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How the Refrigerant in an AC Works—And Why It Matters

air-conditioner-unit-being-repairedOne of the parts of how an air conditioner operates that few people aside from HVAC technicians understand is the refrigerant that allows the AC to cool down a space. People often assume that refrigerant is part of how the air conditioner is powered, and that eventually the refrigerant will run out and more will need to be put in.

This isn’t how refrigerant works, however, and we’d like to go into the details of what refrigerant is, what it does, and why knowing this may help you detect a possible repair in the future.

Refrigerant is a chemical blend

Technically, refrigerant is any chemical that can change between liquid and gaseous state to absorb and release heat. Many different types of chemicals have been used as refrigerants in air conditioners over the decades, including ammonia and propane (not exactly safe!). Today, residential air conditioners use a non-toxic, non-combustible chemical blend known as R-410, or Puron. R-410A is a mixture of difluoromethane (R-32) and pentafluoroethane (R-125) and is a replacement for the ozone depleting R-22 that was in use for years. R-410A can easily shift between liquid and gas states.

Refrigerant is a heat transfer fluid

Okay, lots of technical details there. But what does this R-410A chemical blend actually do? Well, it’s not a fuel. The energy source that runs an air conditioner is electricity. What the refrigerant does is serve as a heat transfer fluid. When it evaporates, it absorbs heat. When it condenses, it releases heat. By evaporating the refrigerant in the indoor coils of an air conditioner, it draws heat from the air and makes it cooler. The refrigerant then moves to the outside coils where it condenses and exhausts the heat. That’s the basic way that refrigerant allows an AC to make a space cooler—a process called heat exchange.

Refrigerant doesn’t run out (normally)

Here’s something important to know about what happens during heat exchange. Or rather, what doesn’t happen. The refrigerant doesn’t dissipate as it switches between liquid and gas. The amount of R-410A in the AC when it was installed should remain the same for the whole life of the system. This is known as the system’s charge. Under most circumstances, you don’t need to worry about having to put more refrigerant into your AC.

Refrigerant leaks can happen—and they’re serious

The one way that an air conditioner can lose refrigerant is through leaks along the copper refrigerant lines or at connection points. This is a serious problem because not only does this make it harder for the AC to cool down a space, the AC is designed for a specific refrigerant pressure. If the pressure changes, it will cause damage to the air conditioner’s components and eventually force the compressor to burn out. Only a Haddonfield, NJ, HVAC contractor is licensed to handle refrigerant, and only a licensed technician can take care of jobs such as sealing up leaks in an air conditioner and recharging the refrigerant. If you notice your AC is losing cooling power, call a pro right away to see if a refrigerant leak is behind the trouble.

Need to get your AC repaired? Trust to us: Gibson Heating & Cooling serves the greater Cherry Hill, NJ area.

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