What is Freon and How You Can Avoid Risks

What is Freon? Is Freon dangerous? Where can you buy Freon? Should you be adding Freon to your AC unit? And what do all these weird letter/number combos like R-22 mean? For many of us, Freon is a word we’ve heard (and received warnings about) but not something most people can identify. This blog will teach you everything you need to know about Freon, refrigerants, and safety regarding these chemicals.

So first things first: what is Freon? Freon is a brand-name and registered trademark for a group of refrigerants owned by the Chemours Company, a spin-off of DuPont. The Freon refrigerants were created to replace more toxic chemicals like ammonia. Chemically, Freon refrigerants were chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), compounds of carbon, hydrogen, chlorine, and fluorine. DuPont created a system to catalog the various Freon refrigerants so they wouldn’t have to repeatedly use the tongue-twister chemical names. The first Freon was dichlorodifluoro- methane, which DuPont called R-12. These days, the Freon trademark applies to R-12,  R-13B1, R-22, R-410A, R-502, and R-503.

Okay, so we know what Freon is. But why were companies adding Freon to AC units? Refrigerants like Freon play an integral role in how an air conditioner functions. The three main mechanical elements of an air conditioner are the condenser coil, the evaporator coil, and the compressor. For a bigger breakdown on how AC units work, check out our blog on the subject here. The refrigerant cycles through these three mechanical elements, picking up heat and shedding it so that your AC unit can create cool air. Refrigerants are chemically designed so they excel at changing state and absorbing heat. Without a refrigerant like Freon added to your AC unit, you’d have a very inefficient window fan.

Many people use the word Freon synonymously with refrigerant, the way that some people use Kleenex to refer to all facial tissues. But it’s important to know that what is Freon and what is a refrigerant are not synonymous. In 1987, the countries of the world signed a treaty that has come to be known as the Montreal Protocol to restrict the usage of CFCs (including Freon). While CFCs are less toxic for humans, they contribute greatly to the depletion of the ozone layer. As air conditioners and refrigerators became more common, the governments of the world decided action was necessary to protect the environment. 

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) were chosen to replace CFCs, but part of the Montreal Protocol was a plan to phase these refrigerants out as well. The Kyoto Protocol, a second international climate agreement, further restricted the use of HFCs. Chemists have developed new refrigerants, like R-32, with lower global warming potential. So if you’re someone who uses Freon and refrigerant interchangeably, your definition of what is Freon is evolving and will continue to do so.

So if companies were adding Freon to AC units to make them safer, why does Freon still have a bad reputation? While Freon might be less toxic than the refrigerants it replaced, it is still a dangerous chemical. Likewise, while HFCs are less dangerous to the environment, they can still be dangerous to humans. In addition, Freon and other refrigerants are tasteless and mostly odorless, making them perfect bogeymen for home-related fears. 

Fortunately, most modern machines are built so that refrigerant leaks are extremely uncommon. In order to suffer from refrigerant poisoning, you would need prolonged exposure to a large quantity of refrigerant for a significant period of time. This isn’t to say you should start splashing refrigerant on yourself—please don’t do that! But if you’re worried about a refrigerant leak, you don’t need to panic. If you see a liquid leaking out of your AC unit’s vents, don’t worry! It’s common for air conditioners to leak a small amount of moisture because they condense the water molecules in the air. 

When should you be concerned about a potential refrigerant leak? If your AC unit is in operation but not cooling, and you can hear the compressor engaged—meaning it’s making the same amount and kinds of sound as usually does—then there’s a chance your unit is low on refrigerant or leaking. Stop using your air conditioner and contact a professional to come in and check out the unit for potential issues.

So what do we know about Freon, refrigerants, and the way they are used? Refrigerant chemicals are essential to the functioning of air conditioning systems. Companies began adding Freon to AC units as a non-toxic alternative to traditional refrigerants. While it was widely used, Freon has been phased out in favor of refrigerants with a lower global warming potential, like R32, which we use at Windmill. Scientists around the world are constantly working on new refrigerants which are even more environmentally friendly. While Freon and other refrigerants are safer for humans than traditional refrigerants, prolonged exposure to any refrigerant can be dangerous. However, refrigerant leaks are extremely uncommon, and easily handled by professionals. If you have any other questions about refrigerants or how your AC is functioning, Windmill support is available seven days a week to help you out. For more information on how Windmill is fighting for a greener future, check out our environmental initiatives here.