When your air conditioner kicks on, the air handler pulls warm air from throughout the home, while replacing it with cool air. To cool the air, your central air conditioner must contain refrigerant to work properly. Unfortunately, the refrigerant can leak, which makes it impossible for the air conditioner to work. The leaking coolant is also dangerous and can damage nearby foliage.
Here are a few of the most common causes of central air conditioner refrigerant leaks and what you should do next.
Damage Caused by Aging or a Malfunction
As your HVAC unit ages, the copper pipes that carry refrigerant through the condenser can suffer damage, whether through natural aging, an HVAC malfunction, or another way. For example, if your central air conditioner is broken and the condenser shakes violently when it kicks on, that shaking can cause cracks in the copper.
Damage can also occur near the fittings, if they naturally loosen over time. Normal wear and tear in an older system can lead to pinhole leaks as well. If a tree falls on the condenser, it can also damage the copper piping. When air filters malfunction or become damaged, too much debris can enter the compressor.
If the compressor becomes damaged, it can also leak refrigerant. Changing the filter regularly can help prevent this form of buildup and damage from occurring.
Damage Caused by Formic Acid
Depending on the type of refrigerant found in your system, the copper pipes could suffer damage by formic acid. Formic acid forms when the refrigerant is exposed to formaldehyde. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, formaldehyde is found in several products found throughout the home.
For example, your living room drapes, laminate flooring, cabinets, furniture, and paint throughout your home might contain small amounts of formaldehyde. Over time, the formaldehyde leaks from these products, becomes airborne, and makes its way into your HVAC system to form formic acid.
This process can take several years, and in most cases, you will have no idea the formic acid is forming until small holes appear in the copper pipes.
Contact Your HVAC Technician Right Away
Watch for refrigerant leaks throughout your HVAC system, and if you notice a small puddle, contact your HVAC technician right away. Refrigerant has a sweet smell and must be cleaned up by a professional. Your technician can pinpoint the cause of your leak and help prevent future refrigerant leaks from occurring.
Depending on the age of your central air conditioner, the HVAC technician might recommend repairing the existing copper piping or replacing it all. Aluminum pipes are often used in place of copper, as it is less resistant to damage from formic acid.
If formic acid is the issue, your technician can help determine the right type of refrigerant is right for your system. Lowering the levels of airborne formaldehyde can also help prevent formic acid from forming. For example, avoid purchasing products that use formaldehyde, including cleaning products. Periodically opening the windows throughout your home allows airborne formaldehyde to leak out rather than building up and settling inside your HVAC's copper pipes.
Never try to refill the refrigerant in your system as well. Adding too little refrigerant can cause your HVAC system to run inefficiently. Adding too much can overload the system and cause further damage.
From damage caused by usual wear and tear to the buildup of formic acid, there are several reasons why your HVAC system will leak refrigerant. If you find refrigerant on the ground outside your condenser or anywhere, do not try to repair the damage or clean up the refrigerant yourself. Instead, contact a local air conditioning technician for help.