It’s the hottest day of August and your home air conditioner is blowing out warm air. You’ve checked to make sure the thermostat is set correctly. You’ve just replaced the air filters and you’ve checked the circuit breaker. You’ve done all you can do on your end and the thought of sweating through the night in an 85-degree room is unbearable. So, you call your local HVAC professional to make a house call and give your unit a thorough check-up. The diagnosis – your air conditioner is low on refrigerant, which means there is a leak in your system… somewhere.

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You’ve heard about sealing refrigerant leaks with leak sealants. It sounds like a possible solution to your problem that won’t leave you with a costly repair bill. Leak sealants may be able to fix small, hard-to-find-leaks, but they are typically not the right solution for most refrigerant leaks and should always be considered a short-term fix rather than a permanent solution.

What are Refrigerants?

Refrigerants are compounds which absorb heat from the environment and provide your air conditioner with cool air when combined with other components such as compressors and evaporators. Until recently, R-22, also called freon, was the most commonly used refrigerant in home air conditioning systems, but the EPA, with the Clean Air Act of 2010, has mandated a phase-out of the refrigerant due to its harmful effects on the ozone layer. The cost of freon has increased by 60-70% in the last few years due to this phase-out, which has created more of a demand for products that claim to seal refrigerant leaks in systems manufactured prior to 2010.

R-22 Phased Out

If your home air conditioning unit was manufactured prior to the year 2010, it most likely runs on freon. From 2010 onward, due to the implementation of the Clean Air Act, all heat pump and air conditioner systems that use R-22 refrigerant were discontinued, replaced by models that use the ozone-friendly R-410A. The EPA has specified that R-22 must now be recovered and recycled in order to be used to service older model equipment, and by 2020, only recycled R-22 will be available to service those older model units. Due to the dwindling supply and the costs associated with recycling R-22, the cost of freon has skyrocketed in recent years.

The Facts About Leak Sealants

Leak sealants, also called leak stop agents, are a blend of chemicals that can be used to seal small leaks in air conditioning units. They can be particularly useful in sealing tiny leaks that cannot be located. If you own an older model air conditioning system that uses R-22 and are experiencing leaks of the coolant, you may inquire about leak sealants to avoid the high price of replacing freon or having to invest in a new air conditioning system. However, a leak sealant may not be your best solution for a number of reasons.

First, a refrigerant is a dangerous substance and it’s meant to stay confined within an air conditioning unit. The only way to really ensure that the refrigerant does not continue to leak is to have an HVAC professional find and repair the leak or replace the unit.

Next, the volume of refrigerant that is leaking will determine whether correcting a leak with a leak sealant should even be attempted. Leak sealants will generally work only on smaller leaks. The more your refrigerant is leaking, the less likely that a sealant will be effective. In addition, it may be difficult to find an HVAC contractor that uses sealants. Many contractors refuse to use leak sealants because they may block passages within the unit, which can then damage your system. Also, the chemicals in leak sealants may not be approved by the manufacturer of your compressor, which could result in voiding the warranty on your unit. However, if you do attempt to repair the leak with leak sealant on more than one occasion, make sure to use the exact sealant that you previously used because mixing two different kinds of leak sealants can contaminate the entire unit.

Finally, a sealant may not work, depending on where your leak is found. Leaks are commonly found in the evaporator and condenser coils. If this is the case, your unit can only be repaired by replacing those parts.

Sealants should be only a short-term fix

If you decide to use leak sealant on a unit leaking refrigerant, it should only be considered a short-term fix. In most cases, leak sealants are only a temporary solution, good for perhaps one year or even less. If your air conditioning unit is an older model, the high cost of R-22, which is only going to increase, will eventually make repairing a leak and adding freon too costly. It may be more cost-effective for you to invest in a new, more energy-efficient unit, which will save you money in the long-term.

How Much More Energy-Efficient are the Newer Units?

Air conditioning units have an efficiency rating called a SEER (seasonal energy efficiency ratio) rating. The higher the SEER rating, the less electricity is needed to run the unit, making it more energy-efficient. In older models, a SEER rating of 13 was considered a highly efficient unit. Today, a 13 SEER rating is the minimum allowable for new units, with SEER ratings on the most energy-efficient systems up into the 20s.

Your 15-year-old air conditioning unit may have a SEER rating of 9 or 10, so even if you upgrade to one of the less expensive new models with a SEER rating of 13 or 14, you’re still getting a much more efficient unit than you had, saving you thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the unit. Will it save you enough to pay for the unit? Probably not, but it will certainly help pay for it.

While buying a top-of-the-line unit with a SEER rating in the 20s will save you more money over the lifetime of the unit, the cost will be substantially more than the price of the unit with the lower SEER rating. Also, a SEER rating is based upon the maximum SEER value, but SEER values are variable and not a constant. A SEER rating of 20 only means that the unit’s SEER rating can be as high as 20, at its maximum.

So, when comparing between units, do look at SEER ratings as a general guide, but remember – the cost savings that you can expect is only an estimate based upon the maximum SEER value over time.

How Does R-410A Differ from R-22, and Why is it Better?

R-22 refrigerant is a hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) which has been shown to deplete the ozone layer. R-410A is a hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) which does not damage the ozone layer, so it is considered safe for the environment. There are several reasons why systems that run on R-410A coolant would be considered superior.

R-410A is able to absorb and release more heat than R-22, allowing the compressor to run cooler and reducing the risk of the compressor burning out due to overheating. R-410A operates at a higher pressure than R-22 and the newer units are built to withstand the higher pressure. This makes them more durable and less at risk for cracking or breaking. The higher pressure is the reason why R-410A cannot be used in a unit designed to run on R-22, which will break under the higher pressure.

Another advantage of R-410A is in the type of lubricant used for the compressor. R-410A uses synthetic oil, whereas R-22 uses mineral oil. Synthetic oil is generally more soluble than mineral oil, thereby allowing the system to run more smoothly, saving wear and tear over a period of time.

Now that you have been told that your air conditioner is leaking refrigerant, you may consider using a leak sealant if you can find a contractor who uses them, but consider it a short-term fix until you can get your existing unit repaired or invest in a new unit.

When shopping for a new unit, remember that SEER ratings are variable, so the cost savings for a higher SEER rated unit over its lifetime is only an estimate. Search to find local HVAC dealers and contractors near you.

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