How to Easily Identify AC Refrigerant Leaks

An air conditioner refrigerant leak is one of the most dangerous things that can happen to a system that is supposed to keep your house cool. Refrigerant is not consumed when you are running it during hot summer months. Instead, the refrigerant gets cycled back and forth as it removes heat from your house. The initial charge when the AC system is installed should last throughout the lifespan of the unit.

However, there are instances when a leak occurs, depriving the system of the vital fluid it needs to operate efficiently. When this occurs, a number of problems can accumulate and eventually causes your air conditioner to break down. Before you and your family get into a hot situation, let’s look at ways to identify refrigerant leaks.

Drops in Refrigerant Output

Your air conditioner cannot remove heat from your house when the refrigerant level is too low. Most leaks start small, so the rate of losing refrigerant from the system is slow. Over time, the output of your air conditioner begins a slow but steady, decline. If you notice a difference in the unit’s performance in keeping your house cool, you might have a leak.

Strange Noises Coming from Air Conditioner

Listen for any strange noises in the unit. This is one of the best ways to determine whether your air conditioner is leaking refrigerant or on the brink of breaking down. Air bubbles can form in the refrigerant line as coolant leaves your air conditioner unit. Some noises make a hissing sound; others sound like bubbling noises whenever the unit is running.

Identify Dirty Spots on Refrigerant Line

It is not unusual for refrigerant to attract dirt, so leaks in the line may appear dirty or oily. Examine the line to detect whether there is a leak. If there appears to be a problem, call a professional to thoroughly inspect the refrigerant line.

Apply the Bubble Method

One of the oldest ways to detect a leak is by using the bubble method. To do this, apply a soap solution to areas where you suspect a leak has occurred with a brush squeeze bottle or dauber. Typically, any escaping refrigerant produces bubbles at the leak points. The only way this method proves ineffective is if it is windy outdoors or a leak is very small.

Use a Corona-Suppression or Heated Diode Detector

Two basic types of electronic detectors can be used to identify AC refrigerant leaks.

The first is the corona-suppression detector. This technology is used to measure varying conductivity of how gases pass between two electrodes. An instrument is used to create a high-voltage spark from one point of the sensor to another point. This is done to establish a baseline between both points.

If there is a drop in the current between these two points, an insulating gas is present a higher concentration is identified when there is a tremendous current drop.

The other electronic method is using heated diode technology. This method involves using a ceramic element to heat the refrigerant to break up molecules. When this occurs, chlorine or fluorine ions are left positively charged, which attracts center collection wire that is negatively charged.

The ions flow to the center collection wire to create a small current. As refrigerant increases, so does the current level to set off an alarm. Generally, this method provides a more accurate detection than the corona-suppression method.

Add Fluorescent Dye to Refrigeration System

The fluorescent leak detection requires the addition of a fluorescent dye into the refrigeration system. This is done for the dye to mix with the lubricant to circulate throughout the air conditioner. If there is a leak, dye will come out with a bright yellow-green color to help you pinpoint where the leak is located. Typically, this also requires scanning the system with a blue light or UV lamp.

Generally, this method may require a contractor who will use an OEM-approved dye compatible with your system’s lubricant. Dyes that contain co-solvents should be avoided. These can have a negative effect on the lubrication makeup of the system’s oil. Destroying these qualities may cause the compressor to fail prematurely.

A blue light or UV lamp that has a high-intensity output is preferred when using the fluorescent leak detection method. Greater light intensity produces a brighter dye glow so you can easily find any leaks.

This detection method also works well as a preventive maintenance technique. Periodic checks of the system is best so small leaks are identified before losing substantial amounts of refrigerant from a larger leak.

Repairing the AC Refrigerant Leak

Repairing a refrigerant leak in your AC unit usually requires hiring a skilled technician. For the DIYers, repairing a refrigerant leak in the air conditioner unit can be inexpensive if all that’s needed is to tighten a fitting or replace a valve core. At the same time, it can be very pricey if it repairs involve replacing the evaporator coil or copper line set.

Whether you try to repair the leak or hire a technician, there are some common sites to watch for leakage. These include:

  • Copper tubing
  • Shipping valves
  • Filter canisters
  • Weld joints
  • Valve cores

As mentioned previously, technicians may use an electronic sniffer to identify AC refrigerant leaks. Bigger leaks typically require using soap bubbles or the black light method.

The black light method requires installing a liquid tracer into the system and let it circulate for a couple of weeks. During this period, the tracer will ooze out slowly from places where there is a leak.

It is common knowledge that refrigerants are very expensive. Time and effort spent to locate leaks, plus repairing AC equipment makes it imperative for preventive maintenance of systems. The best way to begin repairing to select a method that can quickly pinpoint leaks. This will not only keep loss of refrigerant at a minimum, but it will also help you avoid headaches and scorching heat.

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