What Does it Mean When My HVAC System is Leaking Refrigerant?

Presidential Heating & Air Conditioning

Gaithersburg HVAC Contractors


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What is Refrigerant?

air conditioner on the roof of an office building that underwent an HVAC repair recently from an HVAC contractorTo understand why refrigerant is important, you need to first understand what refrigerant is. In the simplest terms, a refrigerant is a chemical used in your heat pump in your HVAC system. It changes from gas to liquid and back to gas as it cycles through your system. This chemical reaction is what pulls the heat out of the enclosed space and carries it outdoors where it is vented out. A HVAC repair is required when your HVAC system is leaking refrigerant.

Until recent decades, the refrigerants most in use in HVAC systems were synthetic refrigerants called chlorofluorocarbons, also known as “CFCs”. (“Freon”, once the most popular CFC refrigerant in the world, is actually the commercial name for a refrigerant patented by DuPont, now being phased out due to its harmful effects on the environment.) Although developments in refrigeration technology have produced safer a refrigerants and more efficient equipment, the older refrigerant chemicals are still used by older systems, such as industrial freezers. These cannot be converted inexpensively to modern refrigerants by any HVAC contractors.

Other common substances used as refrigerants in commercial applications include ammonia, sulfur dioxide, and non-halogenated hydrocarbons such as propane. These are less harmful to the environment. They are used in air-conditioning systems for buildings, sport and leisure facilities, certain chemical/pharmaceutical facilities, in the automotive industry, and in the food industry. Carbon dioxide is gaining traction as an alternative refrigerant in commercial and residential systems because of its non-flammable, non-ozone depleting properties. It can be used in air conditioning, hot water pumps, commercial refrigeration, and vending machines.

Why is Refrigerant Important?

The refrigerant cools the space by removing heat from it. Without the refrigerant, your air conditioner cannot cool the space.

Whatever refrigerant your system uses, it must have a manageable low evaporation and condensation point. It is at the evaporation point and the condensation point where the significant majority of heat is removed from the air and transferred to the refrigerant. To remove the heat from the air, the refrigerant is evaporated by lowering its pressure. During this thermodynamic process, the refrigerant is condensed and becomes vapor by taking heat from the air, making it cool.

What Causes Refrigerant to Leak?

air conditioner in water about to be checked for leaks to see if an HVAC repair is neededRefrigerant leaks, which require an HVAC repair, are among the most common problems faced by HVAC system owners. Leaks can be caused by several things, such as vibrations from equipment operation, and normal wear and tear on the joints and connections in the components. Understand that the refrigerant circulates under high pressure, causing stress on the tubing, leading to a thinning of the tube walls over time. Thinning walls are prone to more leaking. Another common source of leaks is corroding copper in the coil. Copper is subject to corrosion caused by substances in the air such as cleaners, air fresheners, and “off-gassing” by building materials and furnishings. Corrosion weakens the copper tube walls of the indoor coil and can cause leakage in multiple locations. When the coil has substantial leakage it’s time for an HVAC repair and replace.

How Will You Know if the Refrigerant is Leaking?

Refrigerants leaks do happen. You may not notice any sign of leakage. Only professional HVAC contractors will be able to detect a slow leak using specialized equipment.

If your system has been leaking for a while or has a sizeable leak, you may notice some telltale signs. Warm air may be blowing out of the vents, rather than cooled air, indicating that the system is not cooling like it should.  If you can see holes or cracks in the coil it’s time for an HVAC repair.  On visual examination of your indoor equipment, you may notice frost building up on the coil or see condensation leaving puddles on the floor.  You might even be able to hear the refrigerant escaping. If you notice any of these symptoms, you need to call a professional HVAC contractor for HVAC repair right away. The refrigerant in your system may be toxic and even dangerous. Moreover, EPA rules require a leak to be found and repaired by a set deadline.

HVAC contractors will determine which method of detection to use. One of the fastest methods is an electronic leak detector. These detectors can identify a leak of hydro fluorocarbons (HFCs) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) quickly. Quick identification of a leak is important because companies are subject to fines if their refrigerant emissions are not fixed within an EPA-established time frame.

Due to these potential liabilities, some companies are employing refrigerant leak tracking software. A refrigerant tracker monitors refrigeration and HVAC systems twenty-four hours each day. If the system develops a leak, the software application instantly detects the location. This software may be useful to your business and may save your company money on HVAC repair every year.

Importance of Using Professional HVAC Contractors

welding of a copper pipe, commonly done by HVAC contractors, during an HVAC repairRefrigerant management regarding your HVAC system is important. As a facility manager or building owner, you may not be aware that lack of compliance with EPA regulations is usually due to being unaware of the requirements that apply to your facility or business or ignoring them. However, EPA can enforce them by investigating tips about reported leaks, conducting surprise inspections, and other enforcement actions. If the EPA finds violations they can impose substantial fines on the building owner, even if a contractor committed or is responsible for the violation during an HVAC repair.

“Building systems are the lifeblood of any facility. Without lighting, water, or heating and cooling, a building would be uninhabitable. That’s why a strong preventative and predictive HVAC maintenance program isn’t an option; it’s a must,” according to Buildings.com, an online community for building owners and facility managers.

Aside from the issues concerning refrigerant leaks, a well-maintained HVAC system saves money in the long run. The better the HVAC system is maintained, the more likely you will get at least the appropriate life-cycle from it. Be assured however that if you neglect routine maintenance, the system will deteriorate faster than it should. Faulty operation of your HVAC system can impair viable occupancy. If you maintain the system, through regular HVAC repair, people can inhabit the building comfortably and you can realize full productivity.

Contact licensed professional HVAC contractors with experience in commercial HVAC systems for more information and to schedule an evaluation of your system.

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