A DIY Air Conditioner Recharge Can Cool Your Jets

An A/C recharge in a can could save you big money at the shop.

VW Jetta climate controls
Justin Hughes

Summer has suddenly arrived in my native New England. In the past 24 hours, two of my friends have complained that their cars' air conditioners had stopped working. Naturally, being "The Car Guy" friend, they asked me for help. In both cases, without even seeing their cars, I suggested trying one of those DIY recharge kits. In northern climates, our air conditioners go unused for months over the winter. During that time rubber seals can dry out, crack, and allow the coolant (R-134a refrigerant, if you want to get technical) to leak. Most people don't notice this has happened until the first hot day of the year, when they turn the A/C on and get nothing but hot air out of the vents. When there isn't enough coolant in the system it will shut down to prevent damage to the compressor. This is good for saving your parts, but bad for cooling off on a hot day.

Most auto parts stores carry kits that will let you replace this missing coolant, and possibly plug the leaks as well. They run for $15-40, and are quite easy to use. Basically all you do is hook it up, start the car, crank your A/C, and refill the system. I've done this many times, with mixed—but usually good—results. It fixed my wife's Ford Flex last year, with no need for a further recharge since then. 

The coolant contains a little bit of sealer that can plug small leaks during the recharge process, but that didn't work at all on her old Focus. I found a huge hole in the metal coolant line itself. No amount of stop-leak is going to fix that. And my ex-cop car Crown Victoria needed the compressor and condenser replaced before it blew cold air. It was neglected for too long before I bought it, and the parts went bad.

But for the price, I think it's always good to try using a recharge kit first. Fixing it yourself saves you the cost of taking the car to a shop, or the hassle of finding a shop that can actually do A/C work (not all do). You may have to anyway if there are bigger problems, but you just might end up fixing it yourself, too.