Air Conditioner Replacements and Phasing out HCFC Refrigerants
For centuries, scientists, inventors, and out-of-the-box thinkers had been attempting to manipulate substances with the goal of making it more comfortable indoors when it’s hot outside.
As early as 1756, Scottish physician and professor Dr. William Cullen published “Of the Cold Produced by Evaporating Fluids and of Some Other Means of Producing Cold.”
In 1758, Benjamin Franklin, along with Cambridge professor John Hadley, investigated the cooling effect of certain rapidly evaporating liquids.
Michael Faraday, a self-declared philosopher, discovered that heat would be absorbed by pressurizing gas, like ammonia, into a liquid. This took place in 1824.
Sixteen years later, physician and inventor Dr. John Gorrie wanted to reverse the effects of yellow fever and “the evils of high temperatures.” As a result, he developed a machine that produced ice through compression. Gorrie was later awarded the first U.S. patent for mechanical refrigeration.
In 1876, German engineer Carl von Linden patented the process of liquefying gas, setting the stage for the modern air conditioner.
It took another 80 years, however, for a group of individuals to develop a safe, non-toxic and easily produced substance that could be used to provide indoor cooling for the masses.
Thomas Midgley, Albert Henne and Robert McNary created chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants.
One of those compounds was R-22, also known as Freon, a hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) that became the standard refrigerant for residential air conditioners for decades to follow.
Refrigerants make air conditioning and refrigeration possible, which contributes enormously to our quality of life. In this equipment, refrigerants are the working fluid that absorbs and transfer heat from one part of the air conditioning systems to the other.
Fast forward to the future . . .
So, you might have heard that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will be banning the production and import of many HCFCs, which include R-22.
Okay, you’ve probably heard of R-22, or better yet, Freon, but do you know what it is or why it is going away?
Put simply, R-22 is damaging to the environment. Scientists have determined that chlorine, a component of both CFC and HCFC refrigerants, has been damaging the planet’s protective ozone layer and contributing to climate change.
Okay, here’s a little bit of the science.
Once chlorine is released into the air, it’s capable of binding with organic and inorganic materials. CFCs and HCFCs are stable, and so they remain intact as they reach Earth’s stratosphere. Here, they are broken down by UV radiation where they release highly reactive chlorine atoms that go on to react with the ozone. This creates another reaction that releases more chlorine atoms, and so a chain of reactions is created, destroying the ozone.
Remember, the ozone layer absorbs harmful ultraviolet radiation before it arrives at the Earth’s surface. Ultraviolet radiation has been linked to human health problems such as skin cancer and cataracts, growth problems in plants and adverse effects on marine ecosystems.
Moreover, the chlorine atoms make their way back down to the lower atmosphere where they form stable compounds. Here, they react with methane and create hydrogen chloride which reacts with water vapors to create hydrochloric acid. This is the recipe for acid rain.
Constant exposure to breathing chlorine over time has been proven to affect the immune system, the heart, the blood, and the respiratory system in animals and humans.
Enter the Montreal Protocol
According to the U.S. State Department, “The Montreal Protocol, a treaty finalized in 1987 by the United Nations, is a global agreement to protect the stratospheric ozone layer by phasing out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances.”
As a result, R-22 was included in the Protocol list of substances that were to be phased out of production over time for new air conditioners and heat pumps. R-22 has been utilized in most residential and commercial air conditioning equipment produced prior to 2010.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for implementing the R-22 phase out for the U.S.
Initially, there was an embargo on the production and import of R-22 as of January 1, 2010. However, since R-22 was so commonly used, it couldn’t be eliminated overnight without severe economic consequences. Accordingly, the Montreal Protocol fashioned a series of amendments that allowed for a more reasonable step-by-step phase out.
That’s because companies had to develop alternative refrigerant technologies, engineer new designs to accommodate substance characteristics, realign manufacturing to accommodate changes and re-train dealers and technicians on the updates.
As a result, manufacturers of heat pump and air conditioning equipment eventually redesigned their systems to accommodate R-410 (also known as Puron), a chlorine-free refrigerant, that would replace R-22 in new HVAC equipment.
Out with R-22 . . .
EPA regulations now require a ban on the production and import of R-22 refrigerant by January 1, 2020. After that date, any air conditioning or heat pump system using R-22 that needs servicing will have to depend on potentially costly R-22 stockpiles or reclaimed refrigerant.
Impact on homeowners with older A/C units.
So, what will the elimination of this common refrigerant mean for consumers and business in the ‘burgh?
While it might sound overwhelming, the phase out of R-22 is part of a decades-long effort to gradually eliminate ozone-depleting substances.
It’s important to keep in mind that the production – not use – of R-22 is being phased out. You are not required to stop using R-22 air conditioners nor replace existing equipment. However, the phase out may impact your decisions on servicing, repairing, or replacing your existing air conditioning or heat pump. The most important thing you can do is to properly maintain your unit. Proper servicing reduces would-be environmental damage and maintenance costs.
It’s also important to keep these considerations in mind:
- You can continue to use R-22 in existing systems, but it will only be available through after-market sales, such as when it is recovered from older systems that have been salvaged.
- Prices of R-22 refrigerant have been rising and are expected to continue to rise. By the time the phase out is complete, R-22 will most likely be quite expensive.
- Availability of R-22 will be limited since it cannot be purchased new. Even if you need a recharge of R-22 in the future, there can be no guarantee that the refrigerant will be available.
The moral of the story is that there’s no urgent need for consumers to panic about R-22.
You don’t have to retrofit or replace your A/C system next week! That said, you should determine the age of your A/C system, as well as the type of refrigerant in it by checking the main label. For there, you can determine the next best action.
What about servicing my current R-22 unit?
Because the Montreal Protocol and national regulations have been in effect for decades, producers of refrigerants, as well as HVAC professionals, have been preparing for the phase out of R-22.
To that end, technicians servicing R-22 air conditioning systems must have EPA Section 608 certification and carry a card verifying this credential. It’s also illegal for them to intentionally release any refrigerant when making repairs. To avoid emitting refrigerants, technicians must use EPA-certified refrigerant recovery equipment during service.
If your unit is being serviced, be sure to request that service technicians locate and repair any leaks instead of “topping off” leaking systems. This helps protect the ozone layer and saves you money by optimizing the performance of your existing equipment.
It’s also important to note the newest refrigerant used in home air-conditioning systems today, known as R-410A, cannot be used in any system not specifically designed for it. R-410A has a higher pressure than R-22, so R-22 components cannot handle the pressure of R-410A.
Keep in mind that our team of service technicians at J&A South Park are fully trained to service your R-22 systems.
Retrofitting older A/C systems
Though the EPA doesn’t require homeowners to purchase new air conditioning systems, retrofitting older systems is a valid option. If you’re A/C is not very old, then converting it to using a new refrigerant may be more cost-effective.
Unfortunately, you can’t simply switch to refrigerants that don’t harm the ozone. Newer air conditioners have compressors and other parts that work only with specific chemicals. If the coils are compatible with R-410A refrigerant, HVAC technicians can replace the outdoor unit without needing to modify other components throughout your house. This solution can be a bit expensive, but it will keep your current A/C system working.
Plus, switching to R-410A may make it more energy-efficient. Routine service is also more critical for these retrofitted systems to prevent leaks and any harmful effect on the environment.
Replacing older A/C systems
The good news is that new air conditioning systems made since 2010 no longer rely on R-22. Most newer systems use the R-410A refrigerant.
However, if your current air conditioning unit was manufactured prior to 2010, you may opt to replace it.
After all, the average lifespan of an HVAC system is 15 years. Modern air conditioners are more environmentally friendly and use much less energy to produce the same amount of cooling as air conditioners made earlier. Lower utility bills are also a factor to consider when determining the best solution.
Many homeowners choose to replace older systems rather than to retrofit them since it assures more significant long-term savings. Even if your air conditioner is only 10 years old, you may save significantly on your cooling energy costs by replacing it with a newer, more efficient model. Products with EPA’s Energy Star label can save homeowners 10 to 40 percent on their heating and cooling bills every year.
Plus, if you decide to replace your A/C system, you’ll no longer have to concern yourself about running out of refrigerant in the future.
When it comes to cooling your home, making the right choice for the environment can also be the right choice for your finances.
Trust J&A South Park for quality HVAC servicing
Of course, we all want a healthy ozone layer and a pollution-free environment, but having costs pushed on residents and business owners isn’t necessarily pleasant either. Understandably, the R-22 phase out may add some financial burden on anyone still depending on these systems. That’s why we invite you to contact J&A South Park.
We will happily repair your existing R-22 systems when at all possible. However, we often encourage customers to look at replacing equipment when refrigerant cost begins to climb. The price of R-22 refrigerant is quite volatile, and we expect that the cost per pound will continue to rise. It’s part of our service to inform you of what your options are and what our professional opinion is.
Sometimes leaks can be efficiently repaired. There are some leaks (often found in evaporator coils) that can’t be fixed. Most of the time, even if only the evaporator coil or condensing unit needs to be replaced, we recommend replacing both and converting to R-410A. This is because usually, the SEER* of the new equipment will not match the SEER of the older equipment, causing mechanical problems and premature equipment failure.
Should you elect new equipment, feel confident in knowing that J&A South Park has been installing HVAC equipment using R-410A for well over 10 years.
*Energy efficiency is measured by the seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER). The higher the ratio, the more efficient the equipment.