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R-22 Refrigerant What's the story

R-22 Refrigerant known to many of us by a popular brand name “Freon” has been used for many years in our residential and commercial air conditioning systems. Refrigerant is the life blood of the system without it your air conditioning equipment simply will not work. For many years it has been a very reliable and inexpensive product. R-22 refrigerant is being phased out by EPA.

Why is it being phased out

The phase out is the result of a Treaty (“The Montreal Protocol”) formed in September of 1987 in Montreal Canada. Attending nations concerned about long term effects on the environment agreed to begin the phase out of chemicals with high “ozone depleting potential”. Due to the high content of chlorine molecules in refrigerants the chemicals were targeted. The treaty took effect in 1989 triggering the long term phase out of refrigerants and mandating the recovery of old or existing refrigerants. From 1989 through the 1990’s and early 2000’s the phase out of the production of new refrigerant was minor and hardly noticeable. During this time manufactures tested and developed new refrigerants with R-410A surfacing as the dominant substitute.

What has caused the recent price spike and shortage

The Environmental Protection Agency sets the limits on the production and importation of R-22 refrigerant on an annual basis based on the phase out schedule. For reasons not disclosed to the public they failed to set these production limits for 2012. This inaction triggered an automatic reduction of 45% below 2011 production allocations. This move created an immediate inventory shortage. Uncertain that current inventory would meet demand a decision to ration the commodity was invoked by manufacturers creating a supply vs. demand issue and prices soared.

Will Prices stay this high for R-22

Information available today suggests that the EPA will not set the limits on production for 2012 until sometime this summer. The production limit is expected to be set somewhere between 11%-45% of 2011 production levels when the decision comes down. If the limit remains at 45% prices will remain high. If they allow a higher level of production then prices will decline some. No one knows for sure at this time.

How does this affect what I pay for repair

Refrigerant related repair cost to your air conditioning system has been on the rise since the mandate to recover was introduced in January of 1989. Additional equipment and up keep cost to comply with the mandate are passed on to the consumer through the dealers retail pricing structure for repairs involving refrigerant. The increased wholesale cost currently up to 400% will need to be factored into all dealers pricing to avoid losing money on the repairs. If your system uses R-22 refrigerant be prepared to pay more to “ADD FREON” or have a leak repaired. Charges for these repairs vary by dealer. Professional dealers like Climate Magic will fully inform you of cost and options before proceeding to repair.

How do I know if my unit uses R-22

If your system has been upgraded in the last 10 years chances are you have been converted to the new R-410A refrigerant which is unaffected by production limits. The data tag on your equipment usually indicates the type of refrigerant used in your system. The color designation for R-22 is green. For R-410A is Pink. Normally on your outdoor unit you can find either a tag or indication on the data plate that the unit is R-410A.

What action should I take if I need a repair on my R-22 System

Dealer/Contractors have been educating customers on the eventuality of the total phase out of R-22 since R-410A equipment first came into production in the early 90’s. Most have suggested the change over whenever a unit was replaced due to ill repair or upgrade for higher efficiency. Some customers due to various reasons chose to repair their older units or add refrigerant. Higher cost today for this service will add to the feasibility for you to plan and seriously consider upgrading to a system which uses R-410A. Make no mistake EPA is definitely on track to phase out R-22 and will eventually tax it out of existence much like it did with R-12 which was used in our auto Air Conditioning. To avoid future rising repair cost or being stranded, now is the time to consider and plan for your upgrade to R-410A product.

What part of my equipment do I need to replace

All equipment manufacturers are now on board with full lines of R-410A equipment. The mandate to cease production of R-22 charged appliances was invoked on January 1 2010. System components must be matched by refrigerant type to remain compatible. This means you cannot switch out your outdoor unit alone and expect it to work with existing indoor equipment. With heat pumps both indoor and outdoor units must be replaced. If your indoor unit is relatively new there is a possibility the newer indoor unit could have its metering device changed to become compatible with a new R-410A outdoor unit. However there are critical issues concerning compatibility of lubricating oils used in the system when converting refrigerants. You should trust only the most professional and experienced technician to perform this work to avoid future issues and problems related to lubrication incompatibility. It is always best to change both pieces of equipment whenever possible. In the case of a cooling system which uses a gas furnace for heating the compatibility issues between the outdoor unit and the indoor cooling coil remain the same. However your existing furnace could be reused if in good condition and it delivers the correct air volume needed for proper cooling performance. Many “systems” which meet utility rebate criteria require specific furnace matches with the cooling systems. This should be a consideration on your decision to reuse or replace your furnace along with the cooling components.

I have heard R-22 equipment can still be purchased

This is correct. In its infinite wisdom the federal government has allowed a loophole, for units which operate using R-22 to still be produced and sold. These units are NOT pre charged with the R-22, thus the loophole. They come from the factory with a “Dry Nitrogen” charge which must be evacuated in the field. The installing technician then installs and charges the unit with the expensive R-22. It is rumored this loophole exists because of the Apartment Lobby which represents millions of units and horrendous expense should they be made to comply. Several major manufacturers have ramped up their production of these units. The issue here is limited selection on what one can purchase. Only builder model 13 SEER units are available. Further one must ask him/herself do I want to contribute to the problem of ozone depletion or be part of the solution. Also will I be stranded or held hostage by future EPA decisions regarding R-22.

What about Stop Leak

There are stop leak additives available on the market and some service companies use them to delay the inevitable. Manufacturers do not approve of using any additives in their systems during the warranty period. Sensitive components such as expansion valves check valves, and scroll plates can be gummed up causing poor performance and needed repairs. It is not recommended to use leak stop in any system which has remaining warranty. Anyone installing leak stop in any system does so at his own risk and should be well informed about possible side effects before proceeding.

I have heard there are drop in replacements for R-22

Yes you heard correct. These so called drop- in direct replacements do exist. Again they are not recommended by equipment manufacturers for systems in warranty. Also these refrigerants are blends of several different types of refrigerants that boil off at different rates when a leak occurs. This makes adding Freon or topping off risky when it comes to performance. If the blend is diluted and out of balance the entire system charge would have to be recovered and new virgin refrigerant added to guarantee proper performance.

Closing Comments

At Climate Magic we believe while this is a time for concern it is not one for panic. Recovered refrigerant from worn out systems is still allowed by law to be remanufactured to virgin status and resold without limitation. If this does not change R-22 will be available well into the future. But the cost will in fact continue to increase as supplies dwindle. If you are unsure of your situation and would like advisement or a second opinion simply call us here at 340-8240 and we will be happy to provide you with the answers you are looking for. Information is powerful and ultimately leads us the right decision.