Over the last 40 years, R-22 refrigerant has been a hugely popular option for residential air conditioning and heat pump systems. It has even been used in some commercial systems because it was, until recently, a relatively cheap and reliable form of air conditioning. However, a recent Clean Air Act that was put in place by the EPA means that HCFCs such as R-22 are being phased out, because they contain chlorine, which is bad for the ozone layer.
The manufacture of new equipment that relies on R-22 refrigerant was stopped in January 2010, and manufacturers of heat pumps and air conditioning systems are now required to make systems that use more environmentally friendly refrigerants instead. Homeowners who have older systems that use R-22 – either ones that were bought prior to 2010 or those that were bought after that date but which exploited the ‘dry ship’ loophole and had R-22 added to them afterwards, will need to understand what the phase out means, and what their options are.
R-22 Will Not be Available for Much Longer
Under the Clean Air Act, R-22 cannot be vented into the atmosphere, even during the servicing or retirement of equipment. If you have a unit that is powered by R-22 then you need to make sure that it is serviced properly. Any R-22 that is in the unit and removed, must either be recycled (put back into your unit), reclaimed (so that it can be used in other units), or destroyed. At the moment R-22 can only be sold for the purposes of replenishing supplies in existing units, and after 2020 no new R-22 can be made or imported into the country. The only way to get R-22 to support existing systems will be through purchasing reclaimed or recycled refrigerant. This means that the price of R-22 is going to go up rapidly. In theory the reclamation option will mean that supplies or R-22 will last for longer, and that there will be enough left to support existing systems. However, there is no guarantee that this will be the case.
Updating Existing Units
While you can keep your existing unit running R-22, and this could be an OK option if you have a relatively new unit that is serviced regularly and that is not leaking, it is a good idea to get your unit running one of the alternative refrigerants. There is no requirement put in place, yet, by the EPA for you to convert your existing air conditioning unit. However, if it is an older unit that is not very energy efficient or that has been prone to leaking in the past it could be a good idea to do this. The unit may need a replacement condenser in order to support R-410A or one of the other alternative refrigerants, but it will likely save you a lot of money in the long term to have it done.
If the conversion is not an option, financially, at this time, then you should be proactive about getting your unit serviced. You can still have top-ups of R-22, so catching any leaks before they get serious, and getting them properly repaired, will help to save you money and minimise the risk of your unit leaking ozone-destroying R-22 into the atmosphere.
How Long Do You Have to Make Changes
R-22 is still available at the moment, and it will likely remain available for many years to come, but the price is going to increase a lot. Indeed it already has gone up in price as people have started to stockpile it. Rather than running the risk of having to pay several times over the odds for your refrigerant, it makes sense to start looking for alternative options now.
If you purchased your air conditioning unit before 2010, then it is probably coming towards the end of its useful life and you should start planning a replacement. If you purchased a dry shipped unit after 2010 then you may want to keep it a bit longer, but you should at least look at getting a compressor update.
If you are thinking of buying a new system, then the good news is that it is a legal requirement for all new systems to incorporate compressors that support the newer refrigerants, and they should be far more energy efficient in general too. While the up-front outlay may seem painful, the air conditioner should pay for itself over the course of its service life. Often, you can save between 10 and 40% on your energy bills per year with a new unit.
Coping With an Older Unit
If you cannot replace your air conditioning system at the moment, then you do have options. If the unit is not leaking, then you could stay with R-22 for now. If it has been leaking then you will want to have the leaks fixed. There are several different types of Freon replacement that are safe refrigerant gas and while most do require new compressors there are some, such as M099, which do not need a replacement compressor and that will work with mineral oil. If you live in an area where the temperatures do not get very high, then that refrigerant might be a suitable option for you.
The refrigerants that need more modern oils tend to offer better performance, particularly and higher temperatures, with some being almost as good as, if not near identical to, Freon in performance. For this reason the ideal scenario is that most people would want to replace their existing compressor, replace the oil in their unit, and then upgrade to a more modern refrigerant. The phase-out of Freon has been known about for over ten years, so there has been enough time for companies to plan and to come up with efficient and cost-effective options for you to replace your air conditioning unit’s gases. Shop around and find a contractor that you trust, then make sure that you get them to come and service your air conditioning on a regular basis.