Air-conditioning service for a car: what happens, how long should it take and what does it cost?

Air-conditioning and dogs may not appear to have much in common. But just as man’s best friend is for life, not just Christmas, a car’s air-conditioning system is for use all year and not only in the summer months.

It is a wear-and-tear part, so in the same way an engine needs fresh oil, or brakes require replacement fluid, a car’s air-conditioning system, often called A/C or air-con, should be serviced. This will ensure it keeps drivers and passengers chilled on scorching days and prevents expensive components failing. And it’s important drivers remember air-conditioning maintenance isn’t included when they take their car for its annual service.

But how often should drivers have air-con serviced? What happens when it’s checked over? And how much does an air-conditioning service for a car typically cost? Read on to find out.

How often should a car’s air-conditioning be serviced?

According to John Orford, of Aircon Direct, a car should have its air-conditioning system inspected every three years.

Orford has been maintaining and repairing car air-con systems since 1995. Then, it was considered a luxury feature in the majority of motors. Now, nearly all new cars come with air-conditioning as standard.

Why should a car’s air-conditioning system be serviced?

Air-conditioning service

Over time, the network of compressors, driers and piping leak refrigerant. This is the crucial ingredient that makes every air-conditioning system work. Typically about 10 per cent escapes each year.

If too much refrigerant is allowed to escape, the system will struggle to chill the cabin in summer months, and won’t demist the car’s windows as effectively over winter.

Worse, it will also place an added strain on the compressor, says John Orford. That’s because the refrigerant is used to cool the compressor; if it runs dangerously low, the compressor can overheat and fail or simply shut down to save itself.

A system can also develop more severe, sudden leaks. That’s why it pays to have it checked roughly every three years. Although some car makers, including Audi, Mercedes and Volkswagen, recommend that the work is performed every other year.

What happens during an air-conditioning service?

Air-conditioning service

The first step in an air-con service is to perform a static test of the system’s pressure, without the engine or air-conditioning running. Then a second pressure test is performed on the car, this time with the engine and air-con switched on. This helps identify how low on refrigerant the system is, and the level is checked against the car’s age and service history to consider whether there has been natural wastage or a more serious leak.

After this, the engineer removes all refrigerant, using a specialist vacuum pump which also removes all traces of moisture.

Next, new refrigerant is added, according to a type and weight specified by the vehicle manufacturer. This can sometimes be found stamped on a plate in the engine bay, or it will be in the vehicle handbook. Once this is completed, the system is run and checked.

How long does the work take?

Typically the job lasts between one and one and a half hours. It can be performed at most independent or franchised garages, and some specialists can perform the service at the customer’s home or work place.

How much does a car air-conditioning service cost?

Prices vary. For example, independent garages or air-conditioning specialists charge from about £50, Ford dealers charge £49.99, BMW dealers perform the work for £75.99 while Audi customers will pay £79.99. As John Orford puts it, having A/C serviced every three years is equivalent to just £16 a year.

Compare garage ratings and prices for air-conditioning servicing here

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James Mills

James is a motoring journalist and former magazine editor at BBC Top Gear and Auto Express. He has scooped, reported on and reviewed most new cars of the past 20 years, and currently contributes to the Driving section of The Sunday Times.

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