A/C problem?

Hi, all. My little 1999 Chevy Prizm is offering me another (hopefully less dire) mystery.

This morning, driving away from work, I noticed an unexplained spatter of water-like liquid coming up onto my windshield from, it seemed, the little reservoir/evaporator/I don’t know about cars so I don’t know what it is, but it’s that thing right under the windshield that catches leaves and little twigs sometimes. First I thought it was rain (tiny splatters), then (when it didn’t hit any other window) thought a drain in that windshield “twig catcher” might be clogged and so it was spitting water back at me. It was not coming from the washer nozzles.

The water stopped spitting a few miles up the road (50 mph) and I didn’t see any signs of a problem with the engine when I faithfully checked the oil dipstick, either before I left work or later after the windshield-watering issue. The windshield washer fluid is at the level I would expect based on my usage and its recent filling.

No dash lights came on, and throughout my day, the temp gauge stayed at halfway between blue and red, just where it always is. (The scanner for OBDII codes I’ve been riding around with says the engine runs around 180F usually, once it’s been driven enough to be warmed up. My understanding is that that’s kind of low, but there doesn’t seem to be a problem with overheating, here.)

But later in the day I finally turned on the A/C. It no longer works. Huh.

Could these be related? I’ll take the car in this week, but unless it could be something serious (such as not-the-A/C, or if the A/C is hooked up to other systems that are vital to running the car and really needs to be working), I’m hoping to have a bit of fun on my “weekend” (Mon/Tue) before hauling her in for yet another trip to my helpful mechanic.

Was it water or a water like liquid? This is critical. If you AC was spitting out anything, it should be a clear oil coming out with the refrigerant. However, the sudden escape of refrigerant will cause condensation, and if the leak was at the evaporator connection, it would cause condensation in the cowl area of your car.

I didn’t get a chance to figure it out, because I was on a limited-access road and the liquid went away before I pulled off. It did seem like water, based on the way it acted on my windshield. It didn’t smear (the way an oil would?). At first when I thought it was rain I ran the wipers with washer fluid and it went off like rain would have. But I’ve never seen any liquids related to A/C personally (in fact this is my first car that had A/C) so I wouldn’t bet on it either way, unless there’s an obvious difference that even I would have noticed.

If it makes a difference in the question of condensation, I didn’t notice any change inside the car in air temp or dampness, didn’t see anything under the hood that seemed like condensation, and my windows didn’t fog up or anything unusual.

I’m not sure if any of this helps, but I also still feel the pull on the engine when I press the A/C button, which I think is the compressor still working? The OBDII gauge confirms this in an increase in RPMs at idle with the button on, and an increase in gas use (shown by mpg and gallons/hr).

I think what you saw was condensation caused by the sudden loss of refrigerant. A loss this sudden usually means that you got a hole in a line, but I guess a seal could fail in a way to also cause a sudden loss. Usually seals cause a gradual loss, but this could be an exception.

A hole in a line…got it. I know A/C repairs are often really expensive. Are either of these possibilities things that will get worse (considering the A/C isn’t working at all right now – the blower blows but air never gets cool) if I leave them for a month or so?

And is the A/C hooked up to any vital car parts that require that I get it fixed tomorrow?

Leaving an A/C system open to the air, can result in additional damage.  I recommend finding a real A/C shop and have them take a look.  Many chain shops, Sears etc.  Will work on A/C systems, but the people working there are not A/C pros.  

Note: In many areas the A/C shop becomes a Radiator shop dung the winter.  

MOST IMPORTANT, AVOID THE OIL CHANGE SHOP.  While there may be some good ones, they are few and far between.  I would not let them clean the ash the windows on my car.

Oh, don’t worry. After my last car’s oil pan had to be rethreaded on its first oil change (thanks, previous owner…) I’ve always taken my cars to my regular mechanic for everything.

I’ll probably take this problem to them first and if they diagnose something but I want to go with A/C specialists, at least I’ll have some idea of what the problem is and what it should cost. I’ve never had a car with A/C before, so I don’t have any relationship with the A/C shops in my area…but I bet my mechanic does.