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Air conditioning, heat pump or refrigerator cooling coil (evaporator coil) diagnosis & repair procedures:
How to diagnose problems such as leaks, corrosion, or other damage that requires replacement of the air conditioning or heat pump cooling coil (evaporator coil in the air handler).
This article series discusses the diagnosis and repair of cooling coil or evaporator coil
problems that occur in the air conditioning or heat pump air handler unit such as frost or icing, dirt, blockage, refrigerant leaks, or improper sizing.
Evaporator coil or cooling leaks or holes: if an evaporator coil is leaking (or also if the condensing coil is leaking) you'll find out pretty quickly as refrigerant will be lost and the cooling system will stop providing cool air.
You'll need expert diagnosis by an HVAC service technician. Sketches of the evaporator coil or cooling coil shown at left and at page top were provided courtesy of Carson Dunlop Associates a Toronto home inspection, engineering, and education firm.
How easily a cooling system refrigerant leak repair will be depends on where the refrigerant leak has occurred and what caused the leak.
If the cooling coil has a single point leak caused by some mechanical damage (one of our readers accidentally drilled a hole in his coil while trying to drill a drain hole in his air handler), it may be possible to find the hole and repair it using silver solder.
If the refrigerant leak is in copper tubing anywhere in the cooling or heat pump system that is not too close to an evaporator coil or condensing coil, it should be possible to solder a repair, then evacuate and recharge the cooling system.
If the refrigerant leak is in thin copper tubing that just melts when you try to solder it, as suggested by one of our readers, your technician may fabricate a copper sleeve that slips over the damaged tubing and is then soldered in place.
If the refrigerant leak is in copper tubing in or close to the cooling coil (or in a condensing coil) a solder repair is hard to complete because the heat of the soldering process tends to de-solder other nearby connections. It might be possible if the technician is very expert and if s/he knows how to keep nearby surfaces cooled (we've used a wet rag).
If the refrigerant leak is in an aluminum part, soldering aluminum is more tricky and may not be feasible. Ordinary procedures using a torch, for example, just melt the aluminum. Expert welders use inert gas welding methods.
If the refrigerant leak is due to severe corrosion anywhere in an HVAC system we're not optimistic that a solder repair is possible. The conditions that caused a corrosion-related leak are likely to have thinned and weakened other parts. The cost of an attempted repair may be wasted.
Replacement of the cooling coil (or condensing coil) is more often going to be recommended by your HVAC technician because of these difficulties.
Guide to Repairs of an Air Conditioning or Heat Pump Evaporator Coil or Condensing Coil
Even if the cooling or condensing coil has a repairable leak, if the coil is badly damaged such as having all crushed fins, it may be best to replace it.
Damaged cooling / evaporator coil fins over more than 10% of the coil surface, blocking air flow may be a reason to replace the coil.
If the cooling coil or condensing coil is in good physical condition but it's dirty, it needs to be cleaned before it can be repaired. Spray-on coil cleaners are used by lots of HVAC technicians.
If the coil is dirty with moldy dust and debris and especially if the building is occupied by people at extra health risk, we don't like to see an indoor coil cleaned by blowing it off with compressed air, as you're simply sending all of this moldy junk into the building.
See DIRTY COOLING COIL / EVAPORATOR COIL and see Mold Growth in Air Handlers.
Next check the cooling coil or evaporator coil for visual evidence of refrigerant leaks. Visual evidence of a refrigerant leak on a coil may include stains from refrigerant oil left at the point of leakage.
See REFRIGERANT LEAK DETECTION.
Decision to Replace an HVAC Cooling Coil or Evaporator Coil & Replacement Costs
If the decision is to replace the cooling coil or the evaporator coil, be sure that the new coil is the proper size and shape to match the condenser or evaporator unit itself.
[Click to enlarge any image]
Reader Question: should I try to fix a leaky refrigeration coil on my air conditioner?
3/27/14 Mike said:
My air conditioner is 8 years old. The system is leaking refrigerant at a slow level and the hole is midway through coil. Should I try to fix the coil or opt for a new unit?
Some AC coils can be repaired using epoxy but I am not optimistic about this approach. Here are some considerations:
If the coil leak was caused by an accident, like a mechanical puncture, repairing it might yield a durable remaining life for the system provided we don't contaminate (or contaminate and fail to clean) the refrigerant piping system in the process.
If the AC coil leak was caused by vibration and rubbing or by corrosion I fear that fixing the leak in one place is a band-aid repair that won't give a durable repair since other leaks are coming soon. It's the beginning of the end.
If the HVAC system is relatively new so that it uses modern contemporary refrigerants, then replacing the coil is a plausible repair and the recommended one. The system will have to be evacuated, cleaned, new refrigerant installed along with appropriate refrigerant dryer/filters.
If the HVAC system were old enough (probably not your case) that it still uses R22, repair people either take another band-aid approach by replacing the ruined coil with an R-22-rated coil and R22 refrigerant (no longer a proper repair as this refrigerant has been phased out of use) OR the technician may be tempted to install a new coil rated to use a new refrigerant.
But that last approach leads to more costs: a coil mismatched to the rest of the equipment will operate very poorly, as demonstrated by www.racca-florida.org/AlabamaStudy.pdf
and when we change refrigerant we may need to change additional controls (TEVs for example) increasing the job cost until it begins to look as if a complete outdoor compressor/condenser unit replacement or even a whole system replacement would have been a smarter change.
Questions & answers or comments about how to find and fix leaks in air conditioner or heat pump refrigeration piping systems.
Use the "Click to Show or Hide FAQs" link just above to see recently-posted questions, comments, replies, try the search box just below, or if you prefer, post a question or comment in the Comments box below and we will respond promptly.
Mark Cramer Inspection Services Mark Cramer, Tampa Florida, Mr. Cramer is a past president of ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors and is a Florida home inspector and home inspection educator. Mr. Cramer serves on the ASHI Home Inspection Standards. Contact Mark Cramer at: 727-595-4211 mark@BestTampaInspector.com
John Cranor is an ASHI member and a home inspector (The House Whisperer) is located in Glen Allen, VA 23060. He is also a contributor to InspectApedia.com in several technical areas such as plumbing and appliances (dryer vents). Contact Mr. Cranor at 804-747-7747 or by Email: email@example.com
Thanks to reader Don Jackson for HVAC refrigerant leak soldering repair tips (Aug-Sept 2008).
 Refrigerant Piping Design Guide, Application Guide AG-31-011, McQuay Air Conditioning, Daikin McQuay International Equipment, 13600 Industrial Park Blvd.
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55441
800-432-1342 (Toll Free), Website: http://www.daikinmcquay.com/, [Copy on file as http://www.inspectapedia.com/aircond/AC_Guide_McQuay.pdf ]
Wikipedia provided background information about the definition of HEPA and airborne particle interception.
Books & Articles on Building & Environmental Inspection, Testing, Diagnosis, & Repair
"Air Conditioning & Refrigeration I & II", BOCES Education, Warren Hilliard (instructor), Poughkeepsie, New York, May - July 1982, [classroom notes from air conditioning and refrigeration maintenance and repair course attended by the website author]
Fiberglass: Indoor Air Quality Investigations: Fiberglass in Indoor Air, HVAC ducts, and Building Insulation
Carson, Dunlop & Associates Ltd., 120 Carlton Street Suite 407, Toronto ON M5A 4K2. Tel: (416) 964-9415 1-800-268-7070 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The firm provides professional home inspection services & home inspection education & publications. Alan Carson is a past president of ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors. Thanks to Alan Carson and Bob Dunlop, for permission for InspectAPedia to use text excerpts from The Home Reference Book & illustrations from The Illustrated Home. Carson Dunlop Associates' provides extensive home inspection education and report writing material.
The Illustrated Home illustrates construction details and building components, a reference for owners & inspectors. Special Offer: For a 5% discount on any number of copies of the Illustrated Home purchased as a single order Enter INSPECTAILL in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space.
TECHNICAL REFERENCE GUIDE to manufacturer's model and serial number information for heating and cooling equipment, useful for determining the age of heating boilers, furnaces, water heaters is provided by Carson Dunlop, Associates, Toronto - Carson Dunlop Weldon & Associates Special Offer: Carson Dunlop Associates offers InspectAPedia readers in the U.S.A. a 5% discount on any number of copies of the Technical Reference Guide purchased as a single order. Just enter INSPECTATRG in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space.
The Home Reference Book - the Encyclopedia of Homes, Carson Dunlop & Associates, Toronto, Ontario, 25th Ed., 2012, is a bound volume of more than 450 illustrated pages that assist home inspectors and home owners in the inspection and detection of problems on buildings. The text is intended as a reference guide to help building owners operate and maintain their home effectively. Field inspection worksheets are included at the back of the volume.
Special Offer: For a 10% discount on any number of copies of the Home Reference Book purchased as a single order. Enter INSPECTAHRB in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space. InspectAPedia.com editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author.
Special Offer: Carson Dunlop Associates offers InspectAPedia readers in the U.S.A. a 5% discount on these courses: Enter INSPECTAHITP in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space. InspectAPedia.com editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author.
The Horizon Software System manages business operations,scheduling, & inspection report writing using Carson Dunlop's knowledge base & color images. The Horizon system runs on always-available cloud-based software for office computers, laptops, tablets, iPad, Android, & other smartphones