Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2008   by Tom Venetis, Editor

Selling A/C Maintenance

There May Be No Regular Schedule For A/C Maintenance, But Shops Can Still Find Profits In Keeping The System Running Properly

Auto A/C maintenance is a tough sell. Unlike the regularly needed oil change and brake service, there is no maintenance schedule for a car’s air conditioning system. Most technicians take the approach that if the A/C system is working properly and nothing has broken, don’t touch it.

“It is a ‘wait to break down’ kind of thing,” says Stuart Joy, service manager with Bourk’s Complete Car Care in Kanata, Ont. “There are a couple of reasons for that. Outside of changing the cabin air filter, there is not a lot to do on the system. It is like your refrigerator at home. It never requires anything, and it if does, it is because something has failed. There is really not too much to maintain.”

The reason for this is today’s air conditioning systems are not only robustly built, many of the components are hermetically sealed and can’t be opened easily. As well, many of the critical components are often buried deep under the hood and particularly hard to get to; and the cost of the labour involved to examine the evaporator, would turn a lot of people away. Especially, if everything was fine and there was no indication that there was anything wrong with the system in the first place.

Tips on keeping the A/C system running smoothly

Just because there is nothing in a car’s manual that suggests a regular maintenance schedule for the A/C system, that does not mean there is nothing much a technician can do to keep things running smoothly.

For one thing, technicians can take the time each spring to remove any leaves and debris from the vents and condenser. Debris can over time block the proper flow of air through the system, causing problems. As well, one can make sure the air dams are in place.

Gil Verwey, owner of the Burlington, Ont.-based Verwey Automotive suggests taking the time to examine the belts and tensioners in the engine, as the belts run the A/C system. If they are showing signs of wear, they will affect the A/C system eventually along with engine.

Another test that can be run is a temperature test, to see if the system is working properly and cooling the interior of the car.

“I have a thermometer that I throw into the vent and then run the A/C on high, and see what the temperature goes down to,” Verwey says. “While the car is idling in the shop, you should be able to get the temperature down to 10C or lower. Some systems will even drop the temperature down to 4C. And while this happening, I will listen to the compressor and check the belts.”

If the temperature does not go down or takes quite a long time to cool the vehicle, that suggests there is a problem somewhere in the system which should be tracked down.

The A/C nemesis: moisture. Why you should do regular evacuations, recharges

Rudy Graf, owner of Graf Auto Centre in Toronto said automotive A/C systems have two main enemies, ones that are all too familiar to Canadians: salt and moisture. Used extensively to keep roads clear and safe to drive on, salt is spread around rather liberally during the winter months. The problem is that salt can get into an A/C system and can soon begin to interact with the aluminum components and cause corrosion. If left unchecked, that corrosion will quickly damage and end the life of individual parts of the A/C system, from the evaporator to the heater.

“It is similar to what happened in the mid-80s when the bumpers were falling off of the GMs and Fords,” Graf says. “That happened because (those vehicles) had an aluminum rebar bolted to a steel bracket, and the salt rotted the square hole out of the rebar. Well, the same thing happens to our aluminum heater cores and evaporator units -we suck that salt-laden air into the system and that salt rots the system away.”

Along with salt, other problems come from moisture. When moisture gets into the system, it can begin to impact performance which people will notice as the system taking longer to cool the car’s interior. To tackle the problem, several independent service providers suggested doing an annual evacuation and recharging of the system.

Verwey actually evacuates and recharges his car’s A/C system annually, “just to make sure I get all the moisture out of the system.”

Mike Adema, manager with Georgetown, Ont.-based Jake’s Auto Service agrees that annual evacuation and recharging is one of the best maintenance programs a shop can offer to a customer. The challenge, however, is selling that program to the customer.

One way of selling that annual service is telling customers that getting the moisture out of the system is critical in keeping mould from growing in the A/C system. Car A/C systems are places where mould loves to grow if the system becomes contaminated with debris and micro-organisms. The systems are dark, damp, and a perfect breeding ground for mould and mildew, which can cause health problems for some people. By removing the moisture from the system, one can prevent mould from getting a foothold in the A/C system. If mould has gotten into the system, there are various cleaners and other treatments that can be used to get at the mould.

New standards make recycling, recharging more accurate

One of the challenges with doing an annual evacuation and recharge is making sure that the right amounts of refrigerant is taken out of the system and then returned.

“Because you are dealing with very specific quantities, you want to make sure you know exactly what you have taken out and what you are putting in,” says Joy of Bourk’s Complete Car Care. “So of the system is rated as a 1.76 lbs.-system, then you want to be very sure that exact amount is replaced. You also want to be very sure of the amounts that have been removed from the system because the government wants to know how much refrigerant has been taken out and replaced. Finally, you want that accuracy because you don’t want to overcharge the system. (Overcharging) does not really harm the auto A/C systems, but it will impact performance.”

To help get this kind of accuracy in A/C machines, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in mid-2007 that it planned to incorporate the SAE J2788 standard into all of its regulations.

Drusilla Hufford, director of stratospheric protection division of the Office of Atmospheric Programs wrote that the new SAE J2788 standard would supersede the J2210 recovery/recycling equipment. That new standard would become effective December 2007 and manufacturers in the U. S. would be given a short grace period to sell their older equipment based on the now out-of-date J2210 standard before having to incorporate the new J2788 standard in all new machines.

What this new standard does is it makes the recovery machines more accurately evacuate refrigerant from a car’s A/C system and for much more accurate recharging of the system. This should help keep the A/C system running more smoothly and help in its overall performance. Another advantage is new cars using much smaller amounts of refrigerant and the new standard will let shops more carefully remove and replace the exact amounts.

Jeff Glover, vice-president, automotive division of CPS Products in Niagara Falls, Ont. says along with the new J2788 standard in recovery and recharging machines, other features shops will likely see is more electronic self-diagnostics that will keep them running more efficiently.

“One of the things the new machines have is a force-filter change and the filters will have serial numbers on them,” Glover says. “So for every 150 pounds of refrigerant used, it will cause the machine to automatically shut down until the filter is replaced. You have to type in the serial number of the new filter for the machines to start. This will prevent the filters from becoming too contaminated and thereby allowing contamination and moisture back into the system.”

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