If your air conditioner is not cooling well because the system is low on refrigerant, recharging the system with refrigerant should restore normal operation. This can usually be done with a few cans of refrigerant and a simple service hose connection.
A/C RECHARGING PRECAUTIONS
First, wear safety glasses to protect your eyes. Also avoid skin contact with refrigerant. The chilling effect of spilled refrigerant can cause instant frostbite on bare skin or eyes!
WHAT TYPE OF REFRIGERANT?
Next, you need to figure out what type of refrigerant your vehicle requires:
On 1995 and newer passenger cars and light trucks, the correct refrigerant is R134a. DO NOT use any other type of refrigerant.
On most 1994 and older passenger cars and light trucks, the original refrigerant
was R12. R12 is no longer available to do-it-yourselfers and is very expensive. When older vehicles with R12 A/C systems need refrigerant, they can be refilled with recycled R12 from other older cars (this requires taking your car to a repair shop for professional service), or with some alternative refrigerant other than R12, or with R134a (which requires certain modifications).
CAUTION: Mixing different types of refrigerants is NOT recommended. Use the same type of refrigerant that is already in the system unless you are converting an older R12 system to R134a or another refrigerant.
WARNING: Flammable refrigerants are illegal. DO NOT use any type of flammable refrigerant (propane, butane or flammable hydrocarbons).
Click here for more information about retrofitting older vehicles with R12 A/C systems to R134a.
LOCATE THE SERVICE FITTINGS
Next, you need to locate the service fittings on the A/C system. There are two: a LOW side fitting and a HIGH side fitting. The LOW side fitting is usually located on the suction hose or line that goes from the accumulator to the compressor. The HIGH side fitting is located on the line that goes from the compressor to the condenser.
On older R12 systems, the LOW and HIGH pressure service fittings are screw-type schrader valves. On newer R134a systems, the LOW and HIGH side service fittings are quick-connect style fittings. The LOW pressure fitting is SMALLER than the HIGH pressure fitting.
AIR CONDITIONING RECHARGE PROCEDURE
1. Connect the recharge service hose and valve to a can of refrigerant.
2. Turn the valve on the service hose to puncture the top of the can.
3. SLOWLY turn the valve back out to release a small amount of refrigerant into the hose. This will blow air out of the hose (which you do not want in your A/C system).
4. Close the valve so no more refrigerant escapes, then quickly connect the other end of the service hose to the LOW pressure service fitting on the A/C system. CAUTION: DO NOT connect a can of refrigerant to the HIGH side service fitting. The operating pressure inside the A/C system when it is running may exceed the burst strength of the can, causing the can to explode! This should be impossible to do because the service hose for recharging the A/C system will only fit the smaller LOW pressure service fitting. Even so, you should be aware of the danger.
5. Hold the can UPRIGHT so no refrigerant liquid enters the service hose. You only want VAPOR to be pulled into the A/C system (the compressor may be damaged if it sucks in a big dose of liquid!).
6. OPTIONAL BUT HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: You should use a gauge to monitor the recharging process. Though not absolutely necessary, a gauge will help you recharge your A/C system more accurately, and reduce the chance of undercharging or overcharging (either of which will reduce cooling performance).
A high pressure A/C gauge can be connected to the HIGH pressure service fitting, or a low pressure A/C gauge to the LOW pressure service fitting, or gauges can be attached to both fittings (that is what professional technicians do).
NOTE: Some DIY recharging kits include a low pressure gauge on the service hose or on a trigger-grip style can dispenser.
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7. Start the engine and turn the A/C on MAX/HIGH.
8. NOTE: The compressor may not engage if the system is too low on refrigerant. The low pressure cutout switch will prevent the compressor from running if the system is too low on refrigerant (this is done to protect the compressor from damage due to a lack of proper lubrication). The compressor must be running to suck refrigerant through the service hose into the system. So if it is not engaging when you turn the A/C on, you may have to supply battery voltage directly to the compressor clutch using a fused jumper wire. Look for a single wire connector near the front of the compressor, unplug it and hook up a jumper wire to the battery POSITIVE terminal. This should cause the clutch to engage and the compressor to run.
9. OPEN the valve on the service hose so refrigerant vapor will flow from the can into the A/C system. It may take up to 10 minutes or more per can to suck all of the refrigerant out of the can into the A/C system. Feel the air coming out of the ducts inside the vehicle. It should be getting colder.
10. If you are using a high or low pressure gauge (or both) to monitor recharging, look at the gauge(s).
LOW pressure gauge: When the reading is between 25 and 40 psi with the A/C running, STOP. The system is fully charged and should be cooling normally. DO NOT add any more refrigerant. If the gauge is over 50 psi, you have overcharged the system with too much refrigerant.
High pressure gauge: When the reading gets up around 200 to 225 psi (R12), or225 to 250 psi (R134a), STOP. The system is fully charged and should be cooling normally. DO NOT add any more refrigerant.
NOTE: The high and low pressure readings will vary depending on the system and ambient temperatures (higher temperatures cause higher system pressure readings).
Refer to the vehicle manufacturer specifications for normal system operating pressures, and the total refrigerant capacity of the system. Most newer passenger car A/C systems do not hold much refrigerant (only 14 to 28 oz.), so you don't want to add too much if the system is low. One can of R134a typically holds 12 oz. of refrigerant.
11. If the system needs more refrigerant after adding one can, you can add a second can. CLOSE the valve on the service hose, then disconnect the hose from the empty can, screw a new can onto the service hose valve, turn the valve to puncture the new can, then turn the valve all the way back out again so refrigerant can flow through the hose into the A/C system.
When you have finished, turn the engine off. CLOSE the valve on the can of refrigerant before disconnecting the service hose from the LOW pressure fitting (in case there is any refrigerant left in the can). Don't vent any left over refrigerant from the can. Leave the service hose attached to the can with the valve closed so you can save the refrigerant for a future recharge.
Remember to replace the plastic caps over the service fittings, and remove the jumper wire from the compressor if you had to jump it to make it run.
IF THE A/C SYSTEM STOPS BLOWING COLD AIR AFTER A FEW DAYS, WEEKS OR MONTHS
If your A/C stops blowing cold air several days, weeks or months after you recharged it, it means the system has a leak and the refrigerant is escaping. You should add some leak detection dye to the system to find the leak. The leak should then be repaired before the system is recharged again, otherwise you are just wasting your time recharging the system over and over again.
Update: December 2017
New Restrictions for Selling R-134a Start January 2018
For entities selling or distributing refrigerants for use in motor vehicles, there will be new restrictions for R-134a and other substitute refrigerants sold after Jan. 1, 2018. The rule establishes certification requirements for buying large containers of refrigerant and mandates that small containers include a self-sealing valve.
Under the new requirements, anyone purchasing a substitute refrigerant for R-12 in a greater-than-two-pound container must provide the seller with evidence that the technician has a Section 609 Technician Certification. If the purchaser is not certified and is buying the refrigerant on behalf of a service facility, the seller must be presented with evidence that one or more technicians at the facility are certified.
Refrigerant wholesalers must retain an invoice listing the name of the purchaser, date of sale and quantity purchased. The wholesaler is not required to confirm any technician certification, but EPA is recommending that wholesalers obtain a statement certifying that the cylinders are to be resold to certified technicians.
Individuals do not need to have certification in order to purchase small cans (under two pounds) of R-134a. However, all cans produced after Jan. 1, must come equipped with a self-sealing valve capable of preventing the container from venting refrigerant after it is removed from the charging valves. Despite this new requirement, retailers are permitted to sell off their existing inventory of small cans that do not have the self-sealing valves, as long as they were purchased prior to Dec. 31, 2017.