New technologies and constant redesigns over the decades have played an enormous role in reducing the waste produced by heating and cooling systems for indoor climate control. As elements of systems become more efficient and green for the environment, it’s becoming increasingly plausible for homeowners to use their systems year-round without worrying about over-straining their equipment, going over-budget, or harming the environment. However, one aspect of cooling systems hasn’t even come close to reaching that coveted “eco-friendly” tag, and that’s the refrigerant.
In the early days of air conditioning, refrigerants were far more volatile; homeowners were actually at a much higher risk of falling ill from the toxic material, and the chances of an explosion were unsettlingly significant. When CFC refrigerants rolled around in the 1930’s, most people believed that we had achieved a technological breakthrough. After all, these new refrigerants seemed harmless compared to their ancestor. However, homeowners spent decades before realizing that this new model of refrigerant, while a significantly safer alternative, was wreaking havoc on our ozone layer.
Only recently has the government official set a deadline for ending the usage of these destructive refrigerants with the R-22 refrigerant phaseout  set for full implementation by 2020. But until then, it’s important to recognize the risks associated with refrigerant leakage and exposure – and what you can do to make sure you minimize the effect that it has on the environment.
Note that this resource is intended to help locate and identify the presence of a refrigerator leak, and that only licensed professionals with adequate training should handle refrigerant in your air conditioning unit.
What does leaking refrigerant mean for me and my household?
In small amounts, the refrigeration in your unit will likely not cause any obvious or immediate symptoms. A decent amount of exposure can induce some dizziness and nausea. But in high concentrations, or over a long period of time, the health consequences of refrigerant exposure can be dire. It can result in difficulty of breathing, respiratory illness, or even put sufferers into a coma. On skin contact, refrigerant can cause skin to become dry and brittle – not unlike the symptoms of frostbite. However, the amount of leakage necessary to produce these results is quite rare.
Most notably, CFCs drift into the atmosphere and depletes the ozone layer. Refrigerant that seeps into the ground can bring harm to plant-life and animals while potentially contaminating groundwater underneath your property. The damage that a shortage of refrigerant does to a system itself can differ depending on the type of system and the severity of your leakage, but there are some general symptoms to search for.
How can I tell if there’s a refrigerant shortage in my system?
The symptoms of a shortage can vary wildly depending on how much missing. When just a slight amount of refrigerant is missing, you might notice your system cuts off before reaching your desired temperature to continue its cycle. A system will become more inefficient and noisier, producing repeated clicks as the compressor repeatedly engages and disengages.
This is because the compressor requires a set amount of refrigerant to funciton, and a lower amount of refrigerant causes a compressor to inaccurately “read” the temperature that your system is producing. When it becomes too low, compressors come with a built-in failsafe to prevent operation. Leaks can cause further damage by permitting moisture into your system, causing corrosion and serious damage.
When looking for a leak on your system, search for these more obvious signs first:
When these symptoms aren’t obvious, it may become necessary to hire a repairman use more advanced techniques to discover the presence of a leak. When you suspect or verify the presence of a leak, turn off you air conditioner and seek professional service immediately. This is the only way to ensure that no contaminants or further damage complicate your system. Do not use patchwork products intended to “plug” leaks – attend to your leaks with a professional service provider.
By Jason Wall, an HVAC technician of over 23 years with Griffith Energy Services