Wintertime dangers lurk in your home once the temperature drops low enough to turn up the thermostat. One of the biggest dangers to be on the lookout for is a refrigerant leak. While this may not be something that’s on your mind, it’s important to understand the how, why, and when of a refrigerant leak to avoid a dangerous situation in your home or business. Taking just a minute to learn the basics of refrigerant safety can help you enjoy a safer, healthier winter season ahead! Take a look at what everyone should know about the dangers of refrigerant leaks in winter.

The Basics: What Is Refrigerant?

Refrigerant is a chemical that also happens to be the lifeblood of your HVAC system. While refrigerant starts as a liquid, it actually changes to a gas that’s responsible for cyclically absorbing and releasing heat from the air inside your home. It helps to move air between the inside and outside.

What Can Cause a Refrigerant Leak in My HVAC System?

Refrigerant leaks sometimes happen spontaneously. However, it’s much more common for a refrigerant leak to occur in an older HVAC system simply due to wear and tear. Having your HVAC system inspected annually will greatly cut back on the risk of a refrigerant leak because you’ll be in a position to spot the telltale signs that something is wrong before the leak occurs. However, this problem can’t always be predicted during an inspection. Here’s a rundown of the top causes of refrigerant leaks:

  • Improper Installation: Even a new HVAC system can have a refrigerant leak if the problem comes down to improper installation. Parts that aren’t properly fitted can easily allow refrigerant to leak. It’s also possible that a factory defect could be to blame for a leak in your HVAC system. While rare, product defects can cause some real headaches if you don’t have a good warranty. Make sure your HVAC system was installed by pros with a deep understanding of how modern units work. If you have any concerns, bring in some pros to check the work to ensure you’re not at risk for a leak this winter.
  • Corroded Parts: Corrosion is a big factor behind many refrigerant leaks. Corrosion often occurs among the copper tube walls in the HVAC’s coil. Once corrosion strikes, little cracks often form in the walls. These cracks are the perfect size for leakage.
  • Aging: Natural wear and tear from age can cause refrigerant to leak even if you have a high-quality, properly assembled HVAC system. This is where that annual inspection can make a big difference for preserving the safety and performance of your unit!
  • Compromised Joints: This one goes along with natural wear and tear. The joints in an HVAC system are especially susceptible to thinning out and eroding in ways that make it easy for refrigerant to escape.

The likelihood of a refrigerant leak gets higher for every year that you own an HVAC system simply because of wear and tear. However, that doesn’t mean you should assume your system is impervious to leaks just because it’s new. The bottom line is that annual inspections and maintenance provide the best defenses against unexpected leaks.

How Do I Know If I Have a Refrigerant Leak?

It’s so important to know the signs of a refrigerant leak! However, most homeowners actually have no idea how to detect a leak. Let’s fix that! Here are the signs that your HVAC system has a refrigerant leak:

  • Icing on the Coils: This clue is hard to ignore. When you have a leak, your coils won’t be capable of absorbing heat because they won’t have the proper amount of refrigerant flowing through them. This will cause them to freeze. You’ll often see a good amount of ice building up once the problem has been going on for a while. However, you can usually detect a leak even before the ice forms. Any puddles around your HVAC unit could be indicators of a refrigerant leak. Don’t ignore puddles because there’s probably still time to repair the issue before iced-over coils cause your entire system to stop working.
  • Hissing Noises: Your HVAC system might hiss if refrigerant is leaking. This is usually the sound of your refrigerant leaking out of your coils. If the leak is really flowing, you may get a strange gurgling sound. It’s time to place a call for HVAC repair if you hear these sounds because it means something is definitely going on!
  • Lack of Cooling: If you try unsuccessfully to get your home cool, there’s a good chance you have a refrigerant leak. It’s very common for units to be unable to reach their set temperatures when leaks are happening because the system can’t absorb and release air fast enough.
  • Diminished Airflow: This sign can be noticed just by standing near your vents. If you notice that no air is blowing from your vents, there’s a chance your refrigerant has leaked to the point where there’s simply not enough left to keep air flowing.
  • A Higher Utility Bill: Are you scratching your head over skyrocketing heating or cooling costs even though you haven’t changed your habits? Take a look inside your house before you blame your energy provider! When refrigerant levels dip, your HVAC unit simply can’t keep up! It will work harder just to reach your set temperatures even if it can’t actually achieve them. In addition, you may be fiddling with the thermostat more just to get to your “regular” temperature. In addition to wasting money, this vicious cycle can actually overburden your HVAC unit until it finally gives out.

Don’t ignore any of these signs! You should also be giving your HVAC unit a glance once in a while to spot any of the visual cues that you have a refrigerant leak. Identifying telltale signs like puddles or ice before the issue escalates to noticeable performance changes in your home can save you from the costs and hassles of big repairs. There’s even a chance than an undetected refrigerant leak can overtax your unit to the point that you’ll need to shop for a new one. You can avoid letting it get that far by simply paying attention to your unit.

Why Is a Refrigerant Leak Dangerous?

It’s obvious why a refrigerant leak is bad for your HVAC unit. It’s also very bad for your wallet. However, there’s actually an even more important reason for being concerned about refrigerant leaks. HVAC refrigerant leaks are dangerous for your health.

While refrigerant is perfectly safe when it’s properly contained within your HVAC system, it can be dangerous when it’s released into the air. Refrigerant contains chemicals that are potentially dangerous to humans. They are not meant to be breathed in by humans and pets! It’s actually possible to get refrigerant poison from breathing in this substance. Symptoms of refrigerant poisoning include:

  • Breathing difficulty.
  • Coughing.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Eye irritation.
  • Skin irritation.
  • Fluid buildup in your lungs.
  • Organ damage.
  • Seizures.
  • Headaches.
  • Irregular heart rate.
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Mental confusion.
  • Sudden death.

Like many toxic chemicals that can populate the air in your home, refrigerant is odorless and tasteless. That means you won’t necessarily detect its presence in the air in your home. Always seek emergency medical attention if you believe that you’ve been exposed to leaking refrigerant inside your home. Homeowners should never handle refrigerant on their own due to the risks for toxicity, flammability, asphyxiation and physical hazards. Refrigerant should only be handled by licensed HVAC technicians.

Get Help for a Refrigerant Leak

At Delaware Heating and Air, we understand the importance of keeping your home safe by taking refrigerant leaks seriously. We’re here to help you decide your next step if you suspect that a leak is occurring within your HVAC unit. We also offer maintenance services to get ahead of leaks by keeping your unit in top condition all year long! Call us for a safer winter!