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Water Leaking From AC Unit: Should I Be Worried?

Water leaking from an ac unit

Finding a pool of water near your air conditioner can be alarming. You may ask yourself: Why is this happening? Is this liquid water, or could it be refrigerant? While being in this situation can be alarming, you should know that it’s not uncommon to find moisture near your AC unit, and this may not actually be a bad thing. To determine whether your water leak is serious, it’s helpful to understand how air conditioning systems work.

Air conditioners use refrigerants to cool down the air that flows through your home. These systems operate thanks to a handy piece of physics: When a liquid turns into a gas, it absorbs heat. So, with a substance that changes from a liquid to a gas at a relatively low temperature, as is the case with refrigerants, you can harness that heat-absorption power to cool down a home on a hot summer day.

Air conditioners work by using a compressor to force the refrigerant substance into a liquid state. The refrigerant is then pumped into the evaporator coil, where it absorbs heat from its surroundings, cools the coil down and transforms back into a gas. The gas is then forced into the condenser coil, where all the heat it just absorbed is pushed back outside. Finally, the gas is then sucked into the compressor, where it’s once again forced into a liquid form.

When air conditioners suck in warm air, these systems immediately send it through the evaporator coil to cool down. As air cools down, it releases the humidity it carries as liquid water. This water condenses on the evaporator coil, similar to the condensation that appears on a cold glass of lemonade. The resulting cool, dry, “conditioned” air is blown into your home. The problem is that the condensed water has to go somewhere, which leads us back to our original question: Should I be worried about the water leak from my AC unit? How much is too much water?

Causes Of Water Leaks From Air Conditioners

Air conditioners are designed to drain the water they collect. In fact, seeing a puddle by the air conditioner’s primary drain is the most common reason you might believe it is “leaking.” However, this is not only normal, but actually a sign that your air conditioner is working. You want to see water near the condenser or coming out of the primary drain outside. The more humid the weather has been, the more water you’ll see. You may be surprised to learn that a typical system discharges between 5 and 20 gallons each day. So, you’ll typically see signs of dampness where this water comes out of your drain pipe. As long as this water is not draining indoors, you don’t have to worry about it.

If your air conditioner is draining, but you would like it to be draining further away from your house, you can get longer drain lines. These flexible hoses can direct the water away from your foundation, helping keep the area near your condenser unit looking nice, neat and puddle-free.

Many air conditioners have a secondary drain line. This line usually drips water somewhere noticeable, like by a door or window. When you notice this happening, that’s usually a sign that something has gone wrong with the primary drain line. If you see water coming out of the secondary line, you should contact your heating and cooling technician to get your system checked out.

Other causes of water leaks in air conditioners that are more serious include a blocked drain pipe, a broken condensation pan, a unit that has not been installed correctly and a dirty filter.

Blocked Drain Pipe

This kind of situation can develop if you have neglected to perform regular maintenance of your system and dust, dirt and other debris have collected in your drain pipe. When your air conditioner’s drain pipes are clogged, water can’t get through, and your unit will be unable to remove humidity from the air circulating indoors, eventually leading to discoloration on carpets and walls. If you notice this happening, schedule a service call with a licensed heating and cooling professional.

If you can easily access your drain hose’s connections, you can sometimes fix this issue yourself. After you turn off your air conditioner, find a bucket to catch any liquid that may have collected in your drain pan. Then, remove the cleaning port cap and look for the blockage. If it’s a small blockage that’s within reach, you can attempt to remove it out yourself by passing a stiff wire through the channels.

If you can’t access the drain connection, the blockage is much larger in size or if you’re not familiar with air conditioning systems, it’s likely wiser to contact a professional about a leak. A licensed specialist will be able to identify the problem, and will likely be able to resolve an issue like a blocked drain pipe during one visit.

Broken Condensation Pan

Water dripping out of the bottom of the pan may point to a cracked condensate pan. This container holds water before it drains out of the unit. Depending on your model of air conditioner, this fix may be as simple as ordering a part and installing it. On the other hand, it may require a professional to come and repair the condensate pan. If you’re not sure, you can have a heating and cooling professional out to provide you with recommendations and replace or fix your system’s key components.

Poor Installation

In some cases, an air conditioner works fine, but it was installed incorrectly. Gaps, poor connections or incorrect sizing can all lead your air conditioner to leak. If this is why your AC is leaking, you will need to reinstall the system correctly to resolve the problem.

Dirty Air Filter

If your air conditioner’s filters get dirty, warm air from can’t be pulled in from outside. Instead, your air conditioner will end up pulling in the already cooled air from your home. This leads to a feedback loop where the inside of the unit just keeps getting colder. This will condense more and more water, and eventually, your evaporator coils will freeze. Frozen evaporator coils require professional assistance, as this is not a typical job for a do-it-yourselfer. You can usually avoid these types of problems by scheduling regular maintenance for your air conditioner.

What if the leak coming from an AC unit isn’t water, but something else?

A gray living room next to a kitchen

Freon Leak: AC Unit Problems Of A More Serious Nature

If you think you may have a Freon leak, you should know that there’s good news and bad news. First, the good news: the Clean Air Act mandated that cooling systems manufactured after 2010 could not contain Freon, as more ozone-friendly refrigerants became available. So, it could be that you purchased your system after that point, in which case it doesn’t use Freon at all, but another type of refrigerant. Whatever the age of your unit, you are probably not seeing refrigerant leaking out, since Freon and other types of refrigerants are gaseous at room temperature.

Now for the bad news: refrigerants, including Freon, are odorless and colorless gases. That means that it is difficult to determine if you have a refrigerant leak, so there is not an easy way to tell if these gases are circulating throughout your home.  Accidental refrigerant poisoning is quite rare, but can occur among professionals who routinely work with Freon. Symptoms of refrigerant poisoning are difficulty breathing, swelling in the throat area, severe pain in the abdomen, vomiting, skin irritation and pain in the throat, nose, sees, ears, lips and tongue. Typically, your only indication that your unit is leaking refrigerant is that your air conditioner isn’t working quite right.

If you’re experiencing one or more of the following problems, you could have a Freon or refrigerant leak:

  • Low airflow coming out of vents
  • Warm air coming out of your air conditioner
  • Frozen evaporator coils
  • Air conditioner taking an extended period of time to cool down your home

If you notice any of these issues, contact a heating and cooling professional immediately. The longer a Freon leak is not addressed, the more harmful it can be. Your air conditioner will use more electricity resulting in an expensive energy bill. Additionally, Freon can damage the environment, and breathing Freon gas can have serious health implications. A certified technician will be able to make any needed repairs to your AC system and help you handle the problem quickly and safely.

Whether you’re dealing with a water leak or a Freon leak, you may also have to deal with frozen evaporator coils.

A living room with a white couch

Frozen Evaporator Coils: What Should I Do?

Another common issue with air conditioning systems is when evaporator coils freeze, which is the result of too much moisture in the air conditioning unit. The reason why this is happening can vary, although the most common culprits are:

  • A Freon Leak. If your system is low on refrigerant, your evaporator coil can get too cold and condense too much water. This will lead to ice forming on the coils and can result in your entire AC unit freezing up.
  • Dirty Air Filters. If your AC can’t draw in enough warm air, then the inside of the unit will cool down excessively and your evaporator coils will freeze over.
  • A Dirty Blower Wheel. The blower wheel is the component that pulls large amounts of air from the outdoors into your system. If the blower wheel is dirty, there will be restricted airflow to the unit, resulting in frozen coils.

If you notice that your evaporator coils are frozen, your first step should be to turn off the unit. This stops the feedback loop that is cooling the evaporator coils too much and lets them thaw. Don’t try to remove the ice yourself and don’t keep running the unit. Doing so can seriously damage your air conditioner.

Instead of troubleshooting this issue on your own, you can check the air filters while you call a professional heating and cooling technician. The filters may be the cause of the problem and you can replace your filter yourself. The technician will be able to identify any more significant problems that caused the coils to freeze up and make needed repairs. You can then set up regular AC maintenance appointments to prevent this problem from happening in the future.

ABC Can Keep Your Home Comfortable

If you’re dealing with a problem with your air conditioner, and especially if you’re dealing with an abnormal amount of water around your AC unit, your best option is to contact a licensed heating and cooling specialist rather than trying to attempt a fix on your own. When you contact ABC Home & Commercial Services, we will send one of our licensed professionals to your home who will be able to quickly determine what is causing your problem and then get to work on fixing it. We can also provide you with ongoing air conditioning and heating maintenance, which allows us to catch smaller problems before they turn into bigger, more costly headaches.

Tom Riggs

Tom Riggs is the Division Manager for Mechanical Services, overseeing sales and operations for HVAC, Plumbing, Electrical, Appliance Repair and Water Quality for all ABC Austin branches. He joined ABC in 2014. Before ABC, he was an HVAC Service Technician, HVAC Comfort Advisor/Sales and Operations Manager. Tom attended Universal Technical Institute. He's an avid outdoorsman and enjoys country living with his wife and two sons.

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