Your HVAC system is one of the most important components in your home. It’s what keeps you cool in the summer and warm in the winter, but you may not give it a great deal of thought until something goes wrong.

One of the things that could go wrong with your HVAC system is a refrigerant leak. Some people don’t even know that their HVAC unit uses refrigerant. Nonetheless, it is a critical part of the system.

What Is Refrigerant?

This chemical compound exists within your HVAC system in either a gaseous or fluid state. It is responsible for absorbing heat from the environment and also provides air conditioning with the support of components such as evaporators and compressors.

Refrigerant is contained in the copper coils of air conditioners. As heat is absorbed from indoor air, the refrigerant transitions from a gas to a liquid. Components within the air conditioner move the refrigerant outdoors where it encounters a fan that blows hot air over the coils. After cooling, the refrigerant returns to its gaseous state. A fan that is placed inside the home is responsible for blowing air over cold coils to push cold air through the home.

In new air conditioning units, the most commonly used refrigerants are R410A and R134. These refrigerants were developed relatively recently to replace earlier refrigerants, which were much more harmful to the environment. Moreover, air conditioning units that run on these newer refrigerants offer better energy-efficiency and reliability.

Refrigerant Leaks

If you have an older HVAC system that likely uses one of the less eco-friendly refrigerants, then a leak can be especially hazardous. However, even HVAC systems that use R410A or R134 refrigerants may develop leaks over time.

When refrigerant is leaking from your air conditioner, it simply can’t operate as efficiently as it’s supposed to. Your system may work harder and harder to cool your home but not be able to get the inside temperature anywhere near where you would like it to be.

Because your air conditioner is working overtime, you’re paying much more in energy bills. You’ll definitely notice the difference when you pay your bills each month.

Of course, if your air conditioner is leaking refrigerant, then you may be faced with the need to recharge the unit on a frequent basis. This means that you will have to pay to have more refrigerant added to your system.

R-22, one of the older refrigerants that is being phased out in favor of more eco-friendly options, is getting harder to find. If you have an air conditioner that is several years old and relies on R-22, then you may have to search high and low to find it. When you do locate a supply, it’s probably going to cost a great deal more than a supply of R410A.

It’s also critical to consider that refrigerant can be harmful to human health as well as damaging to the environment. The chemicals that make up refrigerant are odorless and tasteless, so you could be inhaling or ingesting them without being aware of it. In fact, you or one of your family members, may develop a condition known as refrigerant poisoning.

What Are the Symptoms of Refrigerant Poisoning?

The earliest signs of refrigerant poisoning include symptoms such as headaches, irritation to the eyes or skin, coughing, nausea and vomiting. Frequently, these symptoms are mistaken for an illness like the flu.

However, if refrigerant poisoning is not diagnosed and treated, the symptoms can become worse and potentially are even life-threatening. Some of these more serious symptoms may include:

  • Heavy, laborious breathing;
  • Loss of consciousness;
  • Seizures;
  • Mental fatigue and confusion;
  • Fluid buildup in the lungs; and
  • Heart palpitations or irregularities.

Consequently, if you suspect that your air conditioner is leaking refrigerant and you or any of your family members are exhibiting these symptoms, immediate consultation with a doctor is required.

Once any health issues have been addressed, it’s time to make certain that the refrigerant leak is fixed.

How Do You Know If You Have a Refrigerant Leak?

These are some of the most signs that your HVAC system is leaking refrigerant:

  • Inefficient cooling;
  • Indoor air is humid;
  • Registers blow warm air even when the thermostat is set to cool;
  • The indoor unit is making a hissing or bubbling sound;
  • Evaporator coils are covered in ice; and
  • Your energy bills have suddenly gotten more expensive.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these telltale signs.

Have you noticed recently that your air conditioner just isn’t cooling your home like it used to? Don’t blame the hotter weather. The problem could be that your AC unit is leaking refrigerant. A lack of sufficient refrigerant levels means that your AC can’t keep up when temperatures soar.

At the same time, you may notice that your indoor air seems far more humid than it once did. Part of the job of the air conditioner is to dehumidify indoor spaces. This occurs as warm air is removed indoors. With lowered refrigerant levels, the humidity levels inside your home may skyrocket.

One of the most frustrating signs of a refrigerant leak is that the registers in your home are blowing warm air even when the thermostat is set to cool. Few things are as uncomfortable as having your air conditioner produce warm air on an already hot day.

Are you hearing strange sounds coming from your air conditioner? Many homeowners describe these noises as either bubbling or hissing. Frequently, these sounds arise as refrigerant leaks through cracks or holes in the coils through which the chemicals circulate. Hissing may be a sign of a leak or another issue. Bubbling or gurgling is almost always the sign of a really large leak.

It can be disconcerting on the hottest day of the year to realize that your air conditioning unit isn’t blowing cold air. When you go outside to see what’s going on, you’re perplexed to discover that the evaporator coils are encased in a solid block of ice. This freezing occurs when there is not a sufficient level of refrigerant circulating through the coils. The coils cannot adequately absorb the heat, which leads to condensation. Eventually, that condensation freezes, even in the middle of summer. It is possible for frozen condensation to begin to melt, where it drips on the floor or the on the base of the unit. Don’t get complacent if you see ice on your evaporator coils, as this is more than a cosmetic issue. That ice could cause the system to completely break down, and you may even be forced to replace the compressor.

If you recently received a shock when you opened your latest electricity bill, then a refrigerant leak may be to blame. This is the result of an endless cycle. You notice that your air conditioner isn’t keeping your home as cold as you like, so you turn down the thermostat. Now, your HVAC system has to work even harder to try to reach that temperature. You turn down the thermostat even more, and the HVAC system redoubles its efforts.

Unfortunately, you never get the icy-cold temperatures that you are hoping for. What you get instead is a monster electricity bill and a big headache.

Will Recharging Help?

It’s understandable for people to look for a less expensive option, even if it only temporarily restores their air conditioner’s functionality. That’s why people sometimes ask to have their air conditioner recharged.

In fact, you might want to question the reliability of any HVAC repair company that suggests simply recharging the unit when there is an obvious refrigerant leak.

The better fix by far is to take care of that leak. The real question is, do you repair the leak or install a new HVAC system?

If your HVAC system is more than 15 years old, this is a valid question. Air conditioners and heating units are far more efficient and effective today than they were 15 years ago. That refrigerant leak may only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems with your HVAC system.

Talk to Delaware Heating and Air

Whether you want to have a refrigerant leak fixed or are interested in having your HVAC system updated, give Delaware Heating and Air a call. Our HVAC experts can answer all of your questions and give you confidence to face the hottest days of summer and the coldest days of winter.