Chilling Out. . . Before it Gets Hot!

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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.

As Inspector Clouseau used to say, not anymore.

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.

And unlivable.

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.

More reason to not lose it to leaks.

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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  1. The A/C in my Ford gets nice and chilly. Never had a problem with it. The heater gets nice and toasty when I need it during the winter.

  2. My curent vehicle and the old Audi A3 had a serious problem when running at highway speed with the windows down. The airflow is such that it sets up a standing pressure wave in the interior. This will make it impossible to hear anything and in the case of the A3 put painful pressure on my eardrums.

    • Hi RK,

      I experience that all the time in the new cars I test drive.They are designed to be driven with the windows up, I think. Which, of course, makes AC necessary.

      Perverse, isn’t it?

      I keep hearing all this talk about how important it is to conserve fueeeeeeeeeel!

      • I remember the “mind blower” of our high school physics teacher was that it was more efficient to run the AC than to ride with the windows down. It was his way of getting us to think about the whole system instead of any single part, or maybe that it seemed counter-intuitive since the compressor would load up the engine so much.

  3. Off topic here: But in your *home* AC, if you notice the *fan* in your outdoor unit is not turning, it may be the capacitor for the fan’s electric motor. A test for this would be that when the AC is running, but outdoor unit fan is not turning, get it spinning manually first. Just give it a shove (twirl?). If it takes off and then runs on its own, the capacitor is bad. The capacitor holds a charge to overcome the back-EMF (electromotive force) that gets generated when the windings in the fan motor first see the incoming electricity spike that turns it on. McMaster Carr, Grainger sell these things. Easy job and the capacitor is about 50 bux

    • Right on, Tom! (Actually, you can get most capacitors on Ebay, Amazon, or an HVAC supply place for under $25- and not to knit-pick, but their primary function in the A/C unit is to boost the initial current by storing a charge, ’cause it takes a lot of juice to start the compressor and the fan. Some units have separate capacitors for the fan and compressor- some use a single one.)

      The most common cause of an AC unit not turning on (fan nor compressor) is a bad contactor. It’s basically a solenoid that is triggered by the lower voltage thermostat, that switches on the 220 current to the compressor and fan- just like a starter solenoid in a car. Number one common problem of a non-working AC (Capacitor is #2)- a <$20 part. Many repairmen screw people and tell them they need hundreds of dollars worth of work or even a new unit, when all it is is a lousy contactor- and it takes 5 minutes to undo a couple of screws and change it out.

      And always remember to shut off the big breaker and pull the outside safety fuse (In that little box on the side of the house) before messing with the unit…those 220 volts'll fry ya!

      (Heh…my best friend; an uncle; and a current neighbor were all HVAC technicians!)

      • PS: If you have a compressor that won’t start, and the capacitor and contactor are good, you can try installing a hard-start kit (Basically an auxillary capacitor that is wired to the regular one)- especially if you have an old unit- can often keep it going for years more. Cost: <$25.

        • 10-4 Nunzio, I have a hard start running right now…..but I fear I won’t need another start till early tomorrow since it’s over 100 right now and forecast to be 109 by Friday. Come to west Tx. and bring that old car with all the air vents. Just put your uncooked dinner on the dash and drive awhile.
          Something I’ve never seen discussed here is cooking a meal while driving. I used to see containers bolted to the exhaust manifold all the time. I mostly just used the inverted air cleaner lid for reheating cooked meals(Caution, mesquite cooked BBQ smell is going to drive you crazy before it’s done). Now I have a little 12 V oven for actual cooking or just throw a microwave in and use the inverter. I love my little 12 V oven. About 15 minutes will have most anything cooked and very hot

          • 8, a 12V oven?! Now that’s cool…errr…hot!

            I don’t use a microwave. I’m old-fashioned, I cokk with fire (or hot electric coils). I relegate microwaves to the same pile as smartphones, GPS’s and tetanus shots.

            Darn…ya had to mention mesquite! Closest I come to that lately, is when I make my chili with regular and chipotle Tabasco sauces. Speaking of which, how’s the jalepeno pepper situation down there in the Republic of Texas?

            I can’t find real jalepenos anywhere lately! I mean, they sell these things that they call jalepenos, but they’re 10x the size that jalepenos are upposed to be- and thus they have no tase- and certainly no heat.

            Maybe I’ll have to get in touch with my cousin in NY- she gave me some from her garden once- thin as a drinking straw…. They were so hot I couldn’t eat them! (Only thing I can ever say that about).

            I’d really like to try this stuff….but I ain’t paying $25 for a bottle of freaki’ hot sauce! But damn, I’ll bet it would be good in my chili!

            • Your sister was evidently growing Cayenne peppers and when green, they are hot. My deceased cousin once asked me to go to dinner with his family and being in town I was up for it. He told me about these jalos he grew that were too hot to eat. Sounded good to me since I eat habanero’s and ghost peppers both although not by themselves for Habanero. We sit down and he hands me a bowl full of cayenne’s, home grown and hot as fire. I allowed as to how he couldn’t sit down and eat them raw since they’re cayenne and only get their taste and mildness after turning red.
              You could grow plenty jalos with just a couple plants and dry them green or red(Chipotle style) for later needs.

              When those big jalos arrived they were worthless but in the past few years they have gone up to high Scoville ratings. Not every batch I find is really hot but some are just as hot as traditional pepper and mild peppers are something akin to non-alcoholic beer, they suck.
              You can find the real deal in seeds from such as Park, Burpee, Ferry-Morse and Seeds of Change, a brand I’ve not used before but am about to. Funny we’re on this subject since I belatedly started to work on getting starts up for a limited garden since it looks like I’ll be around the house for awhile.

              Don’t know what really happened to mesquite going up north, must be some shitty to do with USDA and “fear” of spreading some critter they “think” they don’t have. I admit a mesquite borer is an intimidating bugger but they just eat mesquite as far as I know, never seen them in any other type of wood. They shouldn’t be scared of Mexican jumping beans since DC is the most concentrated area of illegal migrants and many a pol has had to bow out of a race due to someone dropping a dime about their slave labor. If I could get someone to work cutting mesquite back when people would work I’d bootleg a load to W.V. or somewhere it’s not a life sentence to break a trucking/import law.

              Any of the first 3 brands I listed have good products you won’t be disappointed in. I like Park and Burpee quite a bit. You can order directly from them online.

              BTW, when I was in my early 20’s I was hauling to Port of Brownsville a lot and one evening when we couldn’t get unloaded…..and motels still had “Truckers Discounts”, the wife and I hit a local bar and true to form it was wooden chairs of various flavors and most anything that would serve as a table, my kind of place. 3 of us were the only non-Mexicans in the place so we started on a cold one and I noticed some guys eating raw jalos. I asked to participate and they said Si and that’s when I found out the secret of eating them raw, take a bite of pepper and follow it with a bite of tomato. The acid in the mater cuts through the oil of the pepper so you get that rush of hot in your gut and your mouth survives and mater and peppers go together like coffee and cream. Keep your alcohol intake to cold cerveza and mescal or horchata that’s been made like beer. Tequila is fine too, just don’t pour Whiskey or Bourbon down there on top of that mater/pepper combo. Good luck. Every home I’ve been in in Mexico had their own home-made horchata and plenty of it was fermented. It’s a damn good drink since it’s made with Cano and not sugar.

              • Yeah, 8man, I think I am going to have to start growing my own peppers. I’ve let my gardening slide the last few years- I’ve got to get back to it!

                Interesting about the tomatoes! Problem for me these days, is when I eat something reasonably hot, it makes me hiccup! If I could just find a way to prevent the hiccuping, I’d be otherwise bulletproof.

                I don’t go near the alky-hol though. Used to have a beer or a boilermaker once in a while years ago – but somewhere along the line, I got to the point where I’m now repulsed by alcohol. Don’t even have a glass of wine with my spaghetti anymore…it repulses me.

                Somebody locally sells ghost pepper plants. I’ve never tasted ’em. Wonder if they’d work in my chili?

              • Nun, do a search for answers to your hiccups and you’ll find a great many answers.

                I wouldn’t doubt irritation of the esophagus or allergies for most.

                The company I recently worked for would eat together in the evenings.

                I’m not big on eating with everyone else or having the place picked for me. That aside, I noticed every time we’d eat Chinese my throat would close up as well as swelling to the pint I couldn’t breathe through my nose either. I wonder if it was preservatives in the air since I’d begin having asthma symptoms soon after entering the place even before eating. I’d try to knock back some veggies and egg drop soup quickly while I still could. I never figured it out since the very foods we’d eat didn’t affect me making them at home.

  4. I actually miss the feel of those old non-aerodynamic cars on a hot day! The windows down, vents open…you’d get such a nice breeze when moving, I never remember being too hot. And if you had to stop, it would take a while for the effects of that nice cool air to wear off…and by then, you’d be moving again. That, and the fact that we weren’t insulated from the world around us- but could actually hear the sounds and smell the smells, and feel the effects of the weather, made driving a lot more sensual and “real” than it is today.

    Roll down your windows today….even when it’s not that hot…it does nothing.

    I know a guy in CANADA- even with the A/C, he refuses to buy black cars, or cars with black or dark interiors…because between the heat absorption of the dark colors, and all that slanty glass (as mentioned in your article, Eric) they’re too hot…even for Canada!

    • Nun, I really liked kick panel vents, cowl vents(my fav) and vent windows……but, we’re into 100 plus days already and with a forecast for 109 next Friday that’s normally glossed over with a much cooler forecast. I’d still like to have all those things but don’t even want to consider not having a good a/c. Oh, I can still take it since I’ve driven several trucks up to present that didn’t have a working a/c and a big rig simply gets hotter as the day goes on but I’d be much happier with that working a/c.

      • I used to drive a non ac F800 (brazil Diesel) on a 110 degree road way it would just get you evenly done after a hard day of throwing up fertilizer , mulch and bags of lime.
        The boss was so freakin tight He bought( didnt even get an AM radio in the thing for petes sake) a truck that was supposed to be a cargo box single axle truck and overloaded it with a 1500 gal( actually 1650 full to the brim with slop) with the highway gears that truck was pretty useless offroad and to top that off they added a heavy duty twin hoist twenty foot or more bed,She was pretty slow on the inclines and unstable on the slopes( the frame actually had a bow in it) you never want people that don’t do the work spec something for you they are clueless.

      • Same here, 8. I won’t have a vehicle without A/C. Not even so much for me, but if I have to take my mother somewhere, or a dog or a cat… and plus, these modern vehicles just don’t give you a good breeze, even with all the windurs open.

        Ha! I thought they just did that here: They ALWAYS seem to forecast the temps 5-10* below what they will actually be. Been doing so for years! Can’t be that they haven’t noticed the discrepancy- so it must be on purpose. I suppose it has something to do with the “global warming” fraud: “Look! It’s been so hot, temperatures were 10* hotter than what we expected!!!”.


  5. “Cars used to come standard with under-dash vents you could open up to get airflow – and, of course, wing vent windows.”

    My ’71 Custom/10 Deluxe has the vents in the kick panels, wing windows and a slider in the back of the cab. I can drive that on a high humidity 95 degree day and feel very comfortable at highway speeds, but at low speed or when I stop for a bit it does warm up pretty fast. The best part about this setup is that I can roll down the road with the side windows up and not have excessive wind noise but still have an insane amount of airflow.

    R12, remember the good old days when it was under 1$ a can? Have a slow leak, just add another can and you were good to go for a couple of weeks.

  6. I hear people say to turn AC on in the winter to keep it lubed but I am positive the AC goes on and off all year long on its own when not using it. the new AC units in cars are garbage and BARELY cool the car. I had a 89 sentra that you would see frost on the vents. ice cold

    • Hi Anonymous,

      It depends… if the car has manual AC, it will not come on unless you manually turn it on. If it has climate control, it may indeed cycle on, depending on the temp setting and the setting chosen (e.g., defrost, which will cycle on the AC to dehumidify the windshield)>

      • eric, not sure what you mean by climate control. I’ve yet to own a climate control in which you set a certain temperature and it maintains that but have had a/c that the compressor worked in defrost mode and some that didn’t.

        • 8, climate control + HVAC, which means that the system takes in outside air on settings which opens the doors to either the heating core (that has no shutoff valve) and the cooling coils, or to both at once.

          It also allows incoming air to enter the cabin, or it recirculates cabin air if selected to do that with a switch. The recirc door may not be switchable on some settings such as foot outlets only and/or defrost. It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the best I can ‘splain it anyway.

      • Eric,

        Thanks for that explanation as I could never figure out why my A/C light would come on when I turned on the heat in the car. My only guess was to get rid of humidity if it was muggy in the car. But have one question for you…

        I’ve owned two VW Golfs, counting the one I own now. How is it that even when the heat/ A/C unit is off, heat still comes in the car? Is this a model thing or do all cars now have some design that no matter what, that engine heat is coming in?



        • Hi Frenchy,

          Did the Golfs have manual AC or automatic climate control?

          Either way, the fan will usually force some air into the cabin and since this air passes through the ductwork, it will probably feel slightly warm – but it should not be hot unless you set the temperature that way. If you have the temp setting on the coldest setting and you’re getting hot air, there is probably a problem.

  7. I’ve noticed that in cold mornings, your breath causes condensation on the windscreen, fogs up the window to invisibility. AC is very helpful in removing this water vapour from the air and clearing up the windscreen. Another reason to run the AC in winter in conjunction with the heater.

  8. Having studied organic chemistry in college, when the whole charade of the “Ozone holes and R 12” came round, I knew it was bogus. THEN I got hold of the molecular stick diagram of the new 134 stuff…. and knew the whole thing was a hoax. Later the business about DuPont’s patents expiring came to light… and voilá, the last piece of the puzzle clunked into place. So DuPont managed to buy off Uncle Stupid just to preserve their patent control over whatever refrigerant was the “accepted” form? What a crock THAT is.

    Saaaayyyy, now, ain’t them folks at DuPont the same lot of louts brought us the Controlled SUbstances Act, outlawing cultivation and possession of marijuana, simply because DuPont had developed a new fibre for rope, and wanted to quickly get the tried and true standard off the market so their new proeuct would find better success in the marketplace?

    What was that about better living through chenistry, anyway? Or was that the OTHER chemistry house came up with that one? Both cut out of the same cloth… as long as the cloth is made from nylon fibre.

  9. Another reason why modern cars heat up so quickly and require air conditioning is that modern cars have steeply sloping windows both front and rear and expose a large area of glass to the sun, they have become in effect mobile glass houses.

  10. Unfortunately for those who like plain cars, it actually doesn’t cost less for the automaker to make them. It can cost more to leave things off then to just install them on all of them. So another reason why there aren’t stripper models anymore.

    When it come to a/c modern buildings have the same problem. They are designed to HAVE a/c, but when they break, watch out. Most buildings built before the 1950’s have cross venting etc, transom windows etc. Many buildings windows don’t even open anymore.

    • it only costs more to delete items when the standard protocol is to put all the goodies on the car, and the “delete option” is the orhpan child that eats too much.
      Back when things like AC and ppwer everything were high end options, it cost quite a bit more to gt a car that already had them. In fact, the bare bones cars would come in to the ports, where private contracter/service providers would send their boys out onto the dockyards to install systems like AC, cruise control, better audio, delay wipers, central door locks, etc.

      It does cost a LOT to engineer those systems to work with everyhting else, fit them to the car, and integrate them with everything else on there. If they would build a bare bones model (“no radio no heater no white sidewall tyres”) it could cost quite a bit less. Of course, deleting things like eighteen of the twenty seven air bags WOULD make a huge difference.

      Remember when the Cadillac Cimarron morphed out of the Chev Cavalier (?)? It was the same stinking car but with almost all of the silly fringe junk added as standard, along with some goofy “fancy stuff”. The car MSRP was hugely mor expensive, but since they already had all the stuff on the shelf from their clone cheap brands, they made a HUGE markup on the Cadillac, which some folks bought just because it WAS a “Cadillac”/ Still a bare bones econobox with frills.

      • It had a nice chrome bumper( one guy used have one with a personalized plate that read”Tiny Cad” ,I think people that pay extra every year for a personalized plate probably contribute to the lottery also, nothing wrong with, its just not a very good retirement strategy.

      • Tionico, we have seen for nearly 20 years now the idea that labor is the main cost in car construction. Everything is plastic and snaps together. It will come apart for service….maybe when it’s nearly brand new but don’t count on it coming apart without breaking fastening points. This used to be solved by having individual nylon type “clips” but the “better idea”, i.e., cheaper idea sees the panels and components having the fastener as part of the whole. Have a critical one break and nothing ever fits again…..time for a new panel.

        Everything on my old 93 Chevy pickup was metal, handles for everything inside and out. Newer pickups with pop apart everything have plastic handles everywhere older models had steel. I replaced the endgate handle on the POS Z 71 twice in 18 months. Great balls of fire GM, way to sell those parts.

        And Dodge was involved in a class action lawsuit back in the 90’s because their plastic dashes were so shitty they’d collapse in on themselves from the sun. I’d always park company pickups facing north so lessen the impact of sun on such crap. Seems like every time I got in one it was facing south and ready to cook breakfast on the interior parts.

        Speaking of installing parts in ports of entry, I had an 84.5 Nissan pickup and once complained to the dealer about inadequate cooling and a/c performance. This salesman pipes up and say “They install those at the ports”. I didn’t bother to show him the sticker in the side windows that said “Made in Smyrna”. And that’s the guy selling a vehicle on its merits supposedly.

  11. Yeah man, that R-12 was dangerous stuff. Heck, even a small leak was enough to cause a large black hole to form in a clear, blue, mid-day sky. Yep, it’s very frightening to look up at the sky and see STARS and PLANETS showing through in broad daylight; somebody call da EPA!

    Meanwhile, I’ve heard that R134a will begin reacting in the same exact way on Jan 1, 2024. Oh my!

  12. The last bit about cleaning the radiator makes so much sense now. I was wondering why my a/c is working so much better this summer than it was last summer, having not undergone any maintenance. I think it’s because I bought a monthly car wash membership this past winter to keep uncle’s salt off my under-body. That is, for an 08′ Impala. I guess the regular car wash has made a sufficient difference to affect my a/c performance.

  13. Another leaking point is the heater core. which is BEHIND the dash. I had a brand new M3 that within the 1st year was leaking and not cooling. A 5K repair but was covered under warranty. They have to remove the dash and everything that goes with it. Not a fun job.

      • I’ve done a few of those heater cores also. That’s why it is important to flush the heater core when you flush the rest of the cooling system. Fodder for a future article, Eric?

    • I’ve done dozens of remove-the-dash heater cores, and the German cars were pretty intense, some 8-10 hours by the book even. But 5K to do that job? Wow, I need to do one or two and take a week off if that’s the case, lol!

      • I’ve done one heater core replacement in my life. In a 1986 Mazda 626. As usual the manual said to remove the dash. I found all I had to was break open a slot in a plastic duct part and do a lot of wiggling and contortions. Most of the contortions were probably unnecessary because I first tried to avoid breaking the plastic slot open to get the piece off the stud.

        So yes, there are ways to get heater cores out on some cars without removing the dash if you get in there and think it through.


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