Portable air conditioners are fantastic for keeping spaces livable when the heat and humidity get to be too much. When they stop being effective, it can be for a few reasons, including leaking refrigerant. Industrious DIYers might be inspired to refill or recharge the refrigerant, but you should never do so.
How Does Refrigerant Work?
An air conditioner's compressor uses coils to circulate refrigerant. The actual refrigerants have changed over time due to environmental concerns. Regardless, air conditioner refrigerants have always operated the same way. They use a change of chemical state to capture and dispose of heat.
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The refrigerant moves through the air conditioner's coils, starting as a gas that absorbs indoor heat, but then it converts to a highly pressurized cold liquid. This liquid flows to the fan, and the fan blows air that then cools when in contact with these coils. The cooled air then cools your space.
What Is Freon?
Depending on your age, you might remember lots of talk of Freon back in the '80s when the hole in the ozone layer was a big topic. Freon is refrigerant, but it's a brand name. The chemicals that proved toxic to the atmosphere were chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which had been used in air conditioning and refrigeration for several decades.
CFCs were phased out long ago, but HCFC-based equipment was manufactured until 2010. It's HCFC-22 or R22 that runs some older portable air conditioners, but if you need a refill, you're out of luck because HCFC-22 was phased out in 2020, and it's now illegal for chemical manufacturers to produce it for air conditioning systems. If you have a poorly functioning system using R22 refrigerant, it's time to replace it.
The good news is that portable air conditioners are more effective than ever, are well priced, and use modern refrigerants that are safer but still too toxic for homeowners to use. Hydrofluorocarbons are most commonly used today. Still, it's not a maintenance chore for you because homeowners should never "refill" their portable air conditioners since the refrigerant should never reduce in volume.
Why Refrigerant Shouldn’t Be Refilled
Technically, you can have a certified technician refill your portable air conditioner, but that's like bailing out a flood without turning off the tap. Refrigerant should remain a constant in your system; it's not like a car, where you need to top up the oil level for optimal running. Unless there's a leak, refrigerant stays within the system and recirculates until you stop using it years down the line.
If a repair technician tells you that you need more refrigerant and gives you a quote to refill it, lay on the brakes. The refrigerant is leaking, that's why it needs to be refilled, and any quote should include the cost of repairing a leak. If not, the technician is trying to bamboozle you because he knows you'll need to call him again next summer to refill it because the leak will force your hand.
Your choices are to repair the leak and refill the unit or to purchase a new one and recycle the broken one. Either way, you need to deal with the leak.
The Final Word on Refrigerant
You're not allowed to buy your own refrigerant. It can only be purchased by a licensed HVAC company because refrigerants are a regulated product. Disposal of refrigerant must be done with EPA-approved capture methods. If you suspect your machine is leaking refrigerant, have it repaired immediately. A leaking unit can be toxic whether it's in use or sitting idle.
If this has you thinking of looking at air conditioners to replace an older model, then you might want to avoid refrigerant R134A, as it's considered a greenhouse gas, and it stands a good chance of being phased out. There are better choices, like R410A and R32.