You may know that refrigerant is used in your air conditioner, but most homeowners don’t understand how this substance works and how it facilitates cooling. With the help of AC components like compressors and evaporators, refrigerants absorb heat and provide air conditioning to your home.

Here is an explanation of refrigerants and how they work in your air conditioner.

What Are Refrigerants?

Refrigerant is an overall term to describe chemicals that can readily change from a liquid to a gas and are used in air conditioners. This property is what makes them suitable to the purpose, and they are vital to the functioning of cooling equipment. Although Freon is a trademarked name, it is also commonly used to refer to a refrigerant.

Air conditioner refrigerant was first developed in the 1920s, but this chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerant was found to be quite harmful to the environment. By the 1980s, CFCs were found to be major contributors to greenhouse gases and the deterioration of the ozone layer. To replace CFCs, hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerant was developed, which provided a chemical blend that was better for the environment. HFC is still used today, although it is strictly controlled under the Kyoto Protocol.

Refrigerants work as a cooling agent, meaning they absorb heat and provide cool air when used with the right equipment. Refrigerants fluctuate between gas and liquid states, which allows them to work in air conditioners. Refrigerant is stored in an absorption system that consists of a compressor and condenser (explained more below).

Refrigerants come in different varieties, but two varieties are used most often in home and commercial systems.

Different Types of Refrigerants

Many different types of refrigerants exist, but one of the primary ones used today is called R-32 or HFC-32. Used at commercial and residential properties, R-32 is a chemical blend that can switch rapidly through stages of liquid to gas in air conditioners. R-32 lasts a long time and is not as harmful to the environment compared with other refrigerants like R-22.

R-32 is an organic HFC that can last 10 to 15 years and is safer than other refrigerants because of its low flammability. R-32 is also more energy efficient and less expensive than other HFCs. This refrigerant has a better environmental impact too, as measured by Global Warming Potential (GWP). In comparison, R-22 was discovered to have more serious environmental effects and was banned in 2010, except for existing systems that require this refrigerant.

The GWP for R-32 is 675, meaning it is 675 times more powerful than carbon dioxide (CO2). That sounds bad, but in comparison to other refrigerants like R-22, R-32 is much better for the environment. R-22 has a GWP of 1810, making it over 1800 times more potent than CO2, and this refrigerant has low energy efficiency. Other common refrigerants like R-11 are also worse for the environment than R-32. R-11 is over 4,500 times more powerful than CO2.

Alternatively, many newer air conditioning systems use R-410A refrigerants, also known as Puron. R-410A is more efficient with faster cooling ability than R-22. It does have a slightly higher GWP of 1890, though. As of last year, new HVAC systems will no longer use R-410A either. While other refrigerants are out there, you most likely have R-32 or R-410A in your air conditioning system.

How Does Refrigerant Work in Your AC?

The simple explanation for how refrigerant works in your air conditioner is that as it moves through your cooling system, it absorbs heat from the inside and releases it outside. This process repeats until you reach a desired temperature setting.

Central air conditioning systems have two sets of coils, one in the indoor unit and one in the outdoor unit. As refrigerant moves through the indoor coils, it absorbs the indoor heat, which cools the air. Next, the refrigerant shifts to the outside coils to release heat. To make this happen, refrigerant needs to interact with crucial components in your air conditioning system.

The compressor is one of those main components. Located in the outside unit, the compressor increases the temperature and pressure of refrigerant liquid vapor, turning it into a hot gas. As this gas moves through a condenser, a second key component, the heat is captured and transferred, and cool air is produced and circulated. The cycle of turning high-pressure gas into a low-pressure liquid creates evaporation that in turn lowers indoor temperatures.

Refrigerants thus need to interact with the compressor and condenser to provide comfortable home conditions. If problems arise with the compressor or condenser, a refrigerant cannot properly do its job.

How Does Refrigerant Work With a Metering Device?

A metering device is another important component of air conditioning systems that works with refrigerants. This part decreases refrigerant temperature and pressure as it moves from the condenser and flows into an evaporator coil. Two main types of metering devices accomplish this step.

A fixed metering device directs a steady amount of refrigerant into the evaporator coil. You can think of this type as operating in a fixed state that does not vary. A modulating metering device, in comparison, operates differently depending on the circumstances. For example, this type responds to changing weather conditions and changes the level of refrigerant moving to the evaporator coil. Some modulating metering devices come with sensors that control refrigerant levels electronically.

Since the metering device controls the amount of refrigerant moving to the evaporator coil, it is essential to an efficient air conditioning system. If your refrigerant flow is reduced or obstructed, the problem could be the metering device. A service professional would need to inspect it to determine if this is the issue and repair it if necessary.

Refrigerant Problems

Refrigerant leaks are one problem that can interrupt the cooling cycle. Leaks can develop for several reasons, such as corroded pipes or deteriorated connections inside air conditioning systems. Luckily, your AC will provide some signs to help determine if you have a refrigerant leak.

If your air conditioner is blowing warm air, that is one sign you may have a refrigerant leak. Weak or low airflow from your air conditioner is another indication. Strange noises coming from your system are also a sign of a refrigerant leak. Under these conditions, ACs will struggle to keep your house cool. They will lose efficiency and can stop working altogether. Refrigerant leaks are also a safety hazard since exposure to the substance can cause illness. So, if you suspect a refrigerant leak, the best idea is to arrange for a service professional to repair the problem.

The same goes if your AC is overcharged with refrigerant. This means that there is too much refrigerant in your cooling system. The correct level of refrigerant is needed for your air conditioner to keep pressure levels right and to run efficiently. If you suspect an overcharged system, arrange for a service visit to correct the issue.

Reliable HVAC Services

Please contact us at Healthy Home Heating & Air for more information about AC repairs. We provide HVAC maintenance, repair, and replacement services to Charlotte, NC and the surrounding areas. We are a trusted team of professionals who can take care of all your cooling, heating, and plumbing needs. Call us today!

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