When you imagine fluid leaks in your car, you're probably picturing something fairly catastrophic or, at the very least, hard to miss. Fluids like oil and coolant can spill out and make a huge mess, leaving a visible puddle and a very unhappy car. Since these are the leaks most people are familiar with, it's not unsurprising that many people picture air conditioning refrigerant leaks the same way.
In reality, the refrigerant in your home's air conditioning system differs greatly from these other fluids. Refrigerants will typically boil off at room temperature and normal atmospheric pressure, so refrigerant typically escapes your system as a vapor or gas. Combined with the fact that many refrigerant leaks are relatively small, they can often be surprisingly hard to notice.
What Happens When Your System Loses Refrigerant?
As long as your air conditioner works properly, you should never need to add or "top up" the refrigerant. The refrigerant loop in a central air conditioning system is entirely closed, meaning that refrigerant never leaves the system or gets used up. In addition to providing a medium for heat transfer, the refrigerant also carries the oil necessary to lubricate the compressor's internal components.
Refrigerant has many surprising properties, and your air conditioner relies on these chemical qualities to keep your home cool. In particular, the system must maintain the proper pressure to allow the coolant to boil as it absorbs heat in the evaporator coil. Too much or too little coolant can disrupt this cycle, affecting your system's cooling ability or even causing damage.
If your system loses enough refrigerant, incompressible liquid may return to the compressor. Since the compressor cannot reduce the volume of the liquid refrigerant, there's a serious risk of causing catastrophic damage to internal parts. At best, liquid refrigerant can wash away oil and leave the compressor without essential lubrication.
How Can You Spot a Minor Refrigerant Leak?
Fortunately, you're unlikely to experience severe consequences from a minor refrigerant leak if you address it relatively quickly. Unfortunately, knowing you have a minor refrigerant leak is often easier said than done. In most cases, there won't be any noticeable signs of leaking refrigerant, and your system will probably continue to work.
Instead, look for some more subtle early warning signs of a leak. Low refrigerant pressure can reduce the temperature at the evaporator, so pay attention to particularly icy air coming from your vents. You may also notice increased humidity due to ice forming on the evaporator coil. Since this ice won't drain between AC cycles, warm air will blow over it, picking up additional moisture.
As the problem progresses, enough ice will eventually form on your evaporator to interrupt the normal refrigerant cycle and cause the system to shut down. At this point, your system will begin to short cycle and cool poorly. The problem is already fairly serious once your evaporator begins freezing regularly, so you'll want to contact a technician to help locate and fix the leak as soon as possible.
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