Learning Objective: Understand the basic principles of operation, maintenance, and repair of automotive air conditioning.

Vehicle air conditioning is the cooling (refrigeration) of air within a passenger compartment. Refrigeration is accomplished by making practical use of three laws of nature—heat transfer, latent heat of vaporization, and the effects of pressure on boiling or condensation.


The saturation temperature (the temperature where boiling or condensation occurs) of a liquid or vapor increases or decreases according to the pressure exerted on it.

Figure 7-35.—Air-conditioning refrigeration system-fixed orifice.

In the fixed orifice tube refrigerant system, liquid refrigerant is stored in the condenser under high pressure (fig. 7-35). When the liquid refrigerant is released into the evaporator by the fixed orifice tube, the resulting decrease in pressure and partial boiling lowers its temperature to its new boiling point. As the refrigerant flows through the evaporator, passenger compartment air passes over the outside surface of the evaporator coils. As it boils, the refrigerant absorbs heat from the air and thus cools the passenger compartment. The heat from the passenger compartment is absorbed by the boiling refrigerant and hidden in the vapor. The refrigeration cycle is now under way. The following functions must be done to complete the refrigeration cycle:

  1. Disposing of the heat in the vapor
  2. Converting the vapor back to liquid for reuse
  3. Returning of the liquid to the starting point in the refrigeration cycle

The compressor and condenser (fig. 7-35) perform these functions. The compressor pumps the refrigerant vapor (containing the hidden heat) out of the evaporator and suction accumulator drier, then forces it under high pressure into the condenser which is located in the outside air stream at the front of the vehicle. The increased pressure in the condenser raises the refrigerant condensation or saturation temperature to a point higher than that of the outside air. As the heat transfers from the hot vapor to the cooler air, the refrigerant condenses back to a liquid. The liquid under high pressure now returns through the liquid line to the fixed orifice tube for reuse.

It may seem difficult to understand how heat can be transferred from a comparatively cooler vehicle passenger compartment to the hot outside air. The answer lies in the difference between the refrigerant pressure that exists in the evaporator and the pressure that exists in the condenser. In the evaporator, the compressor suction reduces the pressure and the boiling point below the temperature of the passenger compartment. Thus heat transfers from the passenger compartment to the boiling refrigerant. In the condenser, the compressor raises the condensation point above the temperature of the outside air. Thus the heat transfers from the condensing refrigerant to the outside air. The fixed orifice tube and the compressor simply create pressure conditions that permit the laws of nature to function.


There are three basic types of air-conditioning compressors in general use in automotive applications. Each of these uses a reciprocating (back-and-forth motion) piston arrangement—two-cylinder reciprocating, swash plate, and scotch yoke. Most automotive compressors are semihermetic.

Two-cylinder compressors (fig. 7-36) usually contain two pistons in a parallel V-type configuration. The pistons are attached to a connecting rod, which is driven by the crankshaft. The crankshaft is connected to the compressor clutch assembly, which is driven by an engine belt. Reed valves generally are used to control the intake and exhaust of the refrigerant gas during the pumping operation. These compressors are usually constructed of die cast aluminum.

Figure 7-36.—Two-cylinder reciprocating compressor.

In the swash plate or "wobble plate" compressor (fig. 7-37), the piston motion is parallel to the crankshaft. The pistons are connected to an angled swash plate using ball joints. Swash plate compressors are of three types—five-cylinder, six-cylinder, and five-cylinder variable.

Figure 7-37.—Five-cylinder swash plate compressor.

The five- and six-cylinder swash compressor has, in effect, three cylinders at each end of its inner assembly. A swash plate of diagonal design is mounted on the compressor shaft. It actuates the pistons, forcing them to move back and forth in the cylinders as the shaft is rotated. Reed valves control suction and discharge; crossover passages feed refrigerant to both high- and low-service fittings at the rear end of the compressor. A gear type of oil pump in the rear head provides for compressor lubrication.

The five-cylinder variable swash plate compressor is different from the other swash plate compressors. It uses a plate connected to a hinge pin that permits the swash plate to change its angle. The angle of the swash plate is controlled by a bellows valve that senses suction pressure. During high load conditions the swash plate angle is large, and during low load conditions, the swash plate is smaller. The displacement of the compressor is high at a large angle and low at a small angle.

A scotch-yoke compressor changes rotary motion into reciprocating motion. The basic mechanism of the scotch yoke contains four pistons mounted 90 degrees from each other. Opposed pistons are pressed into a yoke that rides on a slide block located on the shaft eccentric (fig. 7-38). Rotation of the shaft provides a reciprocating motion with no connecting rods. Refrigerant flows into the crankcase through the rear and is drained through the reeds attached to the piston tops during the suction stroke. Refrigerant is then discharged through the valve plate out the connector block at the rear. These compressors are shorter in length and larger in diameter than other compressors.

Figure 7-38.—Four-cylinder scotch-yoke mechanism.

Compressor Service Valves

Compressor service valves are built into some systems. They serve as a point of attachment for test gauges or servicing hoses. The service valves have three position controls—front seated, back seated, and midposition (fig. 7-39).

Figure 7-39.—Three-way service valve positions.

The position of this double-faced valve is controlled by rotating the valve stem with a service valve wrench. Clockwise rotation seats the front face of the valve and shuts off all refrigerant flow in the system. This position isolates the compressor from the rest of the system.

Counterclockwise rotation unseats the valve and opens the system to refrigerant flow (midposition). Systematic checks are performed with a manifold gauge set with the service valve in midposition. Further counterclockwise rotation of the valve stem seats the rear face of the valve. This position opens the system to the flow of refrigerant but shuts off refrigerant to the test connector. The service valves are used for observing of operating pressures; isolating the compressor for repair or replacement; and discharging, evacuating, and charging the system.

Compressors used in automotive air-conditioning systems generally are equipped with an electromagnetic clutch that energizes and de-energizes to engage and disengage the compressor. Two types of clutches are in general use-the rotating coil and the stationary coil.

The rotating coil clutch has a magnetic coil mounted in the pulley that rotates with the pulley. It operates electrically through connections to a stationary brush assembly and rotating slip rings. The clutch permits the compressor to engage or disengage as required for adequate air conditioning. The stationary coil clutch has the magnetic coil mounted on the end of the compressor. Electrical connections are made directly to the coil leads.

The belt-driven pulley is always in rotation while the engine is running. The compressor is in rotation and operation only when the clutch engages it to the pulley.

Air-conditioning and refrigeration systems use various control devices, including those for the refrigerant, the capillary tube usually found on window units, the automatic expansion valves also found on window units and small package units, the thermal expansion valve, and various types of suction pressure-regulating valves and devices. A brief description of a suction pressure-regulating valve is given below. A suction pressure-regulating valve is used on automotive air conditioning because the varying rpm of the compressor unit must maintain a constant pressure in the evaporator.

Suction Pressure-Regulating Valves

Suction pressure-regulating valves may be installed in the suction line at the outlet of the evaporator when a minimum temperature must be maintained. Suction pressure-regulating valves decrease the temperature difference, which would otherwise exist between the compartment temperature and the surface of the cooling coils. The amount of heat that can be transferred into the evaporating refrigerant is directly proportional to the temperature difference. Figure 7-40 shows an exploded view of a typical suction pressure-regulating valve, sometimes called a suction throttling valve in automotive air conditioners.

Figure 7-40.—A typical suction pressure-regulating valve.

Three types of suction pressure-regulating valves are used—suction throttling valve (STV), evaporator pressure regulators (EPR), or pilot-operated absolute valve (POA), developed by General Motors Corporation. These valves, in most cases, are adjustable.

The POA valve uses a sealed pressure element that maintains a constant pressure independent of the altitude of the vehicle. There are two basic types of metering devices built into a single container—the VIR (Valves-In-Receiver) and the EEVIR (Evaporator Equalized Valves-In-Receiver). These units combine the POA valve, receiver-drier, thermostatic expansion valve, and sight glass into a single unit.

The VIR assembly is mounted next to the evaporator, which eliminates the need for an external equalizer line between the thermostatic expansion valve and the outlet of the POA valve. The equalizer function is carried out by a drilled hole (equalizer port) between the two-valve cavities in the VIR housing.

The thermostatic expansion valve is also eliminated. The diaphragm of the VIR expansion valve is exposed to the refrigerant vapor entering the VIR unit from the outlet of the evaporator. The sight glass is in the valve housing at the inlet end of the thermostatic valve cavity where it gives a liquid indication of the refrigerant level.

The VIR thermostatic expansion valve controls the flow of refrigerant to the evaporator by sensing the temperature and pressure of the refrigerant gas, as it passes through the VIR unit on its way to the compressor. The POA valve controls the flow of refrigerant from the evaporator to maintain a constant evaporator pressure of 30 psi. The VIR and the POA valves are capsule type of valves. When found to be defective, you must replace the complete valve capsule.

The drier desiccant is in a bag in the receiver shell. It is replaceable by removing the shell and removing the old bag and installing a new bag of desiccant.

Service procedures for the VIR system differ in some respect from the service procedures performed on conventional automotive air-conditioning systems.


Observe the following precautions whenever you are tasked to service air-conditioning equipment:


Diagnosis is more than just following a series of interrelated steps to find the solution to a specific condition. It is a way of looking at systems that are not functioning the way they should and finding out why. Also, it is knowing how the system should work and whether it is working correctly. All good diagnosticians use the same basic procedures.

There are basic rules for diagnosis. If these rules are followed, the cause of the condition will usually be found the first time through the system.

  1. Know the system; know how the parts go together. Also, know how the system operates and its limits, and what happens when something goes wrong. Sometimes this means comparing a system that is working properly with the one you are servicing.
  2. Know the history of the system. How old or new is the system? What kind oftreatment has it had? Has it been serviced in the past in such a manner that might relate to the present condition? What is the service history? A clue in any of these areas might save a lot of diagnosis time.
  3. Know the probability of certain conditions developing. It is true that most conditions are caused by simple things, rather than by complex ones, and they occur in a fairly predictable pattern. Electrical problem conditions, for instance, usually occur at connections, rather than in components. An engine "no-start" is more likely to be caused by a loose wire or some component out of adjustment than a sheared off camshaft. Know the difference between impossible and improbable. Many good technicians have spent hours diagnosing a system because they thought certain failures were "impossible," only to find out the failures eventually were just "improbable" and actually had happened. Remember, new parts are just that—new. It does not mean they are good functioning parts.
  4. Don’t cure the symptom and leave the cause. Recharging a refrigerant system may correct the condition of insufficient cooling, but it does not correct the original problem unless a cause is found. A properly working system does not lose refrigerant over time.
  5. Be sure the cause is found; do not be fooled into thinking the cause of the problem has been found. Perform the proper tests; then double-check the results. The system should have been checked for refrigerant leaks. If no leaks were found, perform a leak test with the system under extremely high pressure. If the system performed properly when new, it had to have a leak to be low in charge.
  6. No matter what form charts may take, they are simply a way of expressing the relationship between the basic logic and a physical system of components. It is a way of determining the cause of a condition in the shortest possible amount of time. Diagnosis charts combine many areas of diagnosis into one visual display that allows you to determine the following:

The fastest way to find a condition is to work with the tools that are available, which means working with proven diagnosis charts and the proper special tools for the system being worked on.

Servicing procedures for automotive air-conditioning units are similar to those used to service conventional air-conditioning systems. Discharging, evacuating, charging procedures, connections, and positions of valves on the gauge manifold set are shown in figure 7-41.

Figure 7-41.—Procedures for observing operating pressures, charging, purging, and evacuating a unit.

Servicing procedures for the VIR system are also similar to those used when servicing conventional air-conditioning systems. However, the hookup of the manifold gauge set is to the VIR unit. The high-pressure fitting is located in the VIR inlet line. The low-pressure fitting is located in the VIR unit.


It is often possible to detect a problem caused by a careful visual inspection of the air-conditioning refrigerant system. This includes broken belts, obstructed condenser air passages, a loose clutch, loose or broken mounting brackets, disconnected or broken wires, and refrigerant leaks.

A refrigerant leak usually appears as an oily residue at the leakage point in the system. The oily residue soon picks up dust or dirt particles from the surrounding air and appears greasy. Through time, this builds up and appears to be heavy, dirt-impregnated grease.

Most common leaks are caused by damaged or missing O-ring seals at various hose and component connections. When these O rings are replaced, the new O rings should be lubricated with refrigerant oil. Care should be taken to keep lint from shop towels or cloths from contaminating the internal surfaces of the connection. Leakage may occur at a spring lock coupling if the wrong O rings are used at the coupling.

Another type of leak may appear at the internal Schrader type of air-conditioning charging valve core in the service gauge port valve fittings. If tightening the valve core does not stop the leak, it should be replaced with a new air-conditioning charging valve core.

Missing service gauge port valve caps can also cause a refrigerant leak. If this important primary seal (the valve cap) is missing, dirt enters the area of the air-conditioning charging valve core. When the service hose is attached, the valve depressor in the end of the service hose forces the dirt into the valve seat area, and it destroys the sealing surface of the air-conditioning charging valve core. When a service gauge port valve cap is missing, the protected area of the air-conditioning charging valve core should be cleaned and a new service gauge port valve cap should be installed.


The service gauge port valve cap must be installed finger tight. If tightened with pliers, the sealing surface of the service gauge port valve may be damaged.


A refrigerant system can become badly contami- nated for a number of reasons.

A badly contaminated system contains water, carbon, and other decomposition products. When such  a condition exists, the system must be flushed with a special flushing agent, using equipment designed especially for this purpose. Follow the suggestions and procedures outlined for proper cleaning.

Flushing Agents

A refrigerant to be suitable as a flushing agent must remain in the liquid state during the flushing operation to wash the inside surfaces of the system components. Refrigerant vapor will not remove contaminant particles. They must be flushed with a liquid. Some refrigerants are better suited for this purpose than others.

R-11 and R-113 are suited for use with special flushing equipment. Both have rather high vaporization points—74.7°F for R-11 and 117.6°F for R-l 13. Both refrigerants also have low closed container pressures. This reduces the danger of an accidental system discharge to a ruptured hose or fitting. R-113 will do the best job and is recommended as a flushing refrigerant. Both R-11 and R-113 require a propellant or a pump type of flushing equipment due to their low closed container pressures. R-11 is available in pressurized containers. Although not recommended for regular use, it may become necessary to use R-11 if special flushing equipment is not available. It is more toxic than other refrigerants, and it should be handled with extra care. Currently new refrigerants are being developed to replace R-11 and R-113 because these refrigerants will be phased out by the year 2000.


Use extreme care and adhere to all safety precautions related to the use of refrigerants when flushing a system.

System Cleaning and Flushing

When it is necessary to flush a refrigerant system, the suction accumulator/drier must be removed and replaced, as it is impossible to clean. Remove the fixed orifice tube. If a new tube is available, replace the contaminated one; otherwise, wash it carefully in flushing refrigerant or mineral spirits and blow it dry. If it does not show signs of damage or deterioration, it may be reused. Install new O rings.

Any moisture in the evaporator will be removed during leak testing and system evacuation following the cleaning job. Perform each step of the cleaning procedure carefully as outlined below.

  1. Check the hose connections at the flushing cylinder outlet and flushing nozzle to ensure they are secure.
  2. Ensure the flushing cylinder is filled with approximately 1 pint of R-113 and that the valve assembly on top of the cylinder is tightened securely.
  3. Connect a can of R-12 or R-134a to the Schrader valve at the top of the charging cylinder. A refrigerant hose and a special, safety type of refrigerant dispensing valve are required for connecting the small can to the cylinder. Ensure all connections are secure.
  4. Connect a gauge manifold and a discharge system. Disconnect the gauge manifold.
  5. Remove and discard the suction accumulator/ drier. Install a new accumulator/drier and connect it to the evaporator. Do not connect it to the suction line from the compressor. Ensure a protective cap is in place on the suction line connection.
  6. Replace the fixed orifice tube. Install a protective cap on the evaporator inlet tube as soon as the new orifice tube is in place. The liquid line will be connected later.
  7. Remove the compressor from the vehicle for cleaning and servicing or replacement, whichever is required. If the compressor is cleaned and serviced, add the specified amount of refrigerant oil before installing it on the mounting brackets in the vehicle. Install the shipping caps on the compressor connections. Install a new compressor on the mounting brackets in the vehicle.
  8. Back flush the condenser and the liquid line as follows:
  1. Remove two O rings from the condenser inlet tube spring lock coupling.
  2. Remove the discharge hose from the condenser and clamp a piece of (1/2-inch ID) heater hose to the condenser inlet line. Ensure the hose is long enough to insert the free end into a suitable waste container to catch the flushing refrigerant.
  3. Move the flushing equipment into position and open the valve on the can of R-12 or R-134a (fully counterclockwise).
  4. Back flush the condenser and the liquid line by introducing flushing refrigerant into the supported end of the liquid line with the flushing nozzle. Hold the nozzle firmly against the open end of the liquid line.
  5. After the liquid line and condenser have been flushed, lay the charging cylinder on its side so R-12 or R-134a will not force more of the flushing refrigerant into the liquid line. Press the nozzle firmly to the liquid line and admit the R-12 or R-134a to force all of the flushing refrigerant from the liquid line and condenser.
  6. Remove the 1/2-inch hose and clamp from the condenser inlet connection.
  7. Stand the flushing cylinder upright and flush the compressor discharge hose. Secure it so the flushing refrigerant goes into the waste container.
  8. Close the dispensing valve of the R-12 or R-134a can (fully clockwise). If there is any flushing refrigerant in the cylinder, it may be left there until the next flushing job. Put the flushing kit and R-12 or R-134a can in a suitable storage location.
  9. Install the new lubricated O rings on the spring lock coupling male fittings on both the condenser inlet and the liquid lines. Assemble the couplings.
  1. Connect all refrigerant lines. All connections should be cleaned and new O rings should be used. Lubricate new O rings with clean refrigerant oil.
  2. Connect a charging station or manifold gauge set and charge the system with 1 pound of R-12 or R-134a. (Do not evacuate the system until after it has been leak tested.)
  3. Leak test all connections and components with a flame type of leak detector or an electronic leak detector. If no leaks are found, go to Step 12. If leaks are found, service as necessary; check the system and then go to Step 12.
  4. Evacuate and charge the system with a specified amount of R-12 or R-134a. Operate the system to ensure it is cooling properly.


The use of safety when handling or using refrigerants can never be stressed enough. As discussed in chapter 6 of this TRAMAN, routinely think of safety for yourself and coworkers.

Extreme care must be taken to prevent any liquid refrigerant from coming in contact with the skin and especially the eyes. A bottle of sterile mineral oil and a quantity of weak boric acid solution must always be kept nearby when servicing the air-conditioning system. Should any liquid refrigerant get into your eyes, immediately use a few drops of mineral oil to wash them out; then wash the eyes clean with the weak boric acid solution. Seek a doctor’s aid immediately even though irritation may have ceased. Always wear safety goggles when servicing any part of the refrigerant system.

To avoid a dangerous explosion, never weld, solder, steam clean, bake body finishes, or use any excessive amount of heat on or in the immediate area of any part of the refrigerant system or refrigerant supply tank, while they are closed to the atmosphere whether filled with refrigerant or not.

The liquid refrigerant evaporates so rapidly that the resulting refrigerant gas displaces the air surrounding the area where the refrigerant is released. To prevent possible suffocation in enclosed areas, always discharge the refrigerant into recycling/ reclaiming equipment. Always maintain good ventilation surrounding the work area.

Although R-12 gas, under normal conditions, is nonpoisonous, the discharge of refrigerant gas near an open flame can produce a very poisonous gas. This gas also attacks all bright metal surfaces. This poisonous gas is generated when the flame type of leak detector is used. Avoid inhaling the fumes from the leak detector. Ensure that R-12 is both stored and installed according to all federal, state and local ordinances.

When admitting R-12 or R-134a gas into the cooling unit, always keep the tank in an upright position. lf the tank is on its side or upside down, liquid R-12 or R-134 enters the system and may damage the compressor.


The cabs of many truck-tractors and long distance hauling trucks and earthmover cabs are air-conditioned. Most of this equipment is of the "hang on" type and is installed after the cab has been made.

Some truck air-conditioning units have two evaporators—one for the cab and one for the relief driver's quarters in back of the driver. Some systems use a remote condenser, mounted on the roof of the cab. This type of installation removes the condenser from in front of the radiator, so the radiator can operate at full efficiency. This is especially important during long pulls in low gear.

The system is similar to the automobile air conditioner and is installed and serviced in the same general way.

The air conditioning of buses has progressed rapidly. Because of the large size of the unit, most bus air-conditioning systems use a separate gasoline engine with an automatic starting device to drive the compressor. The system is standard in construction except for the condensing unit. It is made as compact as possible and generally is installed in the bus, so it can be easily reached for servicing.

Condensing units are often mounted on rails with flexible suction and liquid lines to permit sliding the condensing unit out of the bus body to aid in servicing.

Air-cooled condensers are used. Thermostatic expansion valve refrigerant controls are standard. Finned blower evaporators are also used.

The duct system usually runs between a false ceiling and the roof of the bus. The ducts, usually one on each side of the bus, have grilles at the passenger seats. The passengers may control the grille by opening and closing.


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established as per the Clean Air Act (CAA) that all technicians who maintain or repair air-conditioning or refrigeration equipment or technicians who operate recycling, reclaiming, and recovery equipment must be certified. Certification is administered by organizations with certification programs that are approved by the EPA. It is important to understand, that as an HVAC/R technician, if you are not certified, you cannot do any HVAC/R service that requires use or removal of refrigerants. Certification requirements are divided into two different areas—automotive air-conditioning and HVAC/R.

Automotive Air-Conditioning Certification

Automotive air conditioning is serviced or repaired more often than other types of air-conditioning systems. In today's world, automotive air-conditioning systems are heavily used as our society spends more and more time in their vehicles. Industry experts say that 25 percent of the R-12 purchased in the United States is used in automotive air conditioning. The fittings and hoses used in automotive air conditioning allow leakage to occur. Automotive air-conditioning service facilities or technicians are now changing (retrofitting) systems in vehicles to use refrigerant R-134a and removing CFC R-12 to meet new standards. From the EPA’s standpoint, technicians must be meet the following requirements to be certified:

Once these requirements are met through testing of the individual applicant, a certification card is issued.

Heating, Ventilating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Certification

Certification requirements to service standard types of air-conditioning systems are the same as for automotive air-conditioning certification. Unlike the automotive certification program, standard air-conditioning certification is divided into levels corresponding to the type of service the technician performs. There are four types of certification:

Type I – Servicing small appliances

Type II – Servicing high or very high-pressure appliances

Type III – Servicing or disposing of low-pressure appliances

Type IV (Universal) – Servicing all types of equipment

Individuals will be required to take a proctored, closed book test. These tests are offered by organizations approved by the EPA for the specific type of certification that the individual technician requires. Technicians can only work on air-conditioning systems that they have been certified for service.

Questions for Lesson 4

  1. The saturation temperature increases or decreases depending upon what factor?
  2. What are the three basic types of automotive compressors?
  3. A scotch-yoke compressor changes rotary motion into what type of motion?
  4. Refrigerant can be put into a system when the service valve is back-seated. True /False
  5. The POA valve, receiver-drier, expansion valve, and sight glass are combined in what type of device?
  6. Service procedures for VIR systems are different than conventional automotive air-conditioning systems. True/False
  7. What is the most important thing you should know before you perform a diagnosis on a system problem?
  8. A refrigerant leak appears in what way at the point of the leak?
  9. What is the most common cause of leaks on automotive air-conditioning systems?
  10. For a refrigerant to be a suitable flushing agent, it must remain in what state during flushing operations?
  11. Which part of an automotive air-conditioning system is replaced because it is impossible to clean?
  12. A type IV certification is also known as what type of certification?
  13. Who approves organizations to certify technicians?