When it works, your air conditioner can be your best friend on really hot days. But when it doesn’t work, it can become an expensive enemy.
One of the most common (and expensive) problems that arise with an air conditioner is a leak. So what can you do about it? Can the air conditioner be saved?
Or even better, can you prolong the need for a repair by running the air conditioner less? Does Freon leak when the AC is off?
Does Freon Leak When AC Is Off?
Yes. If your air conditioner has a leak, Freon will continue to leak even if the air conditioner is off. Depending on where the leak is located in the system, it is possible that it will leak faster while the system is running but either way you will lose Freon.
So now what do you do? As a homeowner, you started to freak out and think about how this news will impact your long-time partner in combating heat. What should you do with your AC if you have a Freon leak?
What is Freon?
The success of Freon has been so massive that it was dubbed as the “miracle compound” by various industries. It has also become the common descriptor for any fluorocarbon refrigerants. It is as interchangeable as “Kleenex” to any facial tissue and “Xerox” to photocopiers.
Early scientific discovery by Benjamin Franklin and Professor John Hadley of Cambridge University about the cooling effect of evaporation of volatile liquids is the foundation of the air conditioning process using refrigerants.
Evaporation has a cooling effect on the surface where the liquid is turning into vapor since the process requires heat energy. As the molecules convert from a liquid into gas, the heat is carried off. The faster the liquid dissipates, the more cooling effect it produces.
Unfortunately, most volatile, or easy-to-vaporize substances are highly unsafe for continuous household use because of their flammability and toxicity. In 1929, an explosion that killed more than a hundred people in Cleveland was caused by a leak in a methyl chloride refrigeration system.
This incident prompted Charles Kettering, General Motors research chief, and mechanical engineer Thomas Midgley, Jr. to devise an improved refrigerant that is safe and nonflammable. After testing many compounds for boiling point, stability, and non-toxicity, their research revealed dichlorodifluoromethane (CC12F2) as the most stable and non-toxic compound. They later gave this substance the trade name Freon, as we all know very well.
To showcase that Freon is indeed safe and nonflammable, Midgley staged a demonstration where he inhaled a bowlful of boiling Freon. As he breathed a lungful of Freon, he exhaled toward a lighted candle and extinguished its flame. This dramatically solved the refrigerant conundrum for good.
The American public got their first taste of the cool comfort air conditioning brings during a St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, where the Missouri State Building was chilled using mechanical refrigeration. Because of its expensive nature, AC systems were used only by the rich.
The discovery of Freon initiated the breakthrough of similar types of compounds known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and was instrumental to the skyrocketing sales of ACs in the succeeding year. In 1978 alone, 17.6 million American residences had central air conditioning, and 25.1 million owned room units, most of which used CFCs.
The journey of how the air conditioning systems became widely available as it is today was not an easy course. Earlier models of air conditioners could not be housed in common residences because of the high risk it entailed.
Certain chemicals that were first used as cooling liquids or refrigerants were extremely dangerous: ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide. These are poisonous substances and exceedingly flammable.
Now that humanity has discovered the pleasure of having the cool processed air of AC, there is no turning back.
Is Freon Still Used?
Since it’s used as a generic term, Freon is still used today. But it’s very close to being eliminated completely. Either by use of alternatives or the complete lack of supply.
By the mid to late 70’s, it was discovered that many refrigerants are extremely harmful to the ozone layer of our planet. The ozone layer is responsible for absorbing intense ultraviolet radiation from the sun, protecting life on Earth. Particular gases such as (CFCs) and halons found in refrigerants and aerosol sprays are proven to deplete the ozone layer.
The harmful effects on the ozone layer due to harmful gases cannot be ignored. There has been an increase in the prevalence of skin cancer and cataracts, reduced agricultural productivity, and disruption of marine ecosystems, to name a few.
In 1987, a global agreement called The Montreal Protocol was established. The purpose of this arrangement is “to protect the stratospheric ozone layer by phasing out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances (ODS),” according to the US Department of State webpage.
The United States is so supportive of this movement that the Environmental Protection Agency issued a regulation under the Clean Air Act to phase out the production and import of ozone-depleting substances. Freon and other forms of CFSs and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) are categorized as Class 1 and 2 of these substances are found harmful to the ozone layer.
Will Freon Leaks Mean I Need A New AC?
Because the production of Freon and its similar substances have stopped, you can expect a steady increase in the cost of the remaining supply. Suppliers who still have reclaimed Freon in stock can still perform services to old units by recharging them. However, this possibility will no doubt get more difficult and expensive as time passes.
If you find that your unit still relies on a phased-out refrigerant, you will be affected by the changes in the air conditioning industry. Do not despair, though. There are other ways to deal with this problem.
Can An AC Leaking Freon Be Repaired And Retrofitted?
There are rising stars in the air conditioning industry called refrigerant blends. These are mixtures of refrigerants devised to be a match to the properties of the chemicals originally used for the AC unit. These mixtures can have 2 to 4 components and have a major component of an HCFC, HFC, or HC.
A word of caution: If your AC unit used to run on pure Freon, refrigerant blends cannot simply be recharged to your existing unit. Your AC must be retrofitted to accommodate the blend of refrigerant that it will now take on.
EPA released a list of refrigerant blends that are found “acceptable”, “acceptable subject to narrowed use limits”, and “acceptable subject to use conditions.”
Only entrust the retrofitting to a skilled HVAC technician who is professionally trained to handle refrigerant blends properly to avoid cross-contamination. Poor handling of these blends has the potential to diminish your air conditioners’ efficiency, shorten the life of the unit, and cost you huge electric and repair expenses in the process.
A high-quality contractor will make sure that all remaining amounts of Freon are completely and properly removed. He would also have to replace the lubricating oil, gaskets, and seals. Once the AC is charged with the new refrigerant blend, a good technician would test its performance.
Should I Retrofit My Leaking Air Conditioner or Replace It?
Air conditioning systems that are manufactured and installed after the year 2010 are said to be eco-friendlier than their predecessors. They are also assured to be more energy-efficient and require lesser repairs than older versions.
Some might pressure you to purchase a new unit to replace your cooling system totally and immediately. But do not let yourself be bullied into quickly tossing your old dependable AC out.
The best choice will be determined by the cost and your circumstances. Weigh the cost—potential and actual—of repairing an older leaking air conditioner with the cost of replacing it. And find a good quality HVAC company. That will make all the difference.