Nothing is worse than being stuck in traffic on a squelching summer day with no air-conditioning in your car. When you kick on the blower, nothing but hot air comes out. In the winter, a worn down air-conditioning system in your car will cause the defroster to not work as well which can be dangerous. To save yourself money and gallons of sweat during the summer months, get your AC charged regularly.

Many car owners believe that they need to add or top off their car’s refrigerant when it starts to lag, but this is not true. While there may be some instances where adding coolant will be needed, consistently low levels can indicate a bigger issue. If the AC stops working, the issue will most often be a leaky hose or connector. Most modern makes and models are designed to shut down the AC entirely when coolant levels get too low. This prevents any further damage to the AC system. So whether it be a completely non-working AC or the AC losing its efficiency, getting the air-conditioning system charged can help alleviate the problem.

The first step in charging the AC is to check for any obvious leaks. A significant drop in coolant levels or a gradual loss can indicate a leak. Any refrigerant oil residue on hoses, tubing and fittings of the system. Another quick way to check for leaks is to spay a soapy water solution on the fittings and watch for bubbles. If there is bubbling, this shows that there is a leak in that area. Any hoses or fittings with leaks will need to be replaced before charging the AC. Check your owner’s manual for the correct pressure level prior to charging the AC, as improper levels can damage the system.

There are three main parts to an air conditioner, a condenser, a compressor and an evaporator. The condenser and evaporator are essentially two radiators connected in a loop. The compressor is located between them, on the side of the loop. The AC system is a sealed system that is filled with coolant. The compressor takes the low pressure fluid and compresses it. The condensed fluid is then sent to the condenser where the heat is released outside of the cooling system. Once the coolant has passed the condenser it travels to the evaporator where it expands and cools the evaporator. The blower pushes air over the evaporator and then into the vents of your car. Because the temperature varies so greatly from one part of the AC to the other, it is very important to keep any moisture out of the system. When moisture is present, an ice can form in the compressor causing damage.

The condenser coil is located on the outside of the engine where heat can dissipate. Your AC will run more efficiently the faster heat can leave this coil. Dust and debris can create a type of insulation on the coil, leaving less surface area for the heat to leave through. While you can clean the condenser coil yourself with just a brush and some cleaner, it is recommended that you take your car to a professional if the coil is excessively dirty. The compressor will then be tested to make sure it is working and within range.

Next, while wearing eye protection, the canned refrigerant will be tapped open and inserted into a specially designed dispenser. Use caution, since the refrigerant is compressed. The low pressure side fill port is located on the left side of the engine bay. It will have a small plastic lid with an L on top. Uncover the port and take a pressure reading. You will need to purchase this tool yourself or, if getting your AC charged professionally, one will be on hand. Firmly press the connector on the refrigerant dispenser onto the port where it should lock into place. Squeeze the trigger firmly and evenly, pushing the refrigerant out the dispenser and into the port. While squeezing, slowly tip and shake the can, being careful not to turn it upside down. Stop pulling the trigger and wait approximately 30 seconds and take another pressure reading. If the pressure is still too low, continue adding the refrigerant. Stop and check the pressure frequently, as over filling can cause severe mechanical issues.

Running the AC when it has not been charged will make your car work that much harder. Fuel efficiency drops as strain is put on the engine. Charging the AC is quick, taking approximately 30-45 minutes for a novice. The supplies needed to do it yourself are cheap and basic, with refrigerant costing about $5 and the dispenser costing $25. It is recommended that you take your car to a professional if it is older or the AC has not been charged in a very long time. You can expect to pay around $100 at a dealer, when factoring in labor.