Pressurised cooling systems are undoubtedly the most important part of refrigerators. Should they fail, the items inside won’t maintain their chilled temperature. For fridges using freon gas as the refrigerant, a system leak is a particularly serious issue. Not only does the gradual loss of freon reduce the fridge’s efficiency, but the gas itself can cause further problems as it escapes into the environment.
As experts in many types of cooling mechanisms at Bluebird Refrigeration, we’ve created this blog post to help you out. We’re here to let you know all the important information about refrigerator freon leaks, from diagnosis to repairs. Find out more about what freon does and how to safely handle a freon leak in our blog below.
What is freon?
First of all, it’s useful to know what exactly freon is. Simply put, freon is a chemical gas with a high boiling point, which becomes very cold under high pressure. You’ll find the freon cooling system on the back of the refrigeration unit. This consists of a compressor, condenser, and evaporator, all connected with copper lines to transport the gas around.
Freon is a synthetic R22 refrigerant – a chlorofluorocarbon compound containing 22 fluorine atoms – developed by DuPont in the 1930s. Being stable and non-flammable, it was a popular choice for refrigerators and fridge-freezer units for many years. However, by the 1990s it became clear that freon is harmful, and manufacturers began to phase it out.
Freon is unfortunately a potent pollutant, which damages the ozone layer when it escapes into the atmosphere. This allows more solar radiation to reach the surface of the planet, contributing to climate change. For this reason, most countries around the world now have heavy restrictions on the use of freon, with many banning the gas completely.
Why is a refrigerator freon leak harmful?
Though freon poisoning is rare, frequent or prolonged exposure to a freon leak can result in health problems for humans and animals. This includes inhaling, touching, or ingesting freon in any form. As a gas, freon sinks towards the floor, increasing the risks for small children or pets. Exposure to freon can cause symptoms such as the following:
- Mild exposure – dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath
- Moderate exposure – headaches, coughing, vomiting, and irritation of the throat, eyes, and ears
- Severe exposure – confusion, seizures, loss of consciousness, even sudden death
Since freon tends to have no smell or colour, you could inhale or ingest some of it without realising. Touching freon can also result in frostbite or chemical burns, though these will be immediately obvious. A small, localised leak normally won’t cause these issues if the area is well-ventilated. If you experience any of the symptoms above, seek medical help.
How to tell if a refrigerator is leaking freon
There are many signs of mechanical problems with a refrigerator that can manifest in the same ways, despite having different causes. So, while the indicators below can be signs of a freon leak, something else could be responsible for some of them. To start with, look out for these issues in and around your fridge:
⦿ Warm food
When freon leaks out of the cooling system, it will no longer be able to operate efficiently. Without effective temperature regulation, the inside of the fridge will gradually get warmer and warmer. Any food and drink in the refrigerator won’t be cold, and fresh produce will spoil much faster as a result.
⦿ Bad smells
Freon is generally odourless, but high concentrations can cause a musty or chemical scent. However, as a freon leak can prevent the items inside from chilling properly, perishables will go bad quickly. The unpleasant smell of rotting food is more likely to notify you that something is wrong with the fridge.
⦿ Unusual sickness
Unknowingly consuming spoiled food or drink can obviously cause sickness, which is a secondary side effect of a cooling system failure. If this isn’t the case, but people or pets in your household are experiencing nausea, vomiting, or other symptoms explained above, it could be caused by freon.
⦿ Oily residue
Freon is also colourless, which is why it’s not so easy to spot a leak. That said, if you spot an oily substance on the floor, this could be a by-product of a freon leak. This residue should indicate the area that the leak is coming from if you clean it up carefully then look out for where it starts to re-form.
⦿ Overactive motor
When freon levels get too low, the system works overtime as it attempts to maintain the correct temperature. The noise of a constantly running motor can indicate a refrigerant leak, especially if the fridge still isn’t any cooler. This excessive strain can also cause the motor to burn out and break down.
⦿ High electricity bills
When your refrigerator system is running non-stop, your energy bills will probably increase. If you notice a spike in your household’s energy consumption and higher electricity bills than usual, an overactive motor trying to compensate for coolant leaking from your fridge could be the culprit.
What causes a refrigerator freon leak?
If you’re wondering ‘why is my refrigerator leaking freon?’ then the most probable answer is that the coolant system is compromised in some way. This could be due to inevitable age-related failure, or accidentally puncturing the tubing. Damage to the sealed system can occur from activities like:
- Moving the refrigerator around and bumping it into other objects
- Allowing dust and debris to build up instead of cleaning regularly
- Attempting to de-ice the back with a hard scraping tool
- Overloading the fridge with too much hot or un-chilled food
- Keeping the refrigerator in a hot and/or humid environment
However, many of the signs that alert you to a potential freon leak can also be caused by other mechanical or electrical failures. It’s important to properly identify the presence or absence of a freon leak as soon as possible. Luckily, there’s a simple test you can do to check for leaking freon.
Refrigerator freon leak detection
The first step in identifying a refrigerator freon leak is to perform a visual inspection of the fridge unit. If you spot an oily puddle as described above, there is likely to be a leak in this area. Even if there is oily residue present, it can be near impossible to locate the exact puncture or crack if it’s very small.
The next option is to purchase a freon detector kit. There are several different types, which are usually available to buy online. These electronic devices can detect halogen gases, either by recording a difference in gas pressure or by turning a fluorescent agent yellow under blue UV light.
The least expensive method of DIY freon detection is the soap bubble test. Clean the back of your refrigerator, then mix soap and water in a spray bottle and apply it along the tubing. If gas is escaping through the layer of soapy solution, tiny bubbles will start to form in the affected area.
Fridge gas leak symptoms
If your fridge does have a gas or freon leak then you could experience one, or more, symptoms.
Mild to moderate refrigerant poisoning may include the following symptoms:
- irritation of eyes, ears and throats
On the more serious side, refrigerant poisoning may cause the following symptoms:
- breathing difficulties
- loss of consciousness
- vomiting blood
- irregular heartbeat
- fluid build-up in the lungs
Your mild symptoms would usually resolve once the leak has been fixed in your refrigerator. But for the more serious symptoms, you may have to take the advice of your GP or even call the emergency services out if needs be.
What to do if your refrigerator is leaking freon
Though a homeowner or business owner can find a freon leak themselves, they’re unlikely to be able to fix it. Even if you locate the leak and know which part needs replacing, can you get hold of this component yourself? What about finding replacement freon, or a suitable refrigerant substitute?
In the extremely unlikely scenario that you’re able to procure replacement freon for your fridge, it would be incredibly dangerous for you to attempt to refill your refrigerator cooling system on your own. It requires a qualified professional who is familiar with such appliances and procedures.
Messing around with the cooling system as an untrained layperson, even if you have experience with other types of mechanical repairs, is more likely to result in further damage. The last thing you want is to let even more freon escape – you’d be putting yourself and anyone else around at serious risk.
Refrigerator freon leak repair
As global warming awareness has increased in the last decade, updated laws mean that adding freon to refrigerators is no longer possible in the UK. Fridges are no longer sold with freon, and it’s against the law to service, maintain, or repair a refrigerator or air conditioning unit using R22 refrigerant in the UK.
Hydrofluorocarbons, the initial replacements for freon, are also being phased out in the UK. It’s still possible to use some reclaimed or recycled HFC refrigerants to service or repair a fridge, as they won’t be banned until 2030. So, what can you do if your old refrigerator seems to be leaking freon?
The solution is to contact a fridge repair specialist, who can assess the best course of action for your leaking refrigerator. Since fridges haven’t been sold with freon since 2004, it’s likely that such a fridge may be at the end of its life, in which case you’ll need a full replacement rather than repairs.
Contact Bluebird Refrigeration to fix a freon leak
Whether you only suspect a freon leak, or a bubble test has already confirmed your suspicions, you need to contact an expert as soon as possible. Specialist repair technicians, like the team at Bluebird Refrigeration, can assess your fridge and figure out the appropriate action for the particular circumstances.
For help with a refrigerator leak, contact the Bluebird Refrigeration head office by calling 01695 660257. We also have a 24-hour hotline, which you can call at any time of day or night on 0800 0432 583. Alternatively, you can explain your situation in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to receive expert advice and assistance.