Easy ways that keep air conditioning in top shape
By Tom Roebuck
Copley News Service
When spring arrives it brings along warm weather, which means you'll soon be cranking up the air conditioner to lower the temperature to somewhere below broil. When the summer heat hits, the AC is the last thing you want to fail, except for maybe the brakes.
The good news for car owners is that maintaining your car's air conditioning system doesn't require the skills of a mechanic - in fact it doesn't require doing much at all.
"Automotive air conditioning systems are similar the to the air conditioning system in your house. And that is, it's a closed system, and you won't be able to do much for it," said Chris Bede, Web master of www.aircondition.com.
But that doesn't mean you can completely ignore your car's air conditioner. There are a few simple measures you can do to keep the cool air flowing. And the air can't flow if it's being blocked by debris, so make sure that the radiator grill at the front of the car is clear. Leaves, paper, plastic bags and other road rubbish that become stuck to the condenser can be cleaned off with a soft brush and a detergent-and-water solution. Plastic screens some truck owners install to block bugs also block airflow.
Owners of new cars should check the manual to see if their car is equipped with a cabin air filter and how often it needs to be changed.
"Most of the newer cars are now coming with cabin air filters, and a lot of people don't know it," Bede said. "They look just like an air filter for the engine, and if they get clogged up they can reduce the output from the vents."
Keeping your car cool by parking in a shady spot or by putting in window tints that block ultraviolet rays will help ease the strain on your air conditioning. But one of the best ways to lighten the load is to roll down the windows and let the car cool a little before switching on the air conditioner.
"The best thing they can ever do is get those windows down and let some of that fresh air in first for a few minutes, bring that interior temperature down before turning on the AC. Because the interior temperature on a hot day is normally 140 degrees plus," Bede said. "If you turn the air conditioning on right away, you're running 140-degree air over the evaporator, versus 70-, 80- or 90-degree air. So get those windows down to relieve the pressure on the system."
A car's air conditioner not only cools the cabin, it also removes moisture. That moisture drips off the coil and drains onto the road. But the drain can become clogged and trap the water.
"That's a big source of odor, if that condensate drain gets plugged up. If you notice a lack of water dripping from the car, that's something to be worried about. Or usually you'll hear a sloshing sound in the car when you take turns or you come to a stop. You have a quart or so of water that's just along for the ride," Bede said. "Your air conditioner becomes less efficient because the coil is now submerged. If your box is half full you've lost half of your coil. At that point it generally runs out of the box and onto the passenger floorboard."
The most common air conditioning problem Bede sees is the loss of refrigerant charge.
"The loss of refrigerant in an automotive system is normal, because unlike your home system that's hard plumbed with copper and solder, you have parts that vibrate and parts that move," he said. "It's most common to see cars come into the shop that are a little low on charge four or five years out. It's time to have them refilled because they lose a little each year."
An intrepid do-it-yourselfer can recharge an air conditioner at home, but most people should take it to a professional for a recharge. Refrigerant is a greenhouse gas that depletes the ozone layer, so careful steps need to be taken to make sure no refrigerant is released into the air. Parking lots outside auto parts stores sometime become impromptu service stations, with shady characters offering AC recharges on the cheap. Chances are they are releasing refrigerant into the atmosphere, which hurts us all.
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