense that it indicates that the problem has progressed from a slight refrigerant leak to a more significant loss of refrigerant. That sign is lukewarm or just plain warm air being blown into your house, even when the air conditioner is set to cool and on. If your air conditioner is very low in refrigerant, then that air cycling through your house is never going to be cooled down and the air blown through the vents is going to be warm. That’s definitely going to lead to it taking longer to cool down the house and higher electricity bills as well. As you can see, all these signs are related, which makes piecing them together part of the diagnosing process.

The fourth and fifth signs will both only be noticeable if you’re outside looking at the outdoor unit. The fourth sign is noise. When refrigerant escapes the refrigerant line it will often make a bubbling or hissing noise as it does so. So if you’re standing near the outdoor unit of your air conditioner and you hear a noise like that, don’t take it lightly. The fifth sign is the sight of ice on the refrigerant line. When low on refrigerant, the inside air conditioning unit’s evaporator coil (the part that cold refrigerant flows through) gets too cold, causing cold liquid refrigerant to flow back the refrigerant line. So if you notice any of these other signs, the surefire way to check for a refrigerant leak is to go look at the refrigerant line. It’s the thin copper tube that’s in your outside unit. By the way, this freezing effect is what can also cause major damage to your compressor. When the refrigerant flows into the compressor, it’s quickly converted into thousands of pounds of hydraulic pressure, and something is bound to break.

Causes of a Refrigerant Leak

There’s a common myth out there that over the course of time, your air conditioner will naturally start to run out of refrigerant and it will have to be regularly “topped off”, as it were, to keep the refrigerant level full and the air conditioner working smoothly. This is untrue. The refrigerant is only the medium used to transfer heat from the inside of the home to the outside. The only resource that is expended is electricity. That means that if you notice any sign of a lack of refrigerant, it must be because of a leak. There is no normal loss of refrigerant in an air conditioning system.

But what causes a leak? Well, there could be several causes. The first is that something has gone wrong with the Schrader valve. The Schrader valve, also called the core valve, or service valve, is the port you hook up to when servicing the system. That’s why finding a leak here can be so elusive: while it is in use, it doesn’t leak. It is only when it is not engaged that the leak can be detected. Usually, this can be as simple as putting a soapy solution around it and watch for bubbles to form, or using an electronic leak detector. Sometimes the rubber seals in these valves can deteriorate, or sometimes excess debris will cause a leak.

Another common cause of a refrigerant leak is the buildup of small pinholes in the copper tubing of the refrigerant line. Over time, these small holes that start out microscopic can eventually let refrigerant escape the line. What causes these little pinholes? Pollutants such as formaldehyde in the home can get carried through the air that cycles through the air conditioning system. This can then turn into formic acid. The acid will, slowly, over time, eat away at the copper of the refrigerant line which can eventually cause a leak.

There are, of course, a number of other ways a leak can develop in the refrigerant line. Over time, your air conditioner gets put under a lot of pressure. Years of vibration and the rusting of metals can cause walls to thin and cracks to form. Eventually, those cracks can become leaks. Age is the biggest factor here. The pressure the air conditioner goes under eventually will just wear out some of the parts within it, one of those parts might be the refrigerant line.

Cost of Repairing a Refrigerant Leak

The first step in repairing a refrigerant leak is diagnosing that that is indeed the problem. If you’ve noticed some signs that might indicate a refrigerant leak, such as a higher than average electricity bill plus warmer than usual air flowing out the vents, check the outdoor unit. If you hear some sort of bubbling or hissing noise, or see ice on the refrigerant line or compressor, it’s time to call a professional. A good Austin AC repair technician will be able to quickly diagnose whether the problem is a leak in the refrigerant line or not. The next step, finding the leak, could or could not be harder than that.

In the case of some kind of wear and tear due to vibration and the natural pressure of the machine, the leak might be difficult to find. It may require the disassembly of the unit in some cases. To locate the source of the leak may involve injecting a tracer into the system and then re-checking the system about 10 days later using a UV lamp to see where the dye has leaked out. Once the source is found, the joint, connection, or hole in the tube can be fixed by re-soldering, cutting it out, replacing it or by-passing it. The diagnosis and repair of these conditions can be time-consuming and therefore expensive.

Other cases are much more straightforward. If the problem is with the Schrader valve, consider yourself lucky. There are some specialized tools that allow a specialized technician to swap out this valve while the system is still under pressure. After swapping it out, the system can be topped off with refrigerant. This is a relatively quick and inexpensive repair.

So really, the cost of the refrigerant leak repair is going to vary wildly depending on the cause of the leak. The best thing to do in the case of symptoms that could indicate a refrigerant leak is to call a professional and let them give you an estimate on the cost of repairs. Then you can decide how to move forward.

Refrigerant Leaks and AC Repair in Austin

In some cases, costly repairs mean it might make more sense to just replace the air conditioner rather than go through the trouble of days of leak detection and repair and refrigerant replacement. One way to make this call is to go by the $5000 rule. This rule states that you take the estimated cost of repair and multiply it by the age of the air conditioner in years. If the resulting number is greater than $5000 then it might be worth just replacing the whole thing and getting a newer and more energy-efficient model. If it’s under, then repair might be the better investment. Ultimately it’s up to you.

Regardless, you might eventually find yourself in need of refrigerant leak repair. Air conditioning in Austin means a lot of stress and pressure on your system and that means problems will eventually arise. When this happens, getting quality air conditioning repair in Austin requires the services of a quality Austin air conditioning service. AC Express provides this service. If you need any kind of air conditioner repair, don’t hesitate, call today!