Understanding Freon

Fill 'Er Up

When it comes to Freon or Puron, “gas and go” is not the way to go.

Topping off your air conditioner’s Freon is not a part of normal service. If you’re surprised by that, ask yourself this: When was the last time you topped off your refrigerator? A refrigerator is an air conditioner. It has the same basic components and it has Freon. A refrigerator is assembled in a factory and lives indoors, so it’s not too likely to develop a Freon leak. On the flip side, a central air conditioner’s final assembly takes place at your home. It then lives its life outdoors. Consequently, it’s more likely to develop a Freon leak and need to be topped off. Topping off, however, is not the real need.

That prompts one to ask: If topping off the Freon is not a part of normal service, why do so many homeowners believe it is? Because that’s what most contractors want them to believe. Finding and fixing Freon leaks can be time consuming and tedious. It’s much easier to fill ‘er up and get on to the next job. Freon is a gas, hence the “gas and go” phraseology. That particular gas is being phased out. They’re already making less Freon. By 2020 they’re not going to make any at all. As a result prices have risen, and so has the real need to find and fix Freon leaks rather than just topping off.

How Freon Leaks Are Usually Handled

Call just any contractor to deal with a Freon or Puron leak and the odds are good one of these three scenarios will play out.

1) They diagnose low Freon without mentioning why it’s low. Low Freon is actually a symptom of the real problem, which is a Freon leak. Or they’ll say that there might be a leak when, in fact, there must be. Either way, their solution is to top it off without fixing the leak. This is, by far, the most common way contractors deal with low Freon. Topping off the Freon without repairing the leak is perfectly legal if that’s what you choose to do. However, your increasingly expensive Freon is just going to leak out again.

2) They diagnose the existence of a Freon leak and quote an additional $300 to $600 to find it. This comes as a surprise to many homeowners because they assumed that the trip charge included a complete diagnosis. Measuring low Freon pressure and concluding that there must be a leak some place is only half the diagnosis. They need to know where the leak is before they can quote for its repair. Even so, the majority of contractors do not include finding the leak in their trip charge.

3) They diagnose the existence of a Freon leak. Then they pull a Carnac by quoting to fix the leak when its location is still unknown. A leak repair can take five minutes or it can take five hours. How on Earth can they quote a fixed fee before they know how long the repair will take? By quoting $1,500 to $2,000 each and every time. The majority of the leak repairs I perform are under a grand. Were I to quote $1,500 or more every time, I wouldn’t need to know where the leak is either!

While those are the three I hear about the most, there are many other ways that contractors deal with Freon leaks. What binds nearly all of those ways together is how quickly they blow through the diagnosis. A quick diagnosis is a must for most contractors because their trip charge is a loss leader. While many Freon leaks can be found quickly, others can take an hour or more. In some cases it can take hours and may require a second trip. You’re just not going to get that much diagnostic time out of them for their unprofitably low trip charge.

How Freon Leaks Should Be Handled

To deal Freon leaks properly, you need to know what Freon really is:

Freon is a brand name of Chemours. Newer air conditioners use Puron, which is a brand name of Carrier. Both are refrigerants. There are hundreds of refrigerants. Since most residential air conditioners use one of those two refrigerants, we tend to call them by their brand names. They’re more accurately called R-22 (one of many refrigerants called Freon) and R-410A (the one and only Puron).

The production of new Freon is being phased out. As far as we know it’ll never be illegal to buy, sell, or recycle existing Freon. However, supplies are dwindling and prices are rising. Puron is not yet being phased out, so it’s comparatively cheap. Even so, contractors are not cheap. So whether we’re talking Freon or Puron, in the long run fixing a leak is probably going to be cheaper than topping off year after year.

As supplies dwindle, Freon may become prohibitively expensive. Puron can’t be used in a system that’s designed for Freon. In the future, homeowners needing prohibitively expensive Freon may have to choose between installing a new Puron system or using one of many Freon substitutes like R-438A. Freon substitutes work, but you may lose a few to as much as twenty percent of the system’s cooling capacity.

Finding a refrigerant leak can be easy, hard or really hard.

When refrigerant leaks out of the air conditioner it floats away invisibly. However, a little bit of oil may leak out with it. In that case we may see the leak’s location by virtue of an oil stain. If I see an oil stain I’ll put my leak detector (a refrigerant sniffer, so to speak) and/or liquid soap to that location to confirm the leak. In this case we have a complete diagnosis in just minutes. That was easy.

While we sometimes get a visual indicator, most of the time we don’t. When we don’t, I’ll use the leak detector to check readily accessible parts of the system that are known for leaking. If I don’t find the leak there, I’ll check less obvious and less accessible parts. “Less accessible” might include a cooling coil that’s in a sheet metal box that’s covered in layers of gummy tape and mastic. Have you ever tried removing that stuff? Now it’s getting hard. Or at the very least, it’s getting time consuming.

Some leaks are so tiny that they’re practically impossible to find. Other leaks can be in refrigerant lines that are behind walls or buried underground. While a good sniffer is the go-to tool for finding leaks, finding leaks like these may require alternate methods like adding UV dye to the system or isolating and pressurizing individual components. Some alternate methods take hours and require a second trip. Now it’s getting really hard. Or at the very least, it’s getting really expensive.

Repairing a refrigerant leak can be easy, hard or impossible.

An easy repair might include tightening a service valve cap or replacing a valve core. Those take just minutes. Or it might mean adding leak sealant to the system. Sealant is never guaranteed to work. Plus there’s a chance of secondary issues arising from its use. Therefore it shouldn’t be used willy-nilly. If the leak is slow and the air conditioner isn’t contaminated then it might be a good candidate for sealant. In some cases sealant may be our only repair option when we can’t find or fix the leak by any other means. Adding sealant also takes just minutes.

A hard leak repair is really just a time consuming repair. And by that I mean it may take three to six hours spread out over two trips. The most common example is that of a leaking fitting. The usual solution is to cut out the leaking fitting and replace it with a new one. That requires sucking the refrigerant out of that part of the system, making the repair, vacuuming and recharging. I don’t normally block three to six hours off my schedule for a single job unless I’m aware of that need in advance, hence the second trip.

An impossible leak repair is almost never truly impossible. It’s just so impractical that it’s not even worth trying. For example, if you get a bad leak in the middle of cooling coil then you’re probably going to replace the coil rather than fix it. Cooling coils are built like radiators. The have several layers of copper tubing that are buried in aluminum fins. If there’s a leak in the middle of the coil it may be impossible to get to from the outside. Sealant can get to it from the inside, but if it’s a bad leak then sealant is unlikely to work.

The Cold Truth About the Hard Cash

It’s not hard to understand why most contractors don’t want to deal with refrigerant leaks. Finding them can be cakewalk easy or bang-your-head-on-the-wall difficult. Fixing them can take the turn of a wrench or an act of congress. Most of the time reality lies between those extremes. Black and white (flat rate) pricing systems are ill equipped to deal with the many shades of gray that Freon leaks present. Most repairmen are just as ill equipped. So they go with option one above and call it good. And when option one no longer satisfies, they may just tell you to buy a new system. This is the cold truth that most contractors don’t tell you upfront.

It’s doesn’t have to be like that. You just have to kick it old school. That is to say, pay by the hour. It’s an old idea that’s new again. Flat rate pricing is an inherently flawed system that leads to scenarios like two and three above. I avoid those absurdities by telling you the truth upfront: It’ll take as long as it takes and you’re paying by the hour. I may find the leak in five minutes. I may find it in forty-five minutes. Or I may spend an hour or more not finding it. I’ve never heard of a contractor that absolutely guarantees they will. So, while I often do find the leak, I still expect to be paid even when I don’t. Please consider that carefully before calling.

What I don’t expect is for you to have blind faith in me. Stay, watch and understand. I’m good at my profession and I’m well equipped. I’ve got three sniffers, an ultrasonic leak detector and good old liquid soap. I’ve also got UV dye, epoxy, sealant, lots of fittings, Nylog, Freon and Puron all ready to go. Do you just want to top it off? Giddy up. Do you want to roll the dice with sealant? I’m your huckleberry. Do you want to tackle the problem head on and repair it the old fashioned way? Let’s roll. While I’ll certainly give my advice, you have a lot of say in the matter. You should since you’re paying for it. Now there’s the hard cash.

This video will show you a simple way to check your refrigerant.