The Air Conditioning In a Used Car Never 'Just Needs a Charge'

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Today's topic is: How to buy a used car without getting screwed. It's brought to you by your old pal Doug DeMuro, noted Jalopnik columnist, who once purchased a BMW M3 from a shady used car dealer whose sales manager insisted that I make out the check to him personally.

More specifically, I've decided to devote this column to a phrase you hear a lot when you're looking for a used car. That phrase is: "the air conditioning just needs a charge." Private sellers say this. Craigslist ads say this. Dealers say this. Everyone says this. This phrase has become so common that you get the sense, as a used car shopper, that there are just rows of used cars, dozens of used cars, sitting out there with their air conditioning depleted, drained, ready to be plugged in and charged up like an iPhone.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I'm here to tell you: it's all bullshit.

To explain what I mean, allow me to teach you how air conditioning works. I'm able to do this because I am an expert in the field, in the sense that I have personally used air conditioning for approximately 26 years, and I can immediately detect when I am in a place that lacks air conditioning, such as the outdoors.


Anyway, as I understand it, here's how it works: there are several vents in your automobile, and possibly your home, that are hooked up to air conditioning ducts. If you were able to shrink down to a small size, like a thumbtack with legs, you would be able to follow these ducts to something that we in the HVAC community refer to as the "air conditioning unit." I know this is highly technical writing, but please follow along, because there will be a quiz later.

Now, the air conditioning unit includes three necessary components in order to work properly. Number one: refrigerant. Number two: a magical component called the "compressor." And number three, copper wire. We know this because thieves are always stealing copper wire from air conditioners in places like Mississippi, and then they get electrocuted, which is very sad for the homeowner because he is unable to fix his air conditioning until the coroner removes the body.

Now, here's where the "needs a charge" thing comes in. When your air conditioner stops working, the problem can most likely be traced one of four distinct possibilities. One: the compressor isn't working. Two: there's a leak somewhere in the system. Three: it needs more refrigerant. And four: a thief died while stealing your copper wire, and is currently being slowly consumed by wild rodents.

More often than not, the problem lies somewhere deep within the air conditioner, where some key part has failed. This is usually an expensive part with some fancy name, such as the adapter tube restrictor mount, and in order to get to it they have to remove your dashboard, and your steering wheel, and your gauge cluster, and also slap you in the face with a surge protector.


But I admit that occasionally the reason the air conditioning isn't working is that the car simply lacks refrigerant. This is what people are talking about when they tell you the air conditioner "needs a charge." You remove some stuff under the hood, you open up the refrigerant tub, you pour in the refrigerant, and BAM! Good as new, fully recharged, ready to blow cold air in your face for years to come.

Only there's a problem: adding refrigerant takes approximately four seconds. Dealers charge you $100 for the job, and the majority of that cost is the refrigerant itself. So you gotta wonder: if a car is sitting at a dealership, which includes a service department, and the air conditioning simply "needs a charge"… WHY DON'T THEY JUST CHARGE IT?


The answer is: because the air conditioning doesn't need a charge. This is just a simple explanation that idiot salespeople tell idiot customers who desperately seek reassurance. In reality, the air conditioning needs that restrictor mount, so we're going to have to start tearing down the dashboard, and can you please pick out a surge protector we can slap you with?

In other words: "air conditioning needs a charge" is the modern-day equivalent of "owned by a little old lady who only drove it to church on Sundays."


There is, however, a huge benefit when a seller tells you the "air conditioning needs a charge." And that is: you now have the advantage of knowing that you can't trust anything he says. With some sellers, you think you can trust them, and you assume you can trust them, and you're feeling that maybe you can trust them, and then it turns out that the timing belt is actually a piece of looseleaf notebook paper. But the second "air conditioning needs a charge" comes out of the seller's mouth, BOOM! This guy's lying to me, and now I no longer have to believe anything he says.

I'll give you an example. As many of you know, I'm currently mired in the search for a used automobile to buy for the purposes of writing, and Tweeting, and creating low-budget YouTube videos with a microphone the size of a stapler. So a couple weeks ago, I find a nice car on Long Island, and I'm talking to the seller, and I'm thinking I'll just go ahead and buy it, sight-unseen, no inspection needed. And then I decide to casually ask about the air conditioning. His response: "Oh. It just needs a charge."


Needless to say, the car is now going in for a full pre-purchase inspection next week at a trusted mechanic. Fortunately, he didn't try to tell me the car was owned by a little old lady who only drove it to church on Sundays. Then I would've slapped him with a surge protector.


@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.