These are two of the most common questions I am asked by homeowners all spring and summer and they are the area of the most confusion and misinformation in the air conditioning business. Every year we get new customers from other companies and we lose customers to other companies because of this one commonly misunderstood area.
First, let me state unequivocally, that if you ever had to add any Freon to your cooling system, you have a leak. No question about it, period. There is no reason you ever have to add Freon to an air conditioning system unless there is a leak. An air conditioning system is a sealed system that if properly installed and maintained, should never leak and never need even a few pounds of Freon added. I stress this due to the misconception that it is normal to have to "top off" your Freon in your air conditioner. While this has been common practice for years due to the fact it was less expensive to add Freon than it was to find and repair a leak, it is not the case anymore. Freon is in its final years of production, as the EPA is part of a worldwide phaseout of Freon and it will be taken off the market soon. The quantity of Freon being produced is being curtailed each year and the price is going up exponentially.
Every summer I speak to new customers of ours who are unhappy with their old heating and air contractor because they simply "pumped up" an old leaking air conditioner without telling them they had a leak. Think of your cooling system as a big car tire, if it goes down, the air had to go somewhere. Freon does not wear out or need to be freshened up or replaced, ever. No matter what you have heard in the past, you have a leak.
"Why can't you find my leak and fix it"? This is also a very common question I am asked every year and the answer is simple. Normally the leak is not one big leak, but rather many small leaks where the copper tubing is stressed or ruptured by the bonding of a dissimilar metal such as aluminum. These dissimilar metals expand and contract at a different rate and wear a hole in the copper tubing and also react to each other to form corrosion and lack of heat transfer. This is why an air conditioner with a same metal coil is more leak proof than a coil with copper tubing aluminum fins.
Most air conditioning companies have Freon leak detectors to sniff out leaks and with enough time, patience and diagnostic money, they can tell you exactly what you already know. You have a leak! To try and repair these leaks, one would have to melt away the aluminum fins to get to the copper tubing in the middle of the coil and weld up the stress areas. This would render that area of the coil useless and the chance you could repair all the possible leaks and weak areas in a coil are slim to none. Most of the time, these leaking air conditioners are old and inefficient and your money would be better spent simply cutting the cord on them as opposed to throwing good money after bad to the inefficient unit.
I see person after person spend hundreds of dollars each year finding a leak only to be told it can't be repaired or worse, fixing one leak only to find they have another the next month after all their Freon has leaked out. Do not get too attached to your old air conditioner as it is just another appliance in your home like your dishwasher or water heater that needs to be updated after 12 to 15 years to assure you are afforded the comfort and energy savings a new system can give you.