All air conditioning systems and heat pumps require refrigerant to transport heat from one location to another. With an air conditioning system, the refrigerant transfers heat from inside your home to the outside environment. Your system does not consume refrigerant in normal operation, but leaks can result in reduced refrigerant pressure and, eventually, cause the system to run dry.
Unfortunately, the consequences of refrigerant loss are not binary. While a slow leak may not cause your system to run out of refrigerant, the reduced pressure can still impact its operation. As your system slowly runs out of refrigerant, it may perform less effectively and use more energy to keep your home cool.
How Does Low Refrigerant Pressure Affect Your System?
An air conditioning system's refrigerant can work in surprising and counterintuitive ways. Unlike the coolant in your car, your air conditioner's refrigerant doesn't remain liquid. Instead, the refrigerant cycle relies on the refrigerant's ability to transition between a liquid and a vapor. The refrigerant boils and vaporizes as it heats and condenses back into a liquid as it cools.
Insufficient refrigerant pressure can affect the refrigerant cycle by altering the refrigerant's ability to transition between phases. With reduced pressure, the liquid refrigerant may not vaporize in the evaporator coil, potentially allowing the liquid refrigerant to return to the compressor. Returning liquid refrigerant can result in a condition known as "slugging," which can damage the compressor.
Additionally, the pressure in the system can directly impact the temperature at the evaporator and condenser coils. Although it may seem counterintuitive, less pressure in the evaporator will result in colder temperatures, potentially causing ice to form on the coils. While colder may seem better, air conditioner manufacturers carefully design their systems to maintain temperatures above freezing.
Can Low Refrigerant Affect System Efficiency?
One of the earliest warning signs of low refrigerant pressure is ice forming on the evaporator coil. The low pressure reduces the temperature near the coil, causing the condensation around the coil to form into ice. The evaporator coil requires as much exposed surface area as possible to absorb heat efficiently, and the ice can act as an insulator that prevents efficient heat transfer.
In addition to making the coil less efficient at transferring heat, ice may eventually build to a point where the refrigerant will no longer boil. Once this occurs, your system will usually begin to short cycle or shut down until the ice thaws. As a result, your system will frequently cycle on and off, using more energy while failing to reach your thermostat's target set point.
Ultimately, even a slow refrigerant leak can cost you a substantial amount of money by reducing your system's efficiency and, eventually, leading to problems that can cause more severe damage. If you notice the warning signs of a refrigerant leak, the best option is always to repair it as soon as possible.
For more information, contact a company such as Big Rock Service Company LLC.