Looking for Leaks in all the Right Places

While half the country lives in warmth year-round, the other half is just coming out of hibernation. Some drivers will be flipping on their A/C for the first time in months. When it comes to A/C service and repair, how much do you know about the tools that techs use to get the job done?

Across the board, it would seem UV dye and light kits are a tech’s ‘silver bullet’ for finding A/C leaks fast.

“Traditionally, A/C repair has been the same for years,” said technician Jimmy Bielarz of Chicago’s Nortown Automotive.

“When a car comes in the customer says, ‘my A/C’s not working,’” said Bielarz. “First thing we’ll do is put a little gas in there, or check the pressure and see if it’s low. If it’s low, we’ll put a little gas in there and a little dye … and we’ll let the system run and then start looking for leaks. If the system is low just a little bit, then we’ll just top it off and have the customer take it.

“A lot of times, people come in and their cars are three or four years old, where they don’t have major leaks but a little seepage. In that case, we’ll just fill it up and they’re good for another year,” said Bielarz.

This is the process of leak-control. These techs agreed that, if they want a thorough job, fluorescent dyes go the extra mile in helping them to confidently spot a leak – and catch it the first time around.

In fact, Bielarz sees UV leak detection kits as more than just an effective tool – he also sees it as a great help in terms of customer service.

“I’ve seen (dye kits) for sale on the tool trucks and in PTEN all the time; it’s a very big thing,” said Bielarz. “They’re important to have because you don’t want your customer coming back a week later after you’ve fixed one thing, because they’ve found that something else was leaking.

“When you don’t have [the kit], you’re kind of ‘flying blind.’ But when you have that A/C dye in there…sometimes what we do, is we have the customer drive for a couple of days, bring it back, and then we look at the whole system with the UV light – and you can see exactly where it’s leaking.”

Fluorescent leak detection kits are stealing the show from electric and other models because they can scout out even the smallest of leaks, the techs said, with relatively little cost and fuss.

“Those fluorescent kits hold up pretty well,” said Bruce Lunsford, a technical instructor in Mooresville, N.C. “For every job, whether the customer asks for it or not; I use dye to inspect the problem. It’s like having insurance. It’s a very small investment, but well worth it.”

Lunsford buys a couple of replacement dyes every two months. He doesn’t think twice about upkeep with the kits—for him, it’s the best tool for the job.

“You can get small kits with low output bulbs for $40,” said Lunsford. “A heavier wattage will cost you more. … I personally think, in this case, ‘bigger is better.’ The more wattage you have, the better you can see. … and this is especially good the older you get.

“These dyes work with all lights… there’s the bigger and better and there’s the smaller and more compact versions for those guys who like to have something at hand. I prefer bigger and better because I don’t like to miss anything. And [with the higher wattage models] I like to see every little spot.”

Many technicians agree that getting the leak properly detected is a big deal. By staying on the cutting edge of leak detection equipment, they avoid the problems that can happen with guesswork.

“Anybody who’s worked on A/C needs these,” said Lunsford. “We used to use electronic leak detectors years ago, but with some smaller leaks now, electric just doesn’t cut it. [The dye kits] work real well. It’s not a miracle light; but if it’s real small, the dye will show it.

“I would say that dye has taken over, especially with anything pressurized and water leaks, because you can really see where it’s coming from.”

Lunsford’s currently looking to replace a leak light he received in 2001, as it has just burnt out recently. He plans to go with the same brand, and hopes “they even have some hot new bells and whistles added to it.”

“With fluorescent lights, it’s all about pinpointing the leak,” said Lunsford. “If you don’t have leak detection or smoke machines; you’re just guessing.”