PhotoTest drive a 10- or 12 year-old used car on a hot summer day and you might like some of the retro features, but chances are you won't like the air conditioner. The odds are ten to one that it no longer works.

Just as your home's air conditioner has a finite lifespan, so do most vehicle air conditioners. Over time and miles they fail for a number of different reasons, but most often it's because the air conditioner's compressor has failed. It can fail for a number of different reasons, but often it is due to the build-up of dirt and debris within the system.

Regular service

According to the Car Care Council, regular air conditioner service can prolong the life and improve the efficiency of most vehicle air conditions, just as it can for home units.

Typical service includes these steps:

  • A service technician visually inspects hoses, lines, seals and other components for leaks as well as inspect the drive belt for cracks or damage.
  • A technician checks pressures to test operation, refrigerant charge and outlet temperatures.
  • If the system is found to be low on refrigerant, a leak test is performed to find the source of the leak.
  • Refrigerant may be added if necessary to top off the system, although some states do not allow topping off for environmental reasons.
  • A technician may also check for evidence of refrigerant cross-contamination, which is the mixing of refrigerants.

Air conditioner service should also include a check of the compressor’s drive belt and tension.

It's also recommended that when having a vehicle’s HVAC system inspected, the cabin air filter be checked to make sure air is flowing properly into the car.

“Making sure your air conditioner system is working properly will keep you cool and safe when you hit the road this summer,” said Rich White, executive director of the Car Care Council.


If the car you are currently driving starts to lose its cooling capacity, it could be because it is low on refrigerant. If that's the case, you might have a small leak in the system.

You can have a service technician top off your system or completely evacuate and recharge it. Whichever you choose, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) points out neither will permanently fix the system leaks that allowed the refrigerant to escape in the first place. Over time, the fresh refrigerant will also escape.

The refrigerant in older vehicles is CFC-12, also known by the brand name Freon. It is no longer manufactured in the United States. As domestic supplies dwindle, it is becoming increasingly expensive to purchase CFC-12, so fixing a leak may be more economical in the long run than continuing to purchase CFC-12.

Typically, replacing refrigerant and repairing leaks is the least costly air conditioner repair for cars. If the compressor has failed and must be replaced, the cost of staying cool behind the wheel can be several hundred dollars.  

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