Coming refrigerant phase out may cost consumers big bucks

The little-publicized phase-out of an environmentally unfriendly refrigerant used in most air conditioning and heat pump units will affect nearly all U.S. homeowners, according to heating and air conditioning contractors.

WASHINGTON — The little-publicized phase-out of an environmentally unfriendly refrigerant used in most air conditioning and heat pump units will affect nearly all U.S. homeowners, according to heating and air conditioning contractors.

“This will affect everybody. Air conditioning is ubiquitous,” said Douglas Mezan, owner of Academy Air Conditioning in Van Nuys, Calif.

The refrigerant is called R-22, or HCFC-22. Manufacturers will cease production of the coolant and new equipment that uses it by Jan. 1 as one of several government-mandated steps toward eliminating ozone-depleting substances.

“These benchmarks and these milestones have been put in place for years, so it shouldn’t come as a shock to the industry because we have alternative refrigerants that people can use,” said Charlie McCrudden, vice president of government relations of Air Conditioning Contractors of America.

The Environmental Protection Agency said R-22, a hydrochloroflorocarbon compound, contains chlorine, which harms the ozone layer. Other HCFC compounds are also being phased out in developed countries, under the Montreal Protocol, an international environmental agreement.

Appliances that use R-22 include window air conditioners, dehumidifiers, central air conditioners, heat pumps, retail food refrigerators, industrial process refrigeration, transport refrigeration and more.

Most household refrigerators and vehicle air conditioners use a different refrigerant, R-134A. Although European countries plan to phase R-143A out, the U.S. has no plans to do so, according to an EPA spokeswoman.

Some contractors have been pushing the sale of R-410A, or Puron, as an alternative to R-22. Puron does not contribute to ozone depletion, although the EPA says it contributes to global warming.

“We started phasing it out about eight, nine years ago. We started using the available Puron units of the time,” said Corey S. Rodgerson, service manager of Climate Heating and Cooling in Washington, D.C.

HCFC-22 production will continue for existing R-22 units until Jan 1, 2020, when all production and imports will be banned. In effect, only limited amounts of R-22 will be available for the next 15 years. Complete elimination of the substance is projected for 2030.

“If everybody does what the phaseout requires, everything goes pretty smoothly. it’s a very gentle grandfathering out,” Rodgerson said. Systems older than five years are likely to run on environmentally harmful compounds, Rodgerson said.

Consumers can identify which coolant is used in their units by checking the nameplate, which is on the outside of most units.

Consumers with R-22-based units may see prices swell as availability of R-22 dwindles.

“If you need a system now, don’t go back to the R-22,” said Robert P. Gagliardi, service manager of Beachland Heating and Air Conditioning Inc. in Vero Beach, Fla.

“Now is the time to retrofit. All the air conditioning lines have already swapped over. They are selling all their R-22 stock out.”

R-22 costs from $15 to $24 per pound, a price contractors like Larry Weaver, owner of Corpus Christi Refrigeration Service in Corpus Christi, Texas, said has tripled in the last couple of years. “When they phase it out at the end of the year, there’s no telling where it’s going,” he said.

Freon 12, or R-12, which is similar to R-22, was phased out in the mid-1990s. R-12 went from 60 cents a pound to $225 a pound, Rodgerson said.

“For the consumer, there was pretty much no real problem. People were doing it assuming their contractor was on the up and up,” Rodgerson said.

“You had a bunch of contractors that just dug their heels in and didn’t make the change, and their customers were pretty inversely affected by it.”

Keeping an R-22 system in commission may not be possible for some consumers, and in the long run may thin out their wallets.

“R-22 has already gone up in price quite a bit,” Mezan said.

“If you are looking at the next couple of years, R-22 is OK, but it’s a wise decision to go 410A because the life of the system is going to be 15 to 20 years, so why not look at the solution that’s going to be for 15 to 20 years?”

Contractors, manufacturers and trades groups “knew it was coming,” Gagliardi said. “We started slowly swapping lines out, and now every new system that we sell, the complete system is 410A.”

Mezan said new R-410A systems cost 10 per cent to 15 per cent more than old systems, a difference of $400 to $500.