Vehicle A/CWith summertime temps on their way, you can bet that your customers will be complaining about their air conditioners failing to cool properly. While your shop can do a brisk business in summer A/C repairs, preventative maintenance is actually the better option. It ensures that your customers can keep their cool (both literally and figuratively), and provides you with an additional service and stream of income. Of course, you’ll need to know what’s involved with vehicle A/C preventative maintenance.

Why Preventative Maintenance?

Before we delve too far into the situation, let’s address the question of why you might want to provide preventative maintenance in the first place. Isn’t it better just to worry about repairs and leave the maintenance steps to other shops? Not really.

Here’s the thing – you can provide an outstanding, value-added service to your customers by offering air conditioning maintenance. It also takes less time than repairing a significantly damaged A/C system, and it builds customer loyalty, to boot. It’s also not particularly difficult, although there’s more to it than just changing out the cabin filters and performing a A/C performance test.

What’s involved with A/C System Maintenance?

Automotive A/C systems are unique, and completely different from other air conditioning systems. They require very specific steps to prevent damage and to ensure reliable operation at all times. In this section, we’ll discuss some of the most important elements:

Visual Inspection: A visual inspection of the A/C system can yield a lot of information. Is there damage to one of the lines? Do you see a lot of damage to the fins on the condenser? Is the system in obviously bad shape? Check for visual clues that might indicate the need to dig a bit deeper into specific areas of the system, such as the condition of the condenser, the condition of the lines, damaged check valves, and more.

Cabin Filter: Depending on the make and model in question, there will be one or more cabin filters inside the car. These are responsible for filtering out particulates from the air blown into the cabin, and become dirty over time, which reduces air flow. They must be replaced periodically (permanent filters should be cleaned and replaced, of course). In most cases, you’ll find the cabin filters located behind the glove box, and you’ll need to remove the glove box and other components to access them.

Perform an A/C Temperature Test: In order to ensure that the A/C is actually cooling properly, you can conduct a temperature test. This is nothing more than cranking the engine, turning on the air conditioner and making sure it is on max cool, and then using a thermometer to check the air temperature at the vents. As long as it is in line with the OEM’s specifications, the system is working fine.

Check and Recharge Refrigerant Level: Like residential A/C systems, automotive systems use refrigerant. Over time, that refrigerant can be lost due to a number of reasons. Check the level in the system. If it is low, it will need to be recharged. Note that you should conduct a leak check if the refrigerant level is low. Always use a dye test to check for leaks, as pinhole leaks may be undetectable under other conditions, yet still allow refrigerant to escape and to compromise system operation.

Clean the Condenser: Check and clean the A/C condenser, located at the front of the vehicle. While inspecting the condenser, check for damaged/bent fins. If there is substantial debris caught in the condenser fins, this can compromise operation and it will need to be removed. It may be necessary to remove the grille in order to fully access and clean the condenser. It’s also important to inspect the space between the condenser and the radiator. If there is a gap here, it could be filled with debris that must be removed, as it compromises performance.

Replace Valve Caps If Missing: Check the two valve caps on the system. If they are not present, replace them. Missing caps can cause unwanted release of pressure, and SAE standards actually require those caps be in place at all times (unless the system is being serviced).

Check Clutch Fans (If Applicable): If the vehicle is equipped with clutch fans, check the clutch operation. To do this, you simply need to spin the fan by hand. If it spins more than about four times, chances are good that the clutch is worn and will fail soon. If it spins only once, it is a sign that the clutch is locking up. If it spins about three times, it is normal. You should also check the electric fan operation at this time, as well as blend-door operation.

Clutch Engagement Test at Idle: Crank the engine and allow it to reach operating temperature. With a foot on the brake, put the car in drive, but allow it to idle. Now, turn on the air conditioner. If the air conditioning starts but shuts off, and the idle is rough, it is a sign that the throttle body needs to be cleaned, which should occur with a normal tune-up. If you notice that the clutch does not engage immediately, you should check the voltage supplied to it. If it is low, it could indicate corroded connections.

Conduct a Full Performance Test: In order to conduct a full performance test, you’ll need to connect the pressure gauges and ensure the system is in recirculation mode. You’ll then need to follow the OEM’s specific performance testing procedure. Note that this can vary significantly from one automaker to another, and they are not usually cross-compatible.

In the End

Summertime A/C maintenance will help ensure that your customers always have the cooling they need to stay comfortable and safe on the road, and will help you catch air conditioning-related woes before they become major problems. It will also help build customer loyalty, while adding value, and ensuring an additional stream of revenue for your automotive service business.

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