A very common question when the temperature warms up is do you need to have your air conditioner charged? Homeowners wonder do I need to add Freon and how much will that cost?
First thing let’s cover is what is Freon, and what about R22. Freon (trademarked by The Chemours Company) is just a brand of refrigerant first created by DuPont. It is like saying Kleenex when we all know that is just a facial tissue. R22 is the most common refrigerant/Freon used in residential air conditioners but has gone through some major environmental regulations by the EPA. New A/C manufactures stopped using R22 in 2010 because of government bans. R22 is still manufactured in limited quantity for use of serving existing systems until December 31, 2019 and after that date only current stockpiles and recycled gas will be left. This has caused the price of R22 to skyrocket and I will talk about that more later.
Refrigerant should never need to be added to your A/C after the system is installed as it is not a consumable product. If your system is low on charge that means either it was under charged when installed, there is a leak, or someone took it. Yes there are issues with people stealing refrigerant to huff it. (No I don’t get it why either?) The State of Minnesota now requires all new A/C units to have a special locking cap installed to prevent theft.
When an a/c gets low on charge it will start to freeze up and you will get ice on the indoor coil or even the outdoor coil. Now ice can also happen from low air flow because of a dirty air filter in your furnace. Most filters need to be changed every 30 days.
Signs your A/C is low on refrigerant:
- You feel low airflow coming from the registers.
- Air starts to feel warmer from the registers.
- Water on the floor by your furnace.
- Ice builds up on the copper lines that run from the indoor coil to the outdoor unit.
- High electric bills.
- Can’t maintain set temperature on thermostat.
- House takes longer than normal to cool off.
Having your a/c professionally cleaned and tested annually as manufactures require is the best way to keep on eye on this problem. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s the Department of Energy started to required higher efficiency standards on A/C. This caused manufacturers to start using thinner copper walls on the coils. During this time the cost of copper also was rising at record rates and that also caused manufacturers to use thinner copper. The result is now customers seeing a/c refrigerant leaks commonly on units 10-15 years old. It starts with a slow leak which maybe only 4-6 ounces a year and will grow to the point it all leaks out pounds in the matter of days. There are other spots that leak like service valves, wiring terminals, and braze joints, but the indoor coil is the most popular location.
If you start to see water on the floor by your furnace or ice build up first thing check for a clean air filter. Turn the thermostat to off and switch the “fan” to “on” so the furnace blower starts running to help thaw out the coil. Keep in mind the ice build up inside the plenum can cause enough water to leak inside your furnace and cause much more serious damage to the furnace controls. This can take 3-8 hours for the coil to thaw and you may want to put a few towels on the floor around your furnace.
How much does R22 cost? There are many variables like how big is the a/c and how much R22 does it hold. Some units only need about 3 pounds and others could be 20 pounds. The processes of charging the refrigerant requires an EPA Certified Technician and a great amount of skill to properly complete this and it will commonly take a few hours. It is common to cost $400-900 recharging an air conditioner not includes leak repairs or leak searching. As an EPA Technician they are required to search for leaks and make repairs. Many leading HVAC companies use electronic leak search tools and most of those companies also offer additives that can be injected in the system to repair small leaks. These leak stop products are meant to be a band-aid to help get you by for maybe another 1-3 years. This has become a successful procedure but you still should weigh your options of either replacing the indoor coil or the whole air conditioning system. In 2016 R22 cost about 10 times what it did in 2005. In spring 2017 the cost almost doubled again and with the manufacture cut off date coming in 2020 it is expected to continue to rise. Air Conditioners built today now use R410a which is a more environmentally friendly and lower cost than R22, but you can not convert an older R22 unit to R410a. There are now companies using knock off replacements for R22 and even “used gas” to cut corners and cost. If you are on a maintenance plan with a HVAC company that will usually save you another 10-15% on repair cost. Some people try to use utility repair plans and home warranty companies but you will find that refrigerant leaks is almost always a denied repair or has a very limited coverage.
What if I just get a new air conditioner. This is definitely a good solution to explore as a new system will save you 30-50 percent on your electric bills, have new warranties, and use the new lower cost refrigerant. Many utility companies also have rebates for updating your a/c. Homeowners commonly don’t understand there are multiple parts and getting a new a/c doesn’t just mean replace the unit sitting outside. There is also a major cooling coil located in the house (evaporator coil) usually above your furnace that gets changed and there are also steps taken to convert the system to new enviro friendly refrigerant. Remember to keep your system cleaned annually as studies show it will extended the life by 5-7 years on average and lower your utility cost by 24 percent.