Air conditioner leaks are a case of ``pay me now or pay me a great deal more later.'' Service personnel need to communicate the message that postponing leak repair is a risky, foolish gamble for the vehicle owner to take.
In my last column, I discussed how some motorists try to postpone air-conditioning repairs when the system fails in late summer. They think they won't get their money's worth from the repair because there's only a few weeks of hot weather left.
Of course, the air conditioner is an integral part of the defroster operation on most vehicles—and a functioning defroster is an invaluable safety feature during cold-weather driving.
I believe more consumers would invest in air conditioning repairs in late summer if they really understood the risk leaks pose to a vehicle's A/C system.
First of all, a refrigerant leak sacrifices the lubricant needed to keep the air conditioning compressor running smoothly. Simply put: If the system's losing refrigerant, it has to be losing oil as well. Pray that the system's safeguards shut off the compressor before the oil level drops too low.
Otherwise, the customer may be faced with a $1,000-$1,200 (or worse) repair bill for replacing the compressor, the filter-drier or accumulator and flushing the entire refrigeration system.
What's more, most consumers don't realize that air-conditioning leaks are a two-way affair. As refrigerant and oil leak out, moisture from the outside air creeps into the system. This occurs because refrigerant is just like brake fluid in one way: It loves moisture!
Many service personnel—especially those working in more humid climates—have seen the ravages of moisture-laden brake fluid, which raises havoc with expensive brake parts.
Experienced air-conditioning technicians can show you similar damage inside air conditioners. When leaks are left unattended, the refrigerant can absorb enough moisture to create sludge, a mixture of water and refrigerant oil.
Sludge can block the small passages inside the system, shutting down the air conditioner. When sludge is present, flushing the air conditioner isn't an option. It's a necessity. And, obviously, flushing increases the cost of the repair.
Moisture also corrodes the air conditioner's metal parts. Left uncorrected, that moisture can eat holes right through either of the heat exchangers in the system. As I described last month, the evaporator is the heat exchanger under the dash while the condenser is the one in front of the radiator.
If you ever want to scare a customer straight onto the path of righteous A/C maintenance, just quote him or her the cost of replacing an evaporator or condenser that's plugged with sludge or corroded and leaking. The cost of parts alone can be substantial, but look at the labor required to pull that evaporator out of the bowels of the dashboard or yank a condenser out of an overly crowded engine compartment.
Furthermore, savvy service personnel take maintenance services and customer satisfaction to a higher level by selling leak detection dye as part of every air conditioning check.
Installing a dye is a win-win sale for both the consumer and your technicians. Usually, the dyes and the required inspection lights are available from several sources, including the major air conditioning parts suppliers.
The dye is fluorescent material suspended in refrigerant oil. When you shine the inspection light (a powerful black/ultraviolet light) on the dye, it appears as an easy-to-see, bright green. Even if you're not a tech, you can appreciate how much time, aggravation and money these fluorescent dyes save by flagging leaks.
They can also provide you with a great show-and-tell opportunity for your customer: See that green glow? That's a leak in your A/C system.
Several mechanically operated injection tools are available that allow a tech to quickly and safely push the specified amount of dye-laden oil into the air conditioner's low-pressure side.
Depending upon the brand of dye, the tech injects about one-quarter to one ounce of this oil into the system.
Don't fret—there's literally plenty of room inside the refrigeration system to accommodate some extra oil. And in some cases, adding this ``dye oil'' for leak-detection purposes gives the pleasant side effect of quieting down a noisy A/C compressor.
Some manufacturers sell universal dye oils that are compatible with both the mineral oils in older air conditioners and the high-tech lubricants used in newer air conditioners. All the techs I know who are using the universal dye oils are very pleased with the results.