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How to Handle a Refrigerant Leak in Your AC Conditioning

How to Handle a Refrigerant Leak in Your AC Conditioning

If your technician has told you that your A/C has a refrigerant leak, we wanted to tell you how we handle it here at Red Deer Heating and Air Conditioning.

This always sparks conversation, as feelings about leaking systems from contractor to contractor vary quite a bit.

The Environmental Protection Agency has updated the requirements related to ozone-depleting and global warming substances like R-22 and R-410a refrigerant, which is very likely in the HVAC system at your house.

However, after a recent schooling online and some back and forth, we found that we can’t REQUIRE you to fix the leak in residential applications that have less than 50 lbs of refrigerant very much like many systems.

So, we’re not and you’re not required to find or fix your leaking HVAC system.

So technically, if you wanted to gas it up and let that refrigerant leak out over and over, apparently, you’re not forbidden to do that.

But we at Red Deer Heating and AC have strong feelings about continuing to allow harsh chemicals that contribute to the degradation of our planet, namely the ozone layer and other side effects that are happening because of global warming.

Plus, we want future generations of plants, animals, and humans to have a chance to enjoy their lives, breathe clean air, and thrive!

Here’s what happens when your AC system leaks though; large amounts of CFC’s, HFC’s and HCFC’s (which is what refrigerant is) are spewing into the atmosphere every day.

Industrial and commercial buildings are the main culprit, but there are far more homes than commercial buildings existing. Regardless, leaking refrigerants mix with wind currents, air pressure, and updrafts that bring those chemicals into the lower atmosphere.

No matter what people say about chlorine being heavier than air, it’s been proven several times over that these chemicals are amply mixed with our lower and upper atmosphere where they linger.

Rain doesn’t knock them down either. As those chemicals rise even further through updrafts and pressure differences in the air, high energy solar radiation breaks those chemicals down which releases the damaging chlorine.

Those chlorine particles stay in the stratosphere for several years, where it eats away at the ozone layer.

But back to your refrigerant leak, some HVAC companies can and do continue to come out and refill your refrigerant as long as you need it because let’s face it, you need to be comfortable.

We get it!

But at some point, a Red Deer Heating and AC technician is going to have a conversation with you about finding that leak and coming up with a plan to repair the leak or change out your system.

It’s the right thing to do.

So, do we “gas and go” year after year?

Well, maybe two to three times at your house is the limit for us. If you don’t want to fix it, your love for the planet may not be in line with ours.

HVAC companies make pretty good money by selling you refrigerant. It’s easy labor for us, and not very time consuming either. That’s why it’s called “gas and go.”

But refrigerant is expensive. If you have to keep refilling your refrigerant, which we don’t know how often that will be, it can add up quickly. If we’ve been to your home before, then we have a baseline from which to draw our information from.

But, if it’s our first time out, we almost feel like it would be unfair to you to recommend you start a leak search immediately. What if it’s just a loose Schrader core at the service valve where the technicians hook their gauges up. We’ve seen this before.

The system was way low on charge, and when we took the cap off the service valve, it was slowly shooting liquid refrigerant into the air. We tightened the core and the system hasn’t leaked out since, or at least they haven’t called us back yet.

But it’s a start.

As an HVAC company, we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. If we say you need a leak to search the first time out, people think we’re being pushy sales-techs. If we don’t and they leak out again, we’re blamed for not recommending a leak search the first time we were out.

These people then want us to come back out and replace the leaked-out refrigerant for free.

Other times, we come upon an R-410 system made between 2008 and 2015 that’s leaking. It has copper coils which we know did NOT mix well during that time of production. If it’s an Aspen or ADP coil, we know exactly where to go every time to find that leak.

It’s in the evaporator coil near the furnace. All we have to do is pop the cover off and look low on the A-coil where we always find oil staining the coils or an oily feel to the bottom of the primary drain pan under the evaporator coil.

Sometimes, we can just look into the p-trap and see the oily water right there in the PVC. It’s super easy but you know your system’s history better than us.

Our customers have to help us out by letting us know if they’ve had another company come out and charge their system up. If you have a big leak, we could refill your refrigerant today, and it is gone by tomorrow.

Not be liable for your system’s performance, most companies aren’t going to refill that for free just to get you up and going, because they know it’s just going to leak out again.

Some companies will put some sort of leak stopper fluid into the lines. A lot like that green slime they put in a bicycle tire to find the leak and plug the hole from the inside.

Once again, about half of the HVAC guys out there will tell us that we’re wrong, but we won’t put that stuff in your system, because it can clog up the metering device at your evaporator coil, and now we’re on the hook for your metering not working right.

A lot of manufacturers will agree with us when we say nothing should be in your refrigerant lines besides virgin refrigerant. At the most, we’ll insert some dye so we can come back later and identify where the leak is but that’s only after we come out and use an electronic sniffer and visually check the system for leaks.

So, let’s say you’ve decided to find the leak so we can figure out what to do next. Our search comes in 3 stages:

A stage 1 leak search includes an inspection of the condenser and evaporator coils as well as the line set that runs in between for leaks with the use of vision, soap bubbles, and/or an electronic leak detection device.

This search lasts for up to an hour of searching at this level of intensity. The price of the repair will be covered for the price of the stage 1 leak search. You’ll be liable for your refrigerant refill one last time, but we always put the cost of the leak search towards the cost of your repair.

If we can’t find it that way, we go on to a stage 2 leak search which requires us to add refrigerant dye to the system and come back about a month later to allow the refrigerant to circulate through the system.

The dye will spray out of the leak along with the refrigerant and oil creating a small spot where we will be able to visually locate the leak.

The cost of this stage 2 leak search also goes towards the total cost of the repair of the leak. We almost always find it in this case.

And for the people out there who say, “I thought only virgin refrigerant was supposed to be in the lines.” It’s always good practice to recover any remaining refrigerant in the line set, put on a new filter drier, and evacuate the system properly.

No matter how small or where the leak was, the system surely lost some of its vacuum during this leak. So, just pumping the system down and releasing the charge isn’t really good practice in our opinion.

If we still can’t find the leak, a stage 3 leak search is available. It requires us to isolate the 3 portions of the refrigeration tubing from each other. We separate the outdoor coil, the indoor coil, and the line set that runs in between.

Red Deer Heating and AC brazes on a valve stem to these pieces of equipment. The technician then pressure tests each one individually to find out which one is leaking.

This stage of leak search is very costly and is very rarely ever used. It also takes a lot of time on the owner’s part as well as the technician because we have to leave the system isolated for days at a time, which can be uncomfortable for someone in the middle of summer.

So, this is how we handle a leak search at Red Deer Heating and Air Conditioning. Many companies handle it uniquely different, we’re sure. But some of our customers have asked us how we do it, so here it is.

The next time you want a thorough repair of your HVAC system, give us a call.