Do Air Conditioners Emit Harmful Gases?


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Air conditioners are effective tools against summer heat, and they can cool down a room faster and more efficiently than other mechanical methods. However, their cooling mechanism is not perfect. Because they use refrigerant fluids, could it be possible that they do emit harmful gases?

Air conditioners emit hydrofluorocarbons, which are harmful to the environment. These are present in the refrigerant fluid, which may escape from the device. Although hydrofluorocarbons aren’t toxic, they are a greenhouse gas and significantly contribute towards raising the Earth’s temperature.

The rest of this article shows you how your air conditioners function in a way that makes them a hazard for the environment, and I’ll also be including a couple of handy tips that could help you minimize your AC’s HFC emissions. 

Why Air Conditioners Emit Harmful Gases

To understand how air conditioners are bad for the environment, you should first understand how these devices function and what goes into the coolant that they use to reduce the temperature of your room.

How Air Conditioners Work 

Air conditioners are made up of two units- the evaporator unit (inside your room) and the condenser unit (that’s fitted outside). Coils, which have the refrigerant fluid flowing inside them, connect the two units.

The refrigerant constantly makes rounds back and forth between the two units. How it works is that while it’s inside the evaporator unit, the refrigerant absorbs the heat inside the room, which boils it enough for it to become a gas. The heated refrigerant then makes its way into the condenser unit, where a compressor condenses it back into its liquid form. 

While this happens, the liquid loses the heat it absorbed initially from your room, which is flushed outside with the help of a fan. The cool refrigerant then passes through an expansion valve back into the evaporator unit, and this goes on until the temperature inside your room is reduced to what you want it to be. 

The refrigerant fluids are picked based on their boiling point, among other factors, and currently, HFC is the one that has made the cut. Most commercial AC units use it as their refrigerant. 

How HFCs Get Out of the Air Conditioners 

While you could expect the refrigerant to remain within the coils, there are always times when some of it might just leak out of it. The plausibility of that happening is pretty low, so you needn’t worry too much about them.

However, leakages aren’t the only way in which the refrigerant might escape from the coils. It’s worth knowing that the coils aren’t 100% sealed. Production and design errors, as well as prolonged usage, could lead to the formation of microscopic holes in them. This lets a little bit of the HFC to leak out the older your AC unit is. 

How Hydrofluorocarbons Make the Planet Hotter

HFCs are dangerous greenhouse gases. They trap the infrared rays the Earth reflects from sunlight, which would otherwise escape from the atmosphere. This raises the temperature on our planet.

However, the amount of HFC that escapes from our air conditioning units is minuscule. EPA.gov states that all fluorine gases combined only makeup 2% of collective greenhouse gas emissions, and HFCs are just one part of them. That number might make it sound like HFCs don’t have that great impact on the planet. 

National Institute For Public Health And The Environment outlines that HFCs can be 5000 times more powerful than the most common greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. This means that they trap 5000 times more heat than CO2 when flushed out into the air. HFCs also have an atmospheric lifetime of 15-29 years, so they’ll be doing their chunk of the damage for 12 years straight. 

How You Can Reduce the Amount of HFCs Emitted by Your Air Conditioner 

Because HFCs are only emitted while the AC is in use, the general idea of reducing the release of HFCs into the atmosphere usually involves reducing the amount of coolant needed to cool down a room.

Despite its danger as a greenhouse gas, HFC is a lot more eco-friendly than its predecessor. Prior to the 1970s, the dominant coolants used in the market were chlorine-based chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The problem with these is that they act like HFCs with their high capacity to absorb infrared light but with an added bonus of releasing chlorine, which actively breaks down ozone molecules.

Despite the relative eco-friendliness of HFCs, however, it is still important to reduce our carbon footprint even through their release. The following are two ways in which we can reduce our HFC emissions:

Improve the Insulation of Your House

Insulating our rooms will allow you to skim on our AC usage as much as possible. Since your rooms will naturally be much cooler, your AC wouldn’t have to work as hard to cool it down, which will not only reduce the AC’s coolant, it’ll also reduce your electricity bills. 

How to Insulate Your Home for the Summer

Here are a couple of practical ways in which you can insulate your rooms from heat:

  • Use thick blinds and shutters for your windows. 
  • Get hold of the professionals to insulate your ceiling, walls, and flooring. 
  • Reduce your usage of appliances such as chargers and inductions, which may add to the high temperature.
  • Keep any rooms which you don’t visit very often dark during the daytime. 
  • If you’ve got more time on your hands, as well as a flat rooftop or terrace, consider converting it into a green roof (i,e. a rooftop where you can grow plants), which will not only insulate you from the sun’s heat but also aid in making your house feel cooler thanks to precipitation. 

Check for Leaks in Your AC Unit Regularly

Leakages, besides the presence of holes, are another reason why a significantly large amount of HFCs escapes into the air. It’s wise to keep tabs on your AC unit to make sure that there’s no amount of coolant seeping out of it. In case you do think there’s a leak in it, contact the technicians immediately.

How to Know if There’s a Leak in Your Air Conditioner

Although there are various ways to look for leaks, perhaps the easiest way to find them in your unit with the soap bubble method:

  1. Douse the coils of the AC with soapy water.
  2. Look for any areas where the soap starts frothing.
  3. If you find any such spot, it means that it is a leak, and the gas escaping from the vent is causing the soap to bubble up. 

Be sure to clean and dry the coils thoroughly after doing these steps to ensure that they don’t rust. A more practical option would be to schedule a technician to check up on your AC every two months to look for any leaks, besides doing their regulars such as cleaning and refilling. 

Here’s a YouTube video that demonstrates how it’s done: 

Final Thoughts

From an environmental vantage, air conditioners release harmful gases in the form of hydrofluorocarbons—these gases aid in raising the Earth’s temperature and contribute to global warming. Although we currently do not have any feasible alternatives to air conditioners, we can certainly minimize their usage to decrease their impact on the planet. 

With the usage of proper insulation techniques and periodic maintenance of your AC units, it is possible to decrease the environmental impact of ACs until we finally have eco-friendly cooling options at hand.

Steve Rajeckas

Steve Rajeckas is an HVAC hobbyist with an avid interest in learning innovative ways to keep rooms, buildings, and everything else at the optimal temperature. When he's not working on new posts for Temperature Master, he can be found reading books or exploring the outdoors.

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