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How to Fix Your Car's Air Conditioner

Posted on: Monday, December 1, 2008

Have you been sweltering in your car because of a broken air conditioner? Here's a short guide to how air conditioning (AC) works, why it might not work, and what you can do about it.

1. Realize that auto AC is basically a refrigerator in a weird layout. It's designed to move heat from one place (the inside of your car) to some other place (the outdoors). While a complete discussion of every specific model and component is well outside the scope of this article, this should give you a start on figuring out what the problem might be and either fixing it yourself or talking intelligently to someone you can pay to fix it.

2. Become familiar with the major components to auto air conditioning:

3. Understand the air conditioning process: The compressor puts the refrigerant under pressure and sends it to the condensing coils. In your car, these coils are generally in front of the radiator. Compressing a gas makes it quite hot. In the condenser, this added heat and the heat the refrigerant picked up in the evaporator is expelled to the air flowing across it from outside the car. When the refrigerant is cooled to its saturation temperature, it will change phase from a gas back into a liquid (this gives off a bundle of heat known as the "latent heat of vaporization"). The liquid then passes through the expansion valve to the evaporator, the coils inside of your car, where it loses pressure that was added to it in the compressor. This causes some of the liquid to change to a low-pressure gas as it cools the remaining liquid. This two-phase mixture enters the evaporator, and the liquid portion of the refrigerant absorbs the heat from the air across the coil and evaporates. Your car's blower circulates air across the cold evaporator and into the interior. The refrigerant goes back through the cycle again and again.

4. Check to see if all the R-134a leaks out (meaning there's nothing in the loop to carry away heat). Leaks are easy to spot but not easy to fix without pulling things apart. Most auto-supply stores carry a fluorescent dye that can be added to the system to check for leaks, and it will have instructions for use on the can. If there's a bad enough leak, the system will have no pressure in it at all. Find one of the valve-stem-looking things and CAREFULLY (eye protection recommended) poke a pen in there to try to valve off pressure, and if there IS none, that's the problem.

5. Make sure the compressor is turning. Start the car, turn on the AC and look under the hood. The AC compressor is generally a pumplike thing off to one side with large rubber and steel hoses going to it. It will not have a filler cap on it, but will often have one or two things that look like the valve stems on a bike tire. The pulley on the front of the compressor exists as an outer pulley and an inner hub which turns when an electric clutch is engaged. If the AC is on and the blower is on, but the center of the pulley is not turning, then the compressor's clutch is not engaging. This could be a bad fuse, a wiring problem, a broken AC switch in your dash, or the system could be low on refrigerant (most systems have a low-pressure safety cutout that will disable the compressor if there isn't enough refrigerant in the system).

6. Look for other things that can go wrong: bad switches, bad fuses, broken wires, broken fan belt (preventing the pump from turning), or seal failure inside the compressor.

7. Feel for any cooling at all. If the system cools, but not much, it could just be low pressure, and you can top up the refrigerant. Most auto-supply stores will have a kit to refill a system, and it will come with instructions. Do not overfill! Adding more than the recommended amount of refrigerant will NOT improve performance but actually will decrease performance. In fact, the more expensive automated equipment found at nicer shops actually monitors cooling performance real-time as it adds refrigerant, and when the performance begins to decrease it removes refrigerant until the performance peaks again.

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suburban a/c
posted by: juan on Saturday, May 9, 2009 at 7:00 PM
hi, i have 2003 chevy suburban and the a/c belt is jumping and braking, spent $300 still the same please help