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Auto AC and Refrigerants: A complete history

by | Jun 29, 2022 | AC, Air conditioner, Car Care Tips | 0 comments

As you head out on that summer road trip or just that short drive to work, one feature you probably use every summer is your AC. With one click of a button, you can cool the interior of your car and drive in comfort on the hottest of days. But have you ever wondered how we got here – having the modern convenience of AC at the push of a button as we drive? We’ve come a long way in the last 100 years, and if you’ve been curious about the history of AC in your car then you’re in the right place as we unpack the history of AC in cars.

The Earliest Cars

The earliest Model T’s had no doors and collapsible roofs. At that time, most drivers were more concerned with how to keep warm in the winter rather than keeping cool in the summer. On those hot days, drivers would simply collapse the roof and use the open air to keep cool.

Shortly after the earliest Model T’s were introduced, the new and improved Model T hit the market featuring a closed body with doors and windows. These cars had vents installed underneath their dashboard which would circulate the outside air. The one drawback to this early cooling method was that it didn’t keep dirt and dust from getting inside the car.

Small steps in car cooling

Next came some primitive cooling inventions to keep drivers and passengers cool in the summer. The Knapp Limo-Sedan Fan was an electric fan mounted to the interior of the car to keep drivers cool. The other option, called a car cooler, was attached to the roof of the car and used water evaporation to deliver cool air through open windows. Both of these options could cool the car temperature by about 15 degrees.

Introducing the first factory installed AC system

In the 1940s, Packard became the first automaker to offer factory installed AC. The unit was located in the trunk and required the driver to get out and manually install or remove the drive belt from the compressor to make it run. This unit could only circulate air inside the cabin and did not incorporate the outside air. Since the condensed water ran overhead, the downfall of this unit is that water would drip on car passengers as it was running.

Post World War II Advancements

Did you know that before WWII there were only about 3,000 cars that had AC installed and that after the war that number jumped to 1 million? Developments in air conditioning exploded after the War. In 1953, General Motors, Chrysler, and Packard introduced new AC systems for cars. To be more specific, GM developed a revolutionary system that fit in a car’s engine – eliminating the need to jump out and install the drive belt to get things going. And in 1963, Cadillac introduced a further breakthrough with the invention of comfort control. Drivers had the ability to set their own temperature while driving.

Environmental Concerns

In the 1970s, scientists discovered that compounds called Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were depleting the earth’s ozone layer. The most common refrigerant was a CFC called R12 (also known as Freon). They knew that a new and safer option needed to be developed. After years of testing, a suitable replacement was found in the refrigerant R-134a. In 1987, the U.S. government signed the Montreal Compact, which in part required manufacturers to make the switch to R-134a by 1996.

Modern Day AC

With modern advancements, drivers today experience dual and rear climate control with the push of a button. While refrigerants aren’t as much of a concern as they once were, using your AC today can decrease your fuel efficiency by 25%. Some simple tips that help with fuel efficiency when using your AC include: only using AC when driving at highway speeds, not idling when your AC is turned on, and opening your windows to let the hot air out before turning on your AC.

With all our modern advancements in recent years, our car AC still needs regular maintenance to make sure it continues to work properly. If it’s been a while since you’ve had your car maintained and your AC system checked, our team is ready to help get your back to driving in comfort all summer long.