Car Buying

Buying a Used Car: What Does "Air Conditioning Needs a Charge" Mean?

RELATED READING
RESEARCH BY MAKE
Toyota cars, trucks and SUVs Ford cars, trucks and SUVs Honda cars, trucks and SUVs Chevrolet cars, trucks and SUVs Jeep cars, trucks and SUVs Nissan cars, trucks and SUVs Lexus cars, trucks and SUVs Volkswagen cars, trucks and SUVs BMW cars, trucks and SUVs
Acura cars, trucks and SUVs Alfa Romeo cars, trucks and SUVs AMC cars, trucks and SUVs Aston Martin cars, trucks and SUVs Audi cars, trucks and SUVs Bentley cars, trucks and SUVs BMW cars, trucks and SUVs Bugatti cars, trucks and SUVs Buick cars, trucks and SUVs Cadillac cars, trucks and SUVs Chevrolet cars, trucks and SUVs Chrysler cars, trucks and SUVs Daewoo cars, trucks and SUVs Datsun cars, trucks and SUVs DeLorean cars, trucks and SUVs Dodge cars, trucks and SUVs Eagle cars, trucks and SUVs Ferrari cars, trucks and SUVs FIAT cars, trucks and SUVs Fisker cars, trucks and SUVs Ford cars, trucks and SUVs Freightliner cars, trucks and SUVs Genesis cars, trucks and SUVs Geo cars, trucks and SUVs GMC cars, trucks and SUVs Honda cars, trucks and SUVs HUMMER cars, trucks and SUVs Hyundai cars, trucks and SUVs INFINITI cars, trucks and SUVs Isuzu cars, trucks and SUVs Jaguar cars, trucks and SUVs Jeep cars, trucks and SUVs Kia cars, trucks and SUVs Lamborghini cars, trucks and SUVs Land Rover cars, trucks and SUVs Lexus cars, trucks and SUVs Lincoln cars, trucks and SUVs Lotus cars, trucks and SUVs Maserati cars, trucks and SUVs Maybach cars, trucks and SUVs Mazda cars, trucks and SUVs McLaren cars, trucks and SUVs Mercedes-Benz cars, trucks and SUVs Mercury cars, trucks and SUVs MINI cars, trucks and SUVs Mitsubishi cars, trucks and SUVs Nissan cars, trucks and SUVs Oldsmobile cars, trucks and SUVs Plymouth cars, trucks and SUVs Pontiac cars, trucks and SUVs Porsche cars, trucks and SUVs RAM cars, trucks and SUVs Rolls-Royce cars, trucks and SUVs Saab cars, trucks and SUVs Saturn cars, trucks and SUVs Scion cars, trucks and SUVs smart cars, trucks and SUVs SRT cars, trucks and SUVs Subaru cars, trucks and SUVs Suzuki cars, trucks and SUVs Tesla cars, trucks and SUVs Toyota cars, trucks and SUVs Volkswagen cars, trucks and SUVs Volvo cars, trucks and SUVs Yugo cars, trucks and SUVs
RESEARCH BY STYLE
AWD/4WD
Commercial
Convertible
Coupe
Hatchback
Hybrid/Electric
Luxury
Sedan
SUV/Crossover
Truck
Van/Minivan
Wagon

author photo by Doug DeMuro March 2015

If you're interested in buying a used car, you may have seen advertisements stating that the car's air conditioning needs a charge. This terminology can be confusing, so we decided to explain exactly what to expect when you see (or hear) this phrase.

Needs a Charge

When sellers say that an air conditioning system needs a charge, what they mean is that the air conditioning is out of refrigerant fluid. Most likely, this means the system has a leak. The fluid in an air conditioning system simply does not get used up like gasoline. A home refrigerator works much like an air conditioning system. How often you need to "charge it up?" Probably never.

What Does It Really Need?

Unfortunately, the simple explanation that the air conditioning "needs a charge" rarely tells the whole story. For one thing, air conditioning systems are supposed to be closed; they aren't designed to lose any fluid, and they shouldn't need replenishing. With that said, it's possible for air conditioning systems to lose some fluid over time, but even that likely means a small leak in the system. So it is possible that "charging it up" will help the air conditioner blow cold air, but if the leak isn't properly fixed, you're running on borrowed time. We've seen A/C systems get a fresh shot of fluid and work well for several months, but there's really no way to be sure unless you take the car to a qualified air conditioning repair shop.

More likely, however, the car's air conditioning system needs more than just some fluid. After all, if fixing the air conditioning were as easy as adding fluid, wouldn't the seller do that before listing the car for sale?

How Can You Know for Sure?

Unfortunately, it isn't always easy to find out exactly what a car needs to get its air conditioning system working again. Pouring additional fluid into a leaky system will cause the air conditioning to operate temporarily, until it drains out again from the leak.

As a result, the only way to know with certainty what a car needs when it comes to air conditioning is to take it to a trusted mechanic, who can inspect the entire system for leaks or faults. We suggest a mechanical inspection anyway when you're buying a used car. If air conditioning is important to you, a potentially faulty system is all the more reason to make sure to get an inspection before signing the papers.

The implication of "just needs a charge" is that the problem is a simple one with a very inexpensive fix. The truth is that it's a lot more complicated than that. If you're looking at a car from the 1990s, the system may have to be converted to a new kind of refrigerant that's better for the environment. Even if you're looking at a newer car, a qualified shop will have to find and repair the leak, which could get expensive. If you really want that specific car, ask a local shop for their hourly repair rate and then factor that into the price of the car you want to buy.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Buying a Used Car: What Does "Air Conditioning Needs a Charge" Mean? - Autotrader