Why your unit is freezing up.
To understand why your AC or heat pump is freezing up, it helps to know how your system works.
There are 7 major parts to an AC system, 9 with a heat pump.
1 - Condenser/heat pump (The outdoor unit)
2 - Air Handler (the indoor unit unless the system is a package unit, then all is outside in one system. The air handler is usually found under the home, in an attic, or in a closet.)
In the condenser are the following major parts.
3 - Compressor
4 - Condenser coil
5 - Condenser fan
6 - (HPs only) reversing valve
In the air handler are the following major parts.
7 - Blower motor
8 - Evaporator coil
9 - (HPs only) electric heat strips
Some systems known as "dual fuel systems" use another heat source in place of the heat strips, usually a gas furnace. I will address gas furnaces in another post.
When an air conditioner is operating properly several things are taking place.
1 - The compressor is compressing or "pumping" refrigerant through the system.
2 - through changes in pressure, the refrigerant makes the evaporator coil get very cold, and the condenser coil gets very hot.
3 - The blower motor/fan circulates air across the evaporator coils, as the room temperature air (Also known as "indoor ambient") goes through the cold coil, it exits, cooled approximately 15 to 20 degrees cooler than when it entered. (In a ducted system, the blower is also the fan that circulates the air throughout the home.)
4 - The condenser fan circulates air across the condenser coils. As the outdoor air goes through the condenser coil, it removes heat from the coils that are very hot. This in turn removes heat from the refrigerant so it can run its cycle again, and through pressure changes, cool the evap coil.
5 - With a heat pump, the reversing valve reverses the flow of refrigerant in the condenser and evaporator coils.
In AC mode, the evaporator coils get cold, and the condenser coils get hot. But in heat mode, the evaporator gets very hot, and the condenser very cold.
Now, whichever coil is getting cold will freeze up if there is inadequate air flow across the coil, as the refrigerant in it is far below freezing, and there is not enough airflow to keep the humidity in the air from freezing on the coil.
Things that can cause poor airflow are,
1 - Dirty/clogged coils
2 - dirty/clogged filter (will only effect evaporator coil)
3 - Closed/blocked vents (will only effect evaporator coil)
4 - Malfunctioning or dirty fan
Low refrigerant will also cause a coil to freeze up, reduce efficiency and cause the system to run for long periods of time. Not to mention, shortening the life of the unit.
With a heat pump, in heat mode only, the condenser (outdoor) coil will routinely begin to freeze up in cold temperatures. This is due to the fact that the refrigerant is below freezing, and the cold outdoor ambient temp is not warm enough to keep the condensation in the air from freezing on the coil.
Note, a properly working AC should never freeze up.
A heat pump is equipped with defrost controls to prevent ice buildup.
Some are controlled by timers, some by temp.
When a HP is going into defrost mode, the condenser fan shuts down, the reversing valve reverses the flow of refrigerant and the once cold condenser coil now gets very hot, defrosting the coil. (Many people have said this process sounds like the unit is coming apart, or about to explode and are frightened by the "smoke" which is really just steam from melting ice that comes off the unit.)
During defrost mode, the secondary or "auxiliary" heat comes on to ensure that you are still getting warm air from the vents. (Again, this can be electric heat strips or a dual fuel system)
If you are experiencing cold air from the vents during defrost, that means your auxiliary heat is malfunctioning.
The auxiliary heat is used for three purposes.
1 - during defrost mode to maintain warm airflow (automatic)
2 - when the HP cannot maintain the set temp due to extreme outdoor temps. It comes on when the indoor temp drops several degrees below the set temp on the thermostat (automatic)
3 - For emergency heat source when the HP is not working. (Manual)
Iced up coils?
failing defrost system
There are two things that can be done in a pinch to help de-ice frozen coils. This may get you by until the repairman can get there, or you can fix the system if you are a do-it-yourselfer.
HPs frozen outdoor coil in heat mode, not going into defrost?
Cover most of the vents, and turn the system onto cooling mode until the outdoor coil is thawed. then uncover vents and return to heat, or emergency heat. (this usually takes 15 min or less)
Frozen coils in AC mode with a heat pump?
Turn the system to heat with the thermostat on just high enough to get the system to come on. (again, usually takes 15 min or less to thaw.)
AC only, with frozen evap coils? (this can sometimes be seen frozen all the way outside to the compressor on the copper lines.)
Turn the system off, and the fan switch from "auto" to on".
This will usually defrost the coils within 1 to 2 hours.
(If your system has the furnace in line before the evap coil, turn the system to heat, and the furnace will defrost the coil within minutes.)