Diagnose AC pressure gauge readings
How to diagnose car AC pressure gauge readings
You can’t accurately diagnose your car’s AC by using just the low-pressure gauge on a recharge kit because you’re only seeing pressure on the suction or low side of the entire system. That’s not enough information to diagnose a problem. It’s like trying to diagnose your overall health with only half of your blood pressure reading.
Look, I know you want to figure out your AC problem yourself without buying any tools, but you can really screw up your car’s AC if you overcharge or undercharge the system. Overcharging actually REDUCES cooling and undercharging can damage the compressor (refrigerant carries the lubricating oil so low refrigerant = oil starvation for the compressor).
So, if you really want to diagnose and fix your AC system yourself,
you’ll need an AC manifold gauge set and hoses. Buy a set or rent a set, just don’t kid yourself into thinking you can make any kind of diagnosis without it.
Start your AC pressure readings diagnostic by measuring the system’s STATIC pressure
Static pressure is the pressure with the system at rest (compressor off for at least 30-mins). Attach to the hoses and gauge set to the high and low side ports of your AC system.
1. With the engine OFF for at least 30 minutes, read the low and high-pressure gauges. They should be the same because the high and low side pressure equalize once the compressor shuts off. It takes a while to equalize, that’s why you must wait 30-mins to check static pressure
2. Measure ambient air temperature at the vehicle and under the hood WITH A THERMOMETER (do not use weather service temperatures). The static pressure correlates to the temperature of the AC components under the hood, not outside in front of the vehicle.
3. Compare the pressure readings to the pressure-temperature chart below
R-134a Static Temperature pressure chart
WARNING: Ambient temp is the temperature at the vehicle under the hood, NOT THE WEATHER SERVICE.
What static pressures actually means
Static pressure doesn’t tell you if the system is full. DIYers often see the correct pressure on their AC recharge kits and claim that the system is “full.” WRONG. Static pressure can NEVER be used to determine the system charge level.
Why Static pressure isn’t an indication of system charge
Due to the nature of refrigerant, a full 30-lb jug of a refrigerant at 80°F will have the exact same static pressure reading as that same 30-lb container with just 1-oz. of refrigerant.
Static pressure only tells you two things
If the low and high side gauges read the same pressures and the readings correlated to the pressures/temperatures shown on the chart above, they only tell you two things:
- The system isn’t completely empty
- The system pressure is high enough to enable compressor clutch engagement.
If the static pressure is lower than 27-psi. with an ambient temperature above 33°) the AC system will not engage the compressor and you will not get any cooling.
If the gauges aren’t the same during a static pressure test
If the gauges don’t read the same during a static pressure test, it means:
1) You haven’t waited long enough for the pressures to equalize, or
2) The orifice tube, expansion valve, compressor reed valves or stuck or there’s a severe restriction somewhere in the system that’s preventing the pressure from equalizing. In that case, you must fix that problem first.
Troubleshooting incorrect static pressures
If your static pressure readings don’t match the temp/pressure chart and are too high (most common) these are the likely causes:
- Air in the system from leaks
- Refrigerant is contaminated
What 0 static pressure means
The entire AC system is empty due to a major leak. Find the leak and fix before refilling.
What are normal AC gauge pressures when the system is running?
Generally speaking, you want around 27-psi on the low side and 200 on the high side. Why 27-psi? Because, on an R-134a AC system, 27-psi. on your gauge means the refrigerant will produce about 32°F at the evaporator (as long as the orifice tube/expansion valve is operating properly and there’s no air in the system that’s artificially inflating the pressure to 27-psi). That’s just around the freezing point of water.
On the high side, R-134a pressures usually run 2.2 to 2.5 times the ambient temperature entering the condenser. So, if the ambient temperature is 80°F, you’ll see high side pressures running between 176-psi and 200-psi. on an R-134a system. At 200-psi. the refrigerant entering the condenser will be around 130°F.
For more information on normal AC pressures, see the chart below.
NOTE: High humidity and airflow velocity across the evaporator and condenser have a direct effect on pressure readings.
Normal high and low AC ambient temperature pressure chart
Ambient Temperature in °F Low side Pressure Gauge reading and High side Pressure Gauge reading
65°F Ambient temperature: Low side pressure 25-35 psi High side pressure 135-155 psi
70°F Ambient temperature: Low side pressure 35-40 psi High side pressure 145-160 psi
75°F Ambient temperature: Low side pressure 35-45 psi High side pressure 150-170 psi
80°F Ambient temperature: Low side pressure 40-50 psi High side pressure 175-210 psi
85°F Ambient temperature: Low side pressure 45-55 psi High side pressure 225-250 psi
90°F Ambient temperature: Low side pressure 45-55 psi High side pressure 250-270 psi
95°F Ambient temperature: Low side pressure 50.55 psi High side pressure 275.300 psi
100°F Low side pressure 50-55 psi High side pressure 315-325 psi
105°F Ambient temperature: Low side pressure 50-55 psi High side pressure 330-335 psi
110°F Ambient temperature: Low side pressure 50.55 psi High side pressure 340.345 psi
How to test AC pressures with a manifold gauge
1, Set the AC controls to MAX and RECIRCULATE
2. Blower set to HIGH speed
3. Close the doors. Windows can be open.
4. Once you attach your gauges and start your engine, keep RPMs steady at around 1,200 to 1,500 RPM.
Refer to this chart for AC pressure gauge diagnosis
What the AC gauge pressures mean
First, to properly diagnose AC pressures when the AC is running you MUST know what type of AC system you’re working on. Is it a cycling clutch orifice tube system or an expansion valves system? If you don’t know the difference, you can’t diagnose by pressures.
See this post to learn what type of AC system is in your vehicle.
Low and High AC pressures are nearly the same
If the compressor is running (center portion of the pulley is turning), the compressor is spinning but not pumping. That’s an indication of a bad compressor. If the center pulley isn’t turning, see this post for diagnostics.
Symptoms of a bad AC compressor
• Low and high side pressures are about the same (like 80-psi low side and 80-psi high side) AND you have to increase RPM quite a bit to get pressures into the normal range AND you notice the air only gets cold when you’re driving AND you’ve ruled out a low refrigerant charge or bad orifice tube/expansion valve.
Low and High AC gauge pressures are high with no fluctuation
The system is overcharged, there’s a lack of airflow across the condenser (clogged fins, radiator/condenser fans not working or not working at the proper speed), or you have air and moisture in the system.
What to do if AC pressures are high:
1. Check the front of the AC condenser (it’s in front of the radiator) to make sure the fins aren’t clogged.
2. Check to make sure the radiator fans are working at the proper speeds.
3. Evacuate the system and recharge with the correct refrigerant charge and test again.
Low and High AC pressures are lower than recommended on an orifice tube system
Symptom: Low cooling
Pressure readings: Low side is low. High side normal to slightly low
Causes: Low on refrigerant charge
In this case, the evaporator is starved for refrigerant. In a fixed orifice tube system, you want the evaporator almost completely full of refrigerant. When properly charged, a full evaporator will spill some boiling refrigerant into the accumulator where it will continue to vaporize before entering the compressor.
However, if the system is low on charge, the evaporator is only partially filled with refrigerant, so half of it will be cold and the other half hot. This often causes evaporator icing, where ice builds up on the evaporator. The ice blocks airflow and the low pressure triggers the low-pressure switch.
Low refrigerant charge causes superheat
Keep in mind that AC works when the refrigerant removes just enough heat from the air to cause the refrigerant to change from a liquid to a vapor. However, in a partially filled evaporator, the vapor then absorbs heat. This is called superheat and in an orifice tube system, the superheated refrigerant is what causes evaporator icing
In other words, the low refrigerant charge causes the refrigerant is in the system to sit too long in the evaporator. So the refrigerant picks up too much heat. First, it picks up enough heat to cause the refrigerant to change state from liquid to gas. THEN, the gas absorbs even more heat from the evaporator airflow, causing evaporator temperature to fall below the freezing point of water. Any ambient moisture immediately freezes on the evaporator fins.
Test for evaporator freeze-up
To test for evaporator freezing, turn off the engine and leave the vehicle for a while. When you return, examine the puddle size under the vehicle. A large puddle is an indication of evaporator ice that has melted and drained onto the ground.
OR, continue driving the vehicle with the blower on HIGH while monitoring airflow from the vents. Once the evaporator ices over, you should notice a dramatic reduction in airflow from the vents. The compressor will shut off once the low pressure triggers the low-pressure switch. The blower will melt the ice. Low side pressure will increase to the point where the low-pressure switch activates the compressor. Then you’ll get cold air again—until the evaporator ices up again. The pattern will repeat over and over.
NOTE: Low airflow across the evaporator, caused by a plugged cabin air filter, can mimic the symptoms of a low refrigerant charge. Also, a faulty evaporator temp sensor can prevent the system from shutting down once the evaporator has iced over.
Restricted or plugged orifice tube can also cause low pressure on an orifice tube system
Restriction in the low side of the system. For example, a restricted orifice tube will cause the compressor to suck, but the restriction/clog in the orifice tube prevents the full flow of refrigerant, causing evaporator starvation. Low side pressure drops below low-pressure switch threshold, which shuts off the compressor.
What causes orifice tube restriction?
Debris is clogging the orifice tube screen
• Metallic wear particles from the compressor clog the orifice tube screen.
• Rubber hoses deteriorate over time and rubber particles clog the orifice tube screen.
• Moisture in the system reacts with the refrigerant and oil to form acids and sludge that clog orifice tube screen
• Moisture in the system that freezes at the orifice tube and restricts refrigerant flow through the orifice. An AC system leak allows moisture into the system. The moisture travels with the refrigerant. Since the temperature is near the freezing point of water right at the orifice tube, the moisture freezes, cutting off the flow of refrigerant into the evaporator.
To test for moisture: Turn AC off for 10-15 mins, then back on. If the gauge reading goes back to a very low suction-side reading, the orifice tube or expansion valve screen is likely frozen. If the gauge reading is normal when first turned on and stays normal for a few minutes, you get cold air and THEN low side goes low, that’s a sign of moisture in the system. Or, if you can access the orifice tube, apply heat to the orifice tube as you watch system pressures. if the system pressure returns to normal once you’ve applied heat to the orifice tube, the cause may be moisture in the system.
The orifice tube is the wrong size
• the orifice tube is too large
• the orifice tube has been replaced and the O-ring isn’t seated properly. In other words, the system can’t build pressure.
Low side AC pressure is VERY low and high side pressure is low: restriction
Low and High AC pressures are lower than recommended in an expansion valve system where the valve is located on the evaporator outlet
The expansion valve is stuck open so the system can’t build pressure or the thermal bulb that measures evaporator temp isn’t working properly and is causing the expansion valve to remain open.
Low and high side AC pressures are normal but the air isn’t cold
This may be a situation where the AC is working fine but the “heat is on,” diminishing the effects of the AC. This can be caused by a stuck air temperature door, faulty air temp/blend door actuator or, in older systems, a stuck open heater control valve that’s running hot engine coolant into the heater core even though the heat is set to cold.
What to check:
Check heater control valve
Determine if the vehicle has a heater control valve. The valve is usually located under the hood and is opened and closed by a vacuum motor or cable. Look for heater hoses and either a cable or vacuum hoses running to a valve. Use a hand pump vacuum to operate the valve or move the cable by hand to close it off. Then checking cooling.
Check air temperature or blend door and actuator
If the cabin air temp is controlled by an air temp/blend door, check actuator operation to see if it moves as you change the temperature setting. In some cases, the fix can be as simple as replacing an actuator. If the actuator moves but the air door doesn’t try moving the door by hand. Many times the door can get stuck or break off from its hinges.
Check the cabin air filter
Yeah, it’s just like a furnace filter. If it’s clogged, it can restrict airflow. That, in turn, causes the evaporator to freeze up which shuts off the AC. Don’t skip this part. Many DIYers replace AC parts only to discover a clogged cabin air filter after spending hundreds on parts.
Check for a dirty evaporator coil
Leaves and dust can clog the fins of an evaporator coil, reducing its ability to remove heat from your car. To access the evaporator coil, remove the blower motor resistor, and take a peek inside. To clean the evaporator coil, use a foaming chemical cleaner.
For more troubleshooting tips using gauges, see this post
©, 2020 Rick MuscoplatPosted on by Rick Muscoplat