When you step outside in the summer to find that your air conditioner's condenser unit has developed a thick layer of ice on top, it's normal to be a bit concerned. An iced-over air conditioner does not operate efficiently. Some models even stop cooling completely when they freeze up. Thus, it is important for you to take steps to thaw out the unit and also to prevent the condenser from freezing again.
Let the air conditioner defrost.
Head back indoors and turn the air conditioning off. Usually, this just involves moving a little switch on your thermostat from "cool" to "off." This will give the air conditioner time to defrost. Since it's presumably a warm summer day, this should not take more than a few hours. Depending on where your air conditioner is located, you may want to lay a few towels beneath it so the melting water does not make a big mess.
Replace the filter.
Once the unit is no longer coated in ice, it is time to start addressing the issues that may have led to the freezing. One of the most common culprits is a clogged air filter. When the air filter becomes too laden with debris, air does not pass through it very quickly. As a result, air does not pass over the cooling coils very quickly, either. They end up over-cooling, causing the unit to ice over.
Locate your air conditioner's filter. It is usually found inside between the main air return duct and blower unit. Slide it out of the slot, and make sure you buy the same size at the hardware store. Push the new filter into place. Consider buying a few filters while you're at the store so you have them on hand and can do a better job of keeping up with monthly filter changes from now on.
Clear the space around the condenser.
If there's a lot of weeds, bushes, or other obstructions around your air conditioning condenser, it may not be getting enough air flow. This can contribute to its freezing over. Take some time to ensure the area around your condenser is clear. Do not leave anything touching or on top of the condenser, and consider transplanting any plants that may be interfering with air circulation in the area. Trimming overgrown bushes nearby is also a good idea.
Check for refrigerant leaks.
Another possible cause of freezing over is low levels of refrigerant. It's not always possible to tell whether an air conditioner has been leaking refrigerant, but it's worth your while to take a few minutes and try to detect this issue. Make sure all of the water from the thawing condenser is soaked up. Then, lay some white towels down under the base of the air conditioner. Let them sit there for a few hours, and then come back and take a look.
If you see any colored fluid on the towel, this means your refrigerant is leaking. The refrigerant in residential air conditioners is usually rose-colored, but this can vary somewhat. It's safe to assume that, if you see any colored liquid on the towel at all, you should call your HVAC technician at this point. Replacing refrigerant and fixing leaks are complicated tasks beyond the scope of most DIYers.
Turn the unit back on.
As long as you don't see any evidence of a refrigerant leak, it is safe to turn the air conditioner back on at this point. With any luck, it should not freeze over again. If it does, give your air conditioning repair contractor a call. You may have a slow refrigerant leak that you were unable to detect or some other internal issue that's leading to the ice buildup.
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