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Most folks are shocked to learn their air conditioner system is contaminated. "How could this happen," is a common response. Many refrigerant products, sold to consumers, contain things other than pure refrigerant.

Air conditioner components need an almost sterile environment to survive. When manufacturers assemble a vehicle, they take great care to keep the system clean. A powerful machine vacuums air and moisture from the system. The receiver or accumulator also contains an agent to help remove any moisture that may remain. Manufacturers use high quality oil and refrigerant to charge the system. Because of these standards, many vehicle air conditioners will last years with no problems.

Identifyer showing a contaminated system

A proper repair can provide years of additional use, when a system fails. This often involves identifying, removing and replacing the pressurized refrigerant in the system. Professionals remove existing refrigerant with a recycle-machine and replace it when the job is complete.

The cleanliness and purity of the refrigerant may affect the life of the air conditioner. Unfortunately, unsuspecting vehicle owners may contaminate their air conditioner without realizing it. Many refrigerant products sold contain things other than pure refrigerant.

What comes in the can?

Most vehicles today, use refrigerant R-134a to pressurize the system. Properly installed, pure R-134a has very few issues. The problem is, finding pure refrigerant is not as simple as buying a can at the part store. Some consumer refrigerants may contain compounds, such as R-22, R-142b, R-152a, sealers and other contaminants.

Conterfeit refrigerant may be a big problem

Counterfeit R-134a is also a problem. It has even been found to contain R-40. This contaminant may chemically react with aluminum inside the air-conditioning system. Once added to the system it may generate highly reactive and possibly toxic compounds. Exposing R-40 to moisture or the air can produce a strong acid that may destroy the system. It can also react violently and explode. Several containers have exploded, some resulting in deaths. Fortunately R-40 has not been found in the United States yet. It has affected many military vehicles, serving in the Middle East. They have also reported cases in Europe.

Adding compounds, other than R-134a to an air conditioner may contaminate the system. Most often this happens with home air conditioner charge kits. This can also happen in a professional shop, which buys bargain brand refrigerant. A high-quality shop uses only name brand refrigerants and tests the contents before using it. Most high-quality air-conditioning service shops also identify the contents of a vehicle, before service to protect equipment and other clients.

Disposing of contaminated refrigerant

Air conditioner repair often begins with identifying and removing the existing refrigerant. When an air conditioner is contaminated, an automotive repair shop cannot recycle the contents. Removal of the waste presents many very expensive problems. The repair shop cannot use their recycling equipment to remove contaminated refrigerant.

The shop must use a dedicated recovery machine to remove the contents. This machine is dedicated to removal of contaminated refrigerants. Such a machine is an added expense, as the shop cannot use it with uncontaminated refrigerant.

Removing and disposing of contamination is very expensive

Once removed, the shop is liable for disposal of the waste. This can be very expensive. Chemically identifying the contents may be necessary before waste producers will accept it for further processing. A lab uses specialized equipment to learn the nature of the chemicals in the mixture. After identification, they would send the contents to a facility that will accept it for disposal. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, due to the expense of disposal, some facilities may require a minimum of 500 to 1000 pounds before accepting the waste.

Who pays for all this?

A shop removing contents from a contaminated air conditioner is responsible while recovering, identifying, transporting and until the processor destroys the waste. Heavy fines may apply if anything goes wrong. Many shops will simply refuse the repair job. Those that do accept will pass the charges to the client. All of this is before they resolve any problem with the air conditioner and beyond that expense.

The vehicle owner pays the cost if the refrigant is removed

Being involved with such an expensive issue may overwhelm many vehicle owners. Contacting a product-liability attorney may be an avenue. Sellers and manufacturers of problem-causing products could be held liable. This too will be an expensive process, and a much better plan is to avoid the problem. Some full coverage insurance policies may also help.

 Let only a trusted professional add anything to your air conditioner.

 Ask if the shop identifies refrigerants

 Ask what brand refrigerant the shop uses

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