Refrigerant has been around in one form or another for more than a century. The chemical responsible for creating the cool air coming from your air conditioner has changed through the years. Here we’ll discuss what AC refrigerant is, different types used through the years, and how it works in an AC system.

What is Refrigerant?

It’s the chemical inside any appliance that creates cool air, such as a refrigerator or air conditioner. When certain conditions occur inside the air conditioner, the refrigerant changes its physical state to either absorb heat and humidity or create condensation that leads to cool air. Your home’s air conditioner is pre-loaded with refrigerant for its overall size, such as its cooling capacity.

What are the different types of refrigerants?

Air conditioner refrigerants have evolved through the decades, mostly to provide greater operational efficiency and lower environmental impact. Here we’ll discuss four common types used historically and in modern times.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)

The first type of refrigerant used in residential air conditioners, CFCs, are also known as R-12 refrigerants. It was used for decades until CFCs’ role in environmental damage, specifically the Earth’s atmosphere and ozone layer, became known. R-12 was phased out by manufacturers and officially banned from use in the United States in 1994.

R22 Refrigerant

Known among homeowners as Freon™, R-22 refrigerant succeeded R-12 refrigerant in air conditioners until it was banned from use in 2010. It too was found to damage the environment and atmosphere; homes with AC systems installed before 2010 were grandfathered in for repairs with R-22 for a decade. The refrigerant was phased out in 2020.

R410A Refrigerant

Commonly called Puron, R-410A refrigerant doesn’t have chlorine in its chemical makeup, making it more environmentally friendly than its predecessors. Yet, R-410A retained the cooling characteristics of R22, and air conditioners using this refrigerant generally have higher operating efficiency, lower energy consumption, increased indoor air quality, and are overall more reliable.

R-32 Refrigerant

R-32 refrigerant is one of the newest types of refrigerants and showcases the steady evolution of AC refrigerants. Air conditioners charged with R-32 use 20% less of the refrigerant during operation than Puron systems. This alone makes R-32 systems less expensive to operate for homeowners. It’s also easier for HVAC companies to recycle and has a lower environmental impact.

How Does Refrigerant Work?

When the air conditioner isn’t running, the refrigerant is in its liquid form. But when the AC receives the signal to begin cooling the home, the refrigerant begins a journey.

Starting in the compressor, the refrigerant changes into a high-pressure and high-temperature gas as it absorbs heat and humidity from the air pulled into the air conditioner. Its gaseous form moves to the condenser unit found outside the house. In the condenser, the refrigerant releases the heat inside the evaporator coils, creating condensation as it cools into a low-pressure gas.

The low-pressure gas goes back to the indoor unit and evaporates when exposed to the warm air. Cool air, which is blown into the home by the blower fan and ductwork, forms through evaporation. The refrigerant returns to its liquid form and starts the cooling cycle until the air conditioner turns off.

Can I Change the Refrigerant in my Air Conditioner?

No — air conditioner manufacturers build each system to only work with a specific type of refrigerant, dependent on factors such as internal pressures and overall efficiencies. Adding a different refrigerant, or changing entirely, can damage the entire system and require a full air conditioner replacement.

Signs Your AC Needs Refrigerant Work

If you suspect or find a refrigerant leak, contact an HVAC company immediately. Technicians have the training and equipment to handle refrigerant which is toxic to humans and animals if it’s ingested, inhaled, or touched.

AC is on, but no cool air is coming out

This is a common sign of a refrigerant leak. Air conditioners without enough refrigerant simply recycle the home’s warm air since the refrigerant level is unable to properly remove the heat and humidity.

Coils are Frozen

Without the prescribed amount of refrigerant in the evaporator coils to pull heat and humidity from the air, the coils will frost or freeze over. This usually sets off a chain reaction within the air conditioner’s safety sensors and forces the system to shut down.

Your electric bill suddenly spikes

Air conditioners with refrigerant leaks often cycle on and off more frequently to keep up with the thermostat temperature. The constant on-off uses more electricity, which is reflected in a sudden spike in your monthly electric bill.

You haven’t had a tune-up in a while

Tune-ups are essential to the health and efficiency of your air conditioner. If the system has a refrigerant leak or is prime to develop one, an HVAC technician has the chance to catch the problem and make repairs before it spirals into a situation. Plus, the more efficiently the AC operates, the lower your monthly electric bill.

The next time you’re enjoying a hot day indoors with air conditioning, thank the refrigerant flowing through the system. But if your AC isn’t sending out cool air, contact JW Plumbing, Heating and Air for professional service.

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