When Your Air Conditioner Is Leaking Refrigerant, Is It Better To Patch The Leak Or Replace The Unit?
When your air conditioner starts leaking refrigerant, you'll need to have the leak fixed and the refrigerant recharged. Thankfully, it's easy for any AC repair service to find and fix leaks. Leaks can be detected with special electronic equipment and then quickly repaired.
However, it doesn't always make financial sense to repair and recharge your air conditioner once it develops a leak. In some cases, it's better to replace the unit entirely instead. If you have a leaking air conditioner and are wondering whether to repair or replace it, read on to determine which path is most suitable for you.
How Old Is Your Air Conditioner?
When you're deciding whether to replace your air conditioner or to have it repaired and recharged, the age of your unit is the primary factor you should consider. It's not unusual for air conditioners to develop a refrigerant leak in the evaporator coil a few years after they're installed, especially if your home has foam insulation or if you smoke inside your house. It's also fairly common in homes that were built recently.
The culprit is formaldehyde, which is a volatile organic compound that's found in tobacco smoke, foam insulation and other building materials like particle board and glue. Formaldehyde circulating through the air in your home will be blown onto your coil by the fan in your air conditioning unit, and it can cause them to corrode quite quickly. Thankfully, the level of formaldehyde that's emitted by building materials drops off as the materials age. If you have the leak repaired and your unit recharged, the problem shouldn't occur again.
When a leak occurs in a very old unit, however, it's usually better to replace it. Refrigerant circulating through the coils (both the evaporator coil and the compressor coil) will slowly erode them from the inside. Eventually, this causes pinhole leaks to form. If you patch the leaks and recharge your air conditioner, it's likely that you'll soon have new leaks spring up due to how thin the walls of your coils have become. In order to save on future repair and recharging costs, it's better to have your unit replaced instead of repaired.
Does Your Air Conditioner Use R22 Refrigerant?
R22 refrigerant (popularly known as Freon) is a hydrofluorocarbon, which means that it's harmful to the environment. Any R22 refrigerant that evaporates into the air will make its way to the ozone layer, where it will react with the ozone and destroy it. Due to environmental concerns, the federal government required air conditioner manufacturers to switch to R410a refrigerant in 2010, which doesn't harm the ozone layer. In 2020, R22 refrigerant was finally banned entirely. No manufacturer in the United States can produce it, nor can it be imported.
Switching to R410a was great for the environment, but it had some unfortunate consequences for homeowners with air conditioners that still use R22 refrigerant. AC repair technicians are still allowed to recharge your unit with R22 refrigerant, but it's expensive and very hard to find. Patching your air conditioner leak and recharging the unit is usually not cost-effective, and you'll face the same problem if your air conditioner develops another leak in the future. If your air conditioner uses R22 refrigerant, it's better to replace it instead of repairing it. As an added bonus, air conditioners that use R410a refrigerant are more efficient, so you'll end up saving money on your energy bills.
How Soon Did You Notice the Refrigerant Leak?
If you noticed that your air conditioner was leaking refrigerant because you saw it running down the wall, you're in a better position than someone who noticed it due to the evaporator coil freezing over. The evaporator coil in an air conditioning unit doesn't freeze until refrigerant levels are extremely low. Unfortunately, this is when most people realize when they have a problem with their air conditioner.
When refrigerant levels are very low, it places a great deal of stress on the air conditioner's compressor. There's not enough refrigerant circulating through the system to act as a cushion for the piston inside the compressor, which tends to result in the compressor becoming damaged. Replacing a compressor is close to the cost of buying an entirely new air conditioning unit. If you think that your compressor may have been damaged by low refrigerant levels, it's usually better to replace the entire unit rather than wait for the compressor to fail—at that point, you'll likely have to replace the entire unit regardless.
Overall, patching a refrigerant leak and recharging the unit makes the most sense when you have a newer air conditioner that's otherwise in good condition. Sometimes leaks simply happen, and you'll still get several years of great performance out of your air conditioner after an AC repair service fixes the leak. When your air conditioner is nearing its lifespan or has suffered damage because of the leak, however, it's usually better to replace the unit.