Home Buyer Beware – Refrigerant Top-Off Masks Critical Problem

It’s an all too common scenario. You find a house you want to buy and have it inspected. The general inspector recommends that the air conditioning system be serviced so you ask the seller to get this taken care of. The seller calls out an air conditioning technician who determines that the air conditioner is low in refrigerant and charges the system so that it will cool properly. What’s wrong with this picture?

A sound, properly functioning central air conditioner is a hermetically sealed system. It does not consume refrigerant. If a technician has to add refrigerant (commonly known by the brand names Freon [R22] or Puron [R410A]), the system has a leak which will not go away on its own but which will get worse over time.

A small percentage of leaks will be coming from a valve, seal, or gasket which can be inexpensively repaired or replaced. However, the vast majority of the time, the leak will be in the condenser coil or the evaporator coil itself. When this happens the coil or the entire unit will need to be replaced. The only way to know where the system is leaking refrigerant is to have a leak search performed.

What will happen if the seller doesn’t have the leak searched and repaired? If it’s a slow leak, the air conditioning system may hold an adequate charge for a year or two. If it’s a moderate leak, it may hold a charge for several months. Sometimes, if the leak is quite large or if there are multiple leaks, the system could lose the refrigerant in a matter of weeks or even days. It is not only costly to regularly add refrigerant to a leaking system, it is also a violation of EPA regulations. If you buy a house and the air conditioner needs refrigerant, a reputable ac contractor will charge it up once, but afterward he may refuse to add refrigerant again until the leak has been repaired. In most cases, this will mean having the condenser or the evaporator coil replaced.

The possibility that you may have to replace the condenser unit and/or the evaporator coil if you purchase a house with an air conditioner that has been topped-off with refrigerant is not the only problem. When the refrigerant leaks again, the system may run constantly causing either the condenser unit or the evaporator coil to freeze-up. The freezing up and the subsequent defrosting of the evaporator coil (located in the attic) can lead to serious water damage.

If you’re buying a house and the inspector recommends having the ac serviced, ask for a copy of the service invoice. If refrigerant has been added to the system, insist that a leak search be performed and request a quote from the ac company for the repair or the replacement of the equipment required to fix the leak.

Blogger Terry Portillo owns and operates ACU Air Heating and Air Conditioning in The Woodlands, TX.

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