What is a refrigeration leak? what are the Signs and what is the solution?
Updated: Nov 5, 2018
Your HVAC system consists of a refrigeration circuit that is designed to be sealed. No refrigerant should be lost from the circuit at any point during any sequence of operation. When a low refrigerant charge is present, it means that your HVAC system’s refrigeration circuit has been compromised. Let’s start with what the refrigeration circuit is in your heating and air conditioning system. The refrigerant circuit is made up of a series of copper lines that carry the refrigerant between the evaporator coil, the condenser coil, the compressor and the metering devices. A leak can occur in any part of this circuit. From the tubing that connects the indoor air handler to the heat pump, to the compressor, or either of the coils, leaks can also develop in any of the other steel components that are located in the circuit. Some of these issues are easily and inexpensively repaired, while others can be costly. Some issues can be prevented, and some cannot.
THE SIGNS OF A REFRIGERATION LEAK
Your system will not deliver air that is very cool in the summer or very warm in the winter. Note that this can be harder to determine by the temperature of the air in the winter time heating season. The reason for this is because the electric heat strips in your system supplement for what the heat pump is unable to do because of the low refrigerant levels. Your system’s air flow will start to diminish or stop all together. This happens in the cooling cycle when there are low refrigerant levels in the system. The reason for this is because the condensation removed by the system freezes on the indoor coil. The longer the system operates with the low refrigerant levels, the more the ice builds up. Eventually this ice build-up restricts all air flow through the system. It will take longer for your HVAC system to heat or cool your home. As the refrigeration levels drop, the system’s ability to transfer heat either into your home or out of your home is diminished. This causes the system to run for much longer periods of time to achieve the desired temperature in the home. The direct result of all the issues listed above is higher electric bills. All these issues require more electricity to condition your home.
THE LONG TERM EFFECTS OF A REFRIGERATION LEAK IF IT GOES UNFIXED
On the occasion when a HVAC service technician comes to your home for a service call and gives you the bad news of a low refrigerant charge, the temptation is to just add some more refrigerant and hope it does not leak back down soon. While this may get you through the short-term, the long-term effects can be very damaging to your HVAC system. First, the extended run times we discussed earlier put increased wear and tear on the system. As with any moving parts, everything has an expiration date. The lengthened run times prematurely wear out these parts. Second, refrigerants carry oil through the system that help lubricate the compressor and other moving parts in the refrigeration circuit. As the refrigerant levels drop, the migration of oil decreases and this causes the system’s moving components, especially the compressor, to overheat and if left under these conditions long enough will eventually damage the compressor beyond repair. Third, when the coil ice builds up to the point of restricting air flow two issues occur. The first issue is when the blower motor is placed under a considerably increased load because it is trying to move air across a coil that is completely blocked. Eventually, this will cause the windings in the motor to overheat and the blower motor will fail. The second issue has to do with the phases of the refrigerant in your system. When the system is operating at peak performance there is a perfect balance of gas form of refrigerant to liquid form of refrigerant in the refrigeration circuit. As the ice builds up, it causes more of the refrigerant to stay in a liquid form. This causes a flood of liquid refrigerant back to the compressor. The compressor is not designed to pump pure liquid refrigerant, and this will eventually result in compressor failure.
The first step in dealing with a refrigeration leak is locating the leak. This can be done through a few different methods of leak search, depending on the size of leak. Once the leak is located it becomes easier to decide on the course of action. If, for example, the leak is in the evaporator coil of a 15 year old air handler, the cost to replace the coil would almost exceed the cost to replace the entire air handler. In that case, the air handler replacement should be considered the appropriate course of action. If the leak were to be found in one of the refrigeration lines connecting the air handler to the heat pump, the leak can probably be repaired, and reliable system operation can be expected. There are numerous other scenarios that could be found, and each would need to be considered and addressed based on the age and condition of the HVAC system and the cost of repair of the leak.
So, if you read this and any of these symptoms sound like something you are experiencing with your HVAC system give, All Seasons Heating & Cooling, Inc. a call and we will be happy to come out and verify if there are any issues or not.