Here’s everything you need to know about AC refrigerant

You may have heard your neighbors talking about this year’s AC refrigerant phase-out. The U.S. Clean Air Act of 2010 mandated that R-22 refrigerant—a known threat to the earth’s ozone layer—stop being manufactured or imported by 2020. This means that all the R-22 that currently exists in the United States is all that’s left.

But, just what is AC refrigerant, and how does this phase-out impact your air conditioner? Does your AC unit need a recharge? In this article, we’ll address some of the common misconceptions about refrigerant and go over everything you should know about how air conditioners work.

What is AC refrigerant, and what purpose does it serve?

Your air conditioner’s refrigerant line—and the refrigerant in that line—is arguably the most important part of the system. This chemical has a special property: as it absorbs heat, it transitions from a gas to a liquid. When it loses that heat, it goes back to its gaseous state. In an air conditioner, this property is used to transport heat energy from one location to another. The refrigerant exists in a closed loop that travels from inside your home to your evaporator unit outside.

In layman’s terms, the refrigerant absorbs heat energy from inside your home, deposits it outside, and then repeats that cycle again and again until the temperature in your home is sufficiently lowered. When the refrigerant releases its heat outside, it cools and turns back into a gas, returning to inside your home. This further cools the air and the refrigerant is ready to absorb more heat energy.

An AC refrigerant leak can cause a number of performance and efficiency issues. Call one of our techs out for an inspection.What about heat pumps?

Air conditioners use refrigerant to cool your home. However, a different HVAC system known as a heat pump is capable of using this same process to also heat your home in the winter. In colder weather, heat pumps reverse the process described above. The refrigerant absorbs heat energy from outside, and then releases that energy inside. Even relatively cold, outdoor air has some ambient heat energy for the refrigerant to draw from. In this way, heat pumps can both cool your home in the summer and heat your home in the winter.

How long will my current refrigerant last?

This is where many homeowners tend to mix up their car and their home. Unlike a car’s air conditioning system which needs an “AC recharge” every 2-3 summers, your home’s air conditioning refrigerant exists in a closed loop system, completely sealed off from the outside world. In theory, your air conditioner should never “go through” or run out of its refrigerant. If everything is right with your system, you should be able to continue using the same refrigerant that came with the system.

What is a refrigerant leak?

However, there’s an important caveat here: refrigerant leaks can happen, leading to a loss in refrigerant and your home’s air conditioner just not working properly. A refrigerant leak occurs when the line is damaged in some way—typically, at the point where it runs between the outdoor evaporator and the home. If your refrigerant line has a leak, you’ll start to notice declining air conditioner performance and efficiency. The less refrigerant in the line, the longer the air conditioner has to cycle what’s left to absorb heat energy out of your home.

Can I buy more refrigerant?

This depends on the age of your system and the type of refrigerant used. Older air conditioners use R-22 refrigerant, which is currently being phased out due to its negative effects on the environment, particularly the earth’s protective ozone layer. As a result, remaining stores of this refrigerant have significantly gone up in price.

Newer air conditioners use R-410A refrigerant, which is better for the environment and less expensive. R-410A is actually better than R-22 in several other ways, including being a net positive for your system’s energy-efficiency and your indoor comfort.

To answer this question more directly, however, the answer is no. Guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency prohibit homeowners from directly purchasing their own AC refrigerant. Only professionals are allowed to buy refrigerants. This is due to the strict disposal rules involved with old refrigerant: improperly disposing of refrigerant can cause incredible damage to the environment.

What happens if I need more refrigerant?

First, we strongly recommend you give us a call and have one of our certified technicians out to inspect your air conditioner. We’ll want to confirm that you do in fact have a leak and that your system is running low on refrigerant. Don’t just take another company’s word for it: unfortunately, some HVAC techs out there take advantage of homeowners’ familiarity with the need for an AC recharge in cars and sell them on an “AC recharge” service that is either unnecessary or—without fixing the actual leak itself—only a temporary fix.

In other words, we’ll want to plug the hole before filling the proverbial bathtub back up with water. Once we’ve fixed the leak, we can then recharge the system. As part of this process, we’ll safely remove all the existing refrigerant from the line, capturing it for proper disposal.

If your air conditioner uses R-22, you may have a choice to make. Replacing leaked R-22 is cost-prohibitive, and is only going to get more expensive in the coming months and years as this older refrigerant becomes more and more scarce here in the U.S. Depending on the cost involved and the age of your system, our technician may recommend that you either retrofit your existing system to use R-410A or upgrade to a new air conditioner.

If you have refrigerant questions, we have answers

The team at ABC Cooling, Heating & Plumbing prides ourselves on helping local homeowners here in Hayward and the Bay Area with their air conditioning repair, service, and replacement needs. You can trust in our friendly, knowledgeable technicians. If your air conditioner isn’t working properly, or you have reason to believe that you have a refrigerant leak, please contact us immediately.