Is a Leaking AC Dangerous? What to Do

When an air conditioning is working perfectly, it removes heat from indoor air and releases it outside the house. That is made possible by a refrigerant which circulates between the indoor and outdoor units constantly changing from liquid to gas and hence effecting the heat exchange.

Apart from cooling the house, air conditioners will also remove humidity from the indoor air. That happens on the surface of the cooling/evaporator coils.

When the hot and humid air comes into contact with the cold coil, condensation occurs and the water drips on a condensate drain pan located below the coil. A drain line then removes the water and drains it outside the house.

Unfortunately, most air conditioners will leak at some point. An AC unit can leak the refrigerant (commonly known as Freon) or water (the condensation from the evaporator coil). So, is a leaking air conditioner dangerous?

Water leaking from an air conditioner is not dangerous but can damage your house if not fixed. On the other hand, a refrigerant leak is dangerous for you and harmful to the environment. While you can fix water leaking from an AC unit, a refrigerant leak will need to be fixed by an HVAC professional.

Your should turn off your AC as soon as you see it start to leak. Turning off the AC will prevent more condensation from being formed. The AC should also be turned off when fixing the leak to prevent electrical shock.

A refrigerant leak is not always easy to detect. The chemical is colorless, odorless and tasteless.

Is Leaking Freon from AC Dangerous?

recharging air conditioner with Freon

I would like to start by mentioning that Freon (R-22) was phased out in 2020. Although there are are many AC units that still use Freon, the refrigerant has become very expensive as it is only available from old stockpiles or through recycling.

Newer AC units use Puron (R-410A) but most folks still call it Freon. Contrary to what some people say, you don’t need to recharge your AC with Freon yearly.

The air conditioning system is a close-looped one, meaning that the refrigerant is circulated without getting depleted. If you ever need to recharge your system with a refrigerant then it definitely has a leak somewhere.

If the refrigerant leak is outside of the house, it will not affect you the way it would if it was inside the house (usually in the evaporator coil).

AC refrigerant/Freon is made of chemicals which will affect your indoor air quality and can make you sick if inhaled in large quantities. Refrigerant poisoning can cause breathing difficulties, nausea, vomiting, headaches, coughing and irritation of eyes and skin.

In most cases, refrigerants leak from pin-sized holes and is therefore not likely to expose you to danger. It could however leak from a big opening within a very short time and that is the kind that causes refrigerant poisoning.

Acute refrigerant poisoning happens when you are exposed to large quantities of the refrigerant. The tell-tale signs that you are suffering from refrigerant poisoning are:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Irritation in the eyes, nose and throat
  • Swelled throat or sinuses
  • Stomach pains
  • Vomiting/diarrhea
  • Blood in stool or vomit
  • Skin irritation
  • Vision loss
  • Irregular heartbeat

Apart from being a dangerous substance to inhale, Freon/refrigerant is harmful to the environment. Actually, the main reason why R-22 was banned is because it was discovered that it badly depleted the ozone layer which as a result caused global warming.

Freon’s global warming potential is about 2000 times that of carbon dioxide. That is how harmful this chemical is to the environment.

What are the Signs of a Freon/Refrigerant Leak?

As I mentioned, it is not easy to tell when your AC refrigerant is leaking. However, there are signs which can lead you to that conclusion.

The following are the signs of a refrigerant leak:

  • AC is running but not cooling the house – Of course when there is no enough refrigerant in the system, it will be hard to remove heat from the indoor air. This problem can however be caused by other AC problems.
  • There is ice buildup in refrigerant line – When there is a leak, the refrigerant temperature drops below freezing point. That causes the coil and refrigerant line to freeze.
  • The energy bills are unusually high – Since there is no enough coolant, the AC will run for longer trying to cool the indoor air and hence electricity high bills.
  • Hissing/bubbling sounds when the AC isn’t running – If there is a hissing sound especially from the evaporator coil or the outside unit, you most likely have a leaking AC unit.
  • The air from the vents is warm – As the AC leaks, the air at the cooling coil will fail to lose its heat since the AC will be working like it is undersized for the space it is supposed to cool.

What Causes ACs to Leak Refrigerant

Air conditioners can leak for several reasons. The first reason would be poor installation. Usually, the HVAC contractor should test the entire system after installation using something else like nitrogen before charging it with Freon.

If you have a brand new AC unit that is leaking a refrigerant then there is a big chance that it was not properly installed.

If you have an old AC unit that is leaking, it could be caused by damage (while other folks are working around and in your house house) or corrosion. Formic acid eats away the AC metal and small pin-sized holes starts to form through which the refrigerant leaks through.

You could also be unlucky to have bought a defective unit. And that is why AC units just like other appliances have a warranty. Again, if you have a brand new AC units that is leaking refrigerant it could be defective from the onset.

Make sure that the AC units is always serviced by a licensed technician otherwise the warranty will be voided.

Is Water Leaking From AC Dangerous?

water damage

As I had mentioned earlier, the AC removes humidity through condensation. When the water vapor condenses on the surface of the coil, it drips inside the condensate drain pan located below the evaporator coil.

From the AC drip pan the water is then drained outside the house or in the house’s drainage system through the AC drain line.

The system works well most of the time but if there is a problem somewhere, water will start to leak from the AC unit.

Water leaking from the air conditioner is not dangerous. It is just condensation from the excess humidity from the indoor air.

While water from a leaking AC unit is not dangerous, it can damage your house if not fixed in good time. Air conditioners installed in the attic are the worst when it comes to leaking as they can badly damage the ceiling, drywall, wooden floors and even furniture.

The first thing to do when you notice that your AC unit is leaking is to turn it off.

Why is Your AC Leaking Water?

In most of the times, water leaking from your air conditioner is caused by a clogged drain line. Algae, mold and mildew love the humid nature of the drain line where they multiply rapidly.

Unclogging an AC drain line is easy. Just connect a shop vac to the drain line outside the house and run it for a minute. The vacuum will suck the gunk out and clear the line.

Alternatively, pour 1 cup of distilled white vinegar down the drain line then flush it with water after 30 minutes. To access the drain line remove the cap on the tee near the unit.

For more information on how to unclog an AC unit check out this post.

An old and corroded AC drip pan can also develop holes causing the unit to leak water. Inspect if that is the cause using a flashlight,

A hole in an AC drip pan can be fixed using a water-resistant sealant. However, if the pan is badly corroded, have it replaced with a new one. Remember that horizontal AC units (found in attics) have a primary and secondary drip pan.

A frozen AC unit can also result in leaks when the ice finally melts. Apart from low levels or refrigerant, a frozen evaporator coil can be caused by:

  • Dirty air filter
  • Dirty evaporator coil
  • Collapsed ducts
  • Clogged or leaking ducts

Although you can easily change your AC filter on your own, other repairs need to be done by a licensed HVAC technician.

I would also advise that you schedule regular AC maintenance to prevent such problems in the first place. I hope that this past was helpful.