Air conditioning has become standard equipment because there’s no longer an alternative way to cool off the passenger cabin. Cars used to come standard with under-dash vents you could open up to get airflow – and, of course, wing vent windows. This made a car without AC livable and even comfortable as well as less expensive, since you could go without the cost of the then-optional AC and the higher cost of feeding the car, since AC is a power accessory that results in more fuel being used as well as a heavier car, which will also burn more fuel.
AC is both unavoidable – and essential.
We’re utterly dependent on the now-standard AC to keep things cool. If the AC isn’t working – or not working well – the car becomes a mobile Turkish steam bath.
It can also be needlessly expensive to return it to proper operation. With AC, small things – like a small leak, the gradual loss of refrigerant and the lubricant inside the system – can lead to big things, such as a ruined compressor.
And that can ruin your day.
But what can you do to avoid problems like that – and keep things cool? Several things. The first thing being – and it’s too late now – to regularly turn the AC on in the winter. This will circulate the lubricant within the system, which will help prevent leaks of refrigerant by keeping seals (O-rings and such) pliable. You do not have to freeze, either. You can run the AC without turning down the temperature. Adjust the temperature to as you like; just be sure the AC light is on. That means refrigerant – and lubricant – are circulating. Do this a couple of time a month during the winter months and your chances of losing refrigerant – and cooling when you need it – will be less.
As it warms up outside, pay attention to how it’s cooling inside. If you think it’s not cooling things down as well as it did last summer – and it’s still only spring – now is the time to have the system checked out by a qualified AC technician. Before you lose too much refrigerant – and lubricant.
Before you over-work the compressor and croak it.
Keep in mind, also, that refrigerant is expensive. Every pound you lose to leaks, the more you’ll pay to replace what was lost. The bill for replacement refrigerant will be exorbitant if you happen to have an older car with an AC system that uses R-12 refrigerant, banned supposedly because of its ozone-hole making abilities but actually because the patent was due to expire and thus the cost to make it was about to go down. Can’t have that – so we got a replacement refrigerant (R-134a) in cars made since roughly the mid-1990s . But – look out! – that refrigerant is being phased out, too – and for the same spurious (and actual) reasons.
There are other things besides leaks which can negatively affect AC system performance – and some of these things you can deal with yourself. Or at least, check and identify.
The belt which drives the AC compressor, for instance. If it’s loose due to age or being out of adjustment, the AC won’t cool as well. This is easily fixed and sometimes, you can fix it for free. If it’s just that the belt needs tightening, that’s all you may need to do. Just be certain not to overtighten it. That can croak a compressor, too. Refer to a shop manual for your vehicle and tighten the adjuster (usually, a bolt that threads on a nut which increases or decreases the tension) until it’s right – and you’re done.
If you have a serpentine belt – one of those single belts that turns all the accessories – the tension will usually be automatically set just right by the tensioner. All you have to do is remove the old belt and slip the new one on. Just be sure to remember how the old belt came off. Snap a pic of the way it’s routed with your phone to jog your memory.
If the belt – standard type or serpentine – is loose due to age, it may not be possible to tension it correctly due to belt stretch. In that case, replace the belt – and not just because of poor AC performance. The old, stretched belt is going to break soon anyhow. Might as well replace it before it does.
If you notice your AC isn’t cooling as well as it used to, another thing to check – if your car has a mechanical (engine driven) fan – is whether it is freewheeling. Not spinning when the engine is running. If it isn’t, the fan clutch is probably bad and not only will your AC not cool very well, your car will run hot, too. Fan clutches just croak after a while. It’s routine service. Another way to check the function of the fan clutch – with the engine off – is to try to turn the fan by hand. You should feel drag. If t spins freely – little to no resistance – the fan clutch is probably bad. If you’re reasonably handy with basic tools, you can change it out yourself for about $50.
The one thing everyone should do – and which requires no tools – is pop the hood, take a garden hose and spray down the radiator and the AC condenser – which looks like a smaller radiator and is usually mounted just ahead of the radiator. Over time, dust, dirt and bugs can accumulate and reduced airflow over the condenser/radiator will affect AC performance.
Also check the radiator shroud to make sure it’s not misaligned or missing any pieces; again, this is about airflow.
And, avoiding the Turkish steam bath!
. . .
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