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The Freon Leak Myth

We have all experienced this, either first hand or from a friend telling us about their experience. But how does a freon leak occur? When a freon leak happens, where does it go? Is a freon leak safe for the environment? Can a freon leak be repaired?

All of these questions (and more) often arise with home ownership. In the heating and air conditioning trades there has been a common misconception that freon leaks often and needs to be “topped off” from year to year. Many homeowners believe that a freon leak is what is causing their system to not turn on during the hot summer months. Like air in a car tire, when it’s low it needs to be filled up. However, if the hole isn’t addressed, then the air will continue to leak out and cause other problems with the vehicle. The same is true regarding a freon leak. Once a freon leak occurs, a service technician can add more to correct the charge but until the cause of the leak is diagnosed and resolved, the freon leak will continue.

In many instances, freon leaks will gradually get worse as time goes on. Leaks often start out as “pinhole leaks”. The industry has coined these as “champagne leaks” because the freon leak will often show up as tiny bubbles. A freon leak will often show up in the evaporator coil. This is the most common spot. The freon is mostly a superheated gas while in the evaporator coil and can therefore leak from smaller holes. Freon is part gas and part liquid, depending on where the chemical is in the process and in the system. When freon leaks as a liquid, this often occurs outside. This is a more uncommon place for a leak to show up and will often cost more when it does.

Freon leaks are unsafe for the environment because of the capability to deplete the ozone layer. More important than that though is the possibility for freon to enter the airflow inside the interior of the home. This chemical can be sensed by some and will often report a foul-smelling odor coming from their hvac system when it kicks on.

All that being said, the common idea that freon leaks over time is a myth and is simply not true. The system does not consume the freon over a period of time. Nor does it get absorbed into the copper tubing. The only place for the freon to go is out- through a leak in the system.

One of our past articles dives into WHY some service companies would say the freon is bad…

aluminum vs copper coil comparison
500 hour salt spray test performed by Trane

So, how does a freon leak happen?

A freon leak can happen from a variety of different methods. I’ll cover the most common ones here.

  • Poor solder joints and connections. There are varying installation methods and most methods do not rule out a leak from the day the equipment was installed. We test every sealed system after every joint is soldered with nitrogen. With more than 300 PSI in the system, any leak will quickly show up and can be fixed before the system even runs. Nitrogen is an ideal chemical to use because it has a lower molecular weight than the chemical compounds of R22 or R410. Helium has the lowest molecular weight but can be very expensive to obtain just to vent out on every installation.
  • Major damage to any component of the air conditioner system. Tell your lawn guys to put on white gloves around your air conditioner! Often a lawnmower banging into the air conditioner or weed whacker hitting the copper tubing can cause a freon leak to develop.
  • Poor manufacturing. More and more manufactures are looking to get their products sold in a down economy. Many are cutting corners and shipping units that develop freon leaks within the first years of service! Our technicians often find systems to develop leaks within the first 5-10 years of service life here in the Treasure Valley. Additionally, high efficiency air conditioning systems are much larger than the older units and are being made with thinner copper tubings to help reduce the sizes.
But… What about a lesser known cause?
  • Formaldehyde. This common chemical present in many homes will interact with the copper in such a way that will begin to deteriorate and corrode on a microscopic level. Formicary corrosion happens over a period of time and is often unnoticeable until something like a 6 year old air conditioner needing to be recharged… Newer homes are often notorious for developing freon leaks quicker than older and more established homes because of the presence of more chemicals in the building products. If you have researched indoor air quality, you’ll know that formaldehyde is a major pollutant in our homes. An infamous case of severe formaldehyde in the living space was the FEMA trailer provided to Katrina victims. While less severe than a FEMA trailer, most homes have a measurable amount of formaldehyde in the indoor air, and this will always cause formicary corrosion and freon leaks.
Trane All-Aluminum Evaporator Coil
Trane All-Aluminum Coil
copper evaporator coil
Copper Coil

This corrosion will advance at quicker stages when their is more moisture present on the evaporator coils. Moisture develops from the air traveling across the coil and being condensed-just like rain clouds in the atmosphere. Undersized ductwork or dirt filters can cause a freon leak to develop at quicker rates.

How can freon leaks be resolved?

The long term solution is to insist that evaporator coils made from all-aluminum be installed in your home. Trane began manufacturing all-aluminum coils in 2005 and have great success with this material. Through extensive testing and engineering, Trane has found that aluminum is resistant to formicary corrosion. They carry exclusive patents on their all aluminum evaporator coils and a wise choice when needing to install a new coil.

Trane all aluminum evap. coil
Trane all aluminum evap. coil

We have been testing repair methods that allow a freon leak to be temporarily taken care of but not permanently resolved. We have not found enough success in our early testing to offer this as a recommended repair solution for our customers. In most cases the most permanent repair solution is to replace the entire evap. coil instead of trying to weld the pinholes throughout the system. Welding a small leak can cost several hundreds of dollars and most of the time more leaks will show up later; costing more money in the long run.

Trane coils are the best long-term solution if you want to avoid any freon leaks in the future. I think we can all imagine lots of ways to spend our hard-earned cash instead of dumping it into freon and evaporator coils…

freon leak from evaporator coil
Rusty Evaporator Coil Leaking Freon

What to do if your air conditioner is leaking freon

Our service technicians will locate the leak of the freon, upon your approval, and will then provide options to repair. If the leak can be repaired as a cheaper solution, we will provide you the cost. If more work is entailed, we will let you know all costs upfront before proceeding on the work. Our goal is to fix something once and for all. We always look for the root cause and seek to address that before repairing parts…

Our service technicians have a variety of methods available at their disposal, such as:

  • Prior repair history
  • Age of air conditioning system and components
  • Type of freon installed in your air conditioner
  • Tampering with the system that has taken place
  • Faulty prior repairs from other service companies
  • Poor installation methods
  • Lack of proper airflow or failing fan motors
  • Extensive dust buildup causing restrictions in the airflow across the coil
  • Abnormal amounts of humidity or moisture present and the causes

If you think your system is low on freon or is leaking, look at the repair history of the unit. Often times your air conditioner will have oil stains around the service ports outside if it is leaking freon. If the freon leak is in a tough spot, it can sometimes cost $1000’s to have the issue resolved. That being said, we guarantee to provide you with options for getting your system resolved for what works for your budget.

Take immediate note of any changes in operation from season to season. Since you live in the home, you are the best judge of how well your system is working.

Also, if you notice ice buildup around the copper tubing outside, this can often mean that your air conditioner has lost freon during the season and should get looked at immediately by one of our professional service technicians. The best action is prevention- our annual maintenance plans can keep you cool during the hottest months and avoid costly repairs from failures. Call us today and see how our award-winning service can save you so much money.

Learn more about our Furnace and Air Conditioning Maintenance packages.

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