It’s winter time here in the valley, and chances are you haven’t thought much about your vehicle’s air conditioning in a while. But let’s face it even in the dead of winter, the daytime highs in Phoenix can still make your car’s interior a bit warmer than you might like. So let’s talk about the obvious – even a poorly maintained air conditioner will function OK in 80 degrees. But how do we make certain it will perform just as well in the dead of summer?
First, let’s go over some basic terminology so we can better explain how your AC functions. There are five key components to any air conditioner:
Refrigerant: The Lifeblood of Your Air Conditioning
Most newer vehicles use R134a which is a relatively safe and easy to handle gas. This gas is the lifeblood of your air conditioning and it is very important to notate here, that newer vehicles are very sensitive to the refrigerant level. Most newer vehicles contain 16 oz or less of R134a, and being even slightly over or undercharged can wreak havoc on your AC.
Compressor: Turning Refrigerant Gas Into Liquid
The air compressor is responsible for compressing your refrigerant from a gas into a liquid. It is typically run by your engine via a drive belt or serpentine belt. Many newer vehicles are using electric AC compressors that are not driven by the engine and can be run with the engine off. This is particularly beneficial with hybrid or electric vehicles.
Condenser: The Radiator For Your Air Conditioning
The condenser is in the very front of your vehicle (right behind the bumper), and is responsible for dissipating the heat from your refrigerant once it has been compressed into a liquid. A quick chemistry break here – compressing any gas into a liquid results in the production of heat. Heat is obviously the enemy here, so it is the job of the condenser to get rid of it. The condenser can be thought of as the radiator for your air conditioning.
Expansion Valve: Converting Refrigerant Liquid Back to Gas
The expansion valve (or orifice tube, as used in some older vehicles) is responsible for converting your liquid refrigerant back into a gaseous state. Going back to our chemistry break, as a liquid is converted back to a gas it cools. Think of how much cooler a freshly watered lawn is than the Phoenix asphalt on a summer day. This temperature difference is caused by the evaporation of water, the same theory holds true with your air conditioning. The expansion valve is no more than a fancy device that forces the liquid to evaporate into a gas and this is where the magic happens.
Evaporator: A Tiny Radiator
The evaporator is a small aluminum box that is typically located under your dash. The freshly evaporated refrigerant travels through the evaporator and is dissipated into the interior of your vehicle. You must also picture your evaporator as a tiny radiator, air is forced over it (by your blower motor) and then through the vents, and onto your happy face.
When Does My AC Need To Be Serviced?
Now that we’ve got the technical jargon down, let’s move on to the original question – when does my AC need to be serviced? The short answer is simple – If your car is six years old or older, it is likely noticeably low on refrigerant.
Even a properly functioning AC with no visible leaks will lose small amounts of refrigerant. This is due to the fact that your AC may be operating at refrigerant pressures well over 350 psi in the heat of the summer. This pressurized liquid will slowly escape through your air conditioner’s rubber hoses and sealing O rings.
So why shouldn’t you use a store bought do-it-yourself kit? The simple answer is that they are inaccurate and sometimes unsuitable. But here are a few more reasons why:
- The only true way to know exactly how much refrigerant is in your system is to completely recover the old refrigerant, and recharge it with the precisely recommended manufacturer’s capacity. When you use the do-it-yourself kit, you are just topping the system off.
- By just topping the system off, you are essentially guessing. The do-it-yourself kit relies on a gauge that reads the pressure on the low side of your vehicle’s AC. While this is “close,” it is definitely not precise.Your system’s pressure can vary greatly, depending on the ambient temperature outside, and even the temperature of your vehicle. So by guessing, you can potentially overcharge or undercharge your vehicle’s AC, and either situation can dramatically decrease the life of your air compressor. An overcharged system can cause your compressor to turn on and off excessively, and also potentially damage components due to the sheer pressures we are talking about. I have seen a couple cases where an AC compressor has actually exploded! In the case of an undercharged system, your AC compressor cannot be properly lubricated. You see, it is also the job of your refrigerant to transfer the AC oil through the moving parts of your AC compressor. When this does not happen, your compressor will end it’s life at an undesired time.
- Some do-it-yourself kits contain “stop leak.” Now I don’t know who came up with this, but it is absurd. Stop leak is a very nasty substance that will gum up your AC system and eventually stop the compressor from being properly lubricated.
- When you recharge an AC system, you must also add the proper amount of oil. Yes, do-it-yourself kits do contain oil, but who knows how much is making it into your system. Too much or too little will damage your compressor.
With all this said, what is the proper way to service an air conditioner? Short answer – take it to your mechanic! We invest in state of the art (see very expensive) air conditioning machines, and will recover and properly recharge your system with the precise amount of refrigerant and oil.
This is the only way to do it right with today’s sensitive systems. This will ensure a long lasting, trouble free operation. And remember, most AC services are under $150. It can cost upwards of $2,000 to replace a damaged AC compressor. So what are you REALLY saving by doing it yourself?
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