Air conditioning, part 2: When refrigerant isn’t what it seems

The word Freon is commonly used when talking about a car’s air conditioning system; however, it is merely a brand name trademarked by the Chemours Company for their line of chlorofluorocarbon chemicals known as R-12. The actual word we should be using is refrigerant.

R-12 refrigerant has not been available for many years. R-134a and R-1234yf are standard with the latter being used in all new vehicles. Many cars still use R134a, which like R-12, is also being phased out. This phasing out status, along with inflation has doubled the price of R-134a since last season. Last summer in my region of southern Ontario, a 13.6-kilogram tank of R-134a sold for an average of $179. Now, that same container is difficult to find for less than $400. R1234yf is an astounding $800 for a much smaller 4.5-kilogram container. The average passenger car requires about 500 grams of refrigerant.

But what about cheaper refrigerant alternatives? In Canada, refrigerant purchases are regulated and cannot be sold in quantities smaller than 10-kilograms. An Ozone Depletion Prevention (OPD) certificate is required to purchase that 10-kilogram-plus container. But many people see what they believe is refrigerant on their local parts store shelf in small quantities for $10 to $20 and want to know if they can use this instead. Anything you as a consumer can buy over the shelf without an ODP certificate is not refrigerant and therefore not regulated. It is a propane, isobutane mix and will have a flammable warming label. Opinions vary on the usability of these products; some swear by them, others have little success. Those who use these products are typically DIY’ers and repair shops that can’t afford to purchase a refrigerant service machine. An AC refrigerant machine properly collects, stores and recycles refrigerant. The most popular argument I hear is that south of the border, refrigerant purchases are not as tightly regulated, anyone can walk into an auto-parts store and buy R-134a in small quantities. It becomes the ‘Canada is overregulated argument,’ but in my opinion our regulations are not a bad thing. It has been my experience that most who use these small containers never actually fix their leaking AC system, they just fill it every year and then let it leak out slowly every summer, repeating the process year after year.

When a professional services your vehicle with their air-conditioning station, they empty or recover any existing refrigerant, which is recycled. Leak tests are performed, and once the system is determined to be leak free, the vehicles air conditioning system is then drawn into a vacuum, the appropriate amount of lubricating oil is injected into the system and then charged with refrigerant. As I mentioned in part one last week, the oil is crucial to compressor longevity. Over the shelf consumer alternatives do not typically have sufficient oil, therefore your AC system will always be running low on oil.

Use if you wish, but don’t expect the same results in cooling efficiency, nor be surprised when it goes wrong, and your AC fails in a dramatic, expensive manner.

Your automotive questions answered

Hi Lou,

We have a 2009 Toyota RAV4 V6 Limited with 220,000 kilometres on it. It has been well maintained and we’ve had minimal trouble. It runs great, has no rust and still has lots of power for passing. Lately, when it rains there is a squeaking noise from the engine that varies with engine speed and goes away about 20 minutes after startup. Could it be the serpentine belt? This was replaced once a couple years ago. Any idea of how long we can expect this car to last and any problem areas we should be watching for? We’ll likely be buying a new car this year and switch the RAV4 to be our second car, so it will only be driven a few thousand kilometres per year.

Thanks, Peter G.

The life expectancy of a serpentine belt can vary, but at a minimum, expect at least 100,000 kilometres of service from it, with many going much farther. That being said, they owe you nothing past that 100-kilometre mark. Odd noises such as you are describing can certainly be attributed to an aging belt. You haven’t mentioned how many kilometres are on the replacement belt, but I doubt you are at the replacement interval. This leads me to believe you should expand your noise search to include accessory items such as the belt tensioner, alternator and water pump. Any of those parts could be nearing the end of their life, starting to seize and adding additional stress to the belt.

V6 RAV4′s from that generation were the better choice over the 4-cylinder models that were plagued with oil burning issues. Other than a slightly problematic lower steering shaft, there were few problems with your model. I am sure it will make a great second car.

A rebate on any purchase translates into higher than necessary sales tax paid on the pre-rebate price. On a $1,000 purchase of four tires, you pay an additional $130 in taxes; against the $750 post four tires for three ($250 rebate), that’s an effective 17.33-per cent HST rate.

Automotive dealers have brought in phenomenal extra GST/HST revenues over decades when rebates are taken into consideration and that’s on the cost of automobiles, not just tires. In conclusion, rebates suck … sorry.

Thanks for the good articles,

Fred R.

Thank you, Fred,

I agree with you in regard to tire rebates. I have no time for them, just discount the price of the tires at the point of purchase and be done with it. What was originally designed to attract new customers to a tire brand has turned into a marketing ploy to collect a customer’s information in my opinion.

I’ve tried to grasp your theory, but you have lost me a bit. I follow you with the extra taxes being collected, but I don’t understand how you come up with a $250 value for a rebate. Drop me a message, I’d love to know what I am missing.

Lou Trottier is owner-operator of All About Imports in Mississauga. Have a question about maintenance and repair? E-mail [email protected], placing “Lou’s Garage” in the subject line.

Shopping for a new car? Check out the new Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.


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