For decades, the majority of vapor compression cooling systems — those found in practically every car, home and office in America — have worked their cooling magic by compressing a chemical compound known as R22, or Freon. This refrigerant is reliable, effective and cheap — but also, unfortunately, extremely detrimental to the environment.
Nearly 50 years ago it was discovered that escaped Freon from countless air conditioners (not to mention from auto shops, factories and other places where AC systems are serviced) was having a cumulative effect on the very atmosphere of the Earth, eating away at the ozone layer that protects us from the devastating effects of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. As a result, an international treaty known as the Montreal Protocol was put into effect, with the goal of phasing out the use of R22 and its closest chemical relatives, on a worldwide basis.
Fast-forward to 2019. At the end of this year, at the behest of the US Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency, Freon will no longer be manufactured in or imported into the United States. The current supply has already been greatly depleted as newer, less harmful refrigerants and equipment that uses them have been widely adopted in anticipation of the Freon ban becoming complete. So, what does this mean for Americans who still operate HVAC systems that use R22 as a refrigerant?
Higher Costs on All Fronts
The cost of Freon has skyrocketed as its time on the American climate control scene draws to an end; just last year the average price went up 50 percent, and that figure will certainly continue to rise as the remaining stock is used up. This means if your system needs topping off, you are going to pay much more than you are accustomed to, just for the refrigerant itself.
Given the current cost of recharging an R22 system, especially one that is of considerable age, you may find that it is more cost-effective to replace the equipment entirely than to keep the one you have operational.
It’s not uncommon for older Freon-based refrigeration and cooling systems to develop slow leaks over time. But if you are aware of a leak, and fail to properly repair it, you may find yourself in trouble with the EPA. In 2014, Costco was fined $335,000 and ordered to make over $2 million worth of upgrades to coolers and AC units at 274 of their stores nationwide — after it was found that they failed to correct known refrigerant leaks or in many cases keep inspection logs altogether. Upgrading or replacing your Freon-based system now will help you sleep better at night.
Emergencies Become Catastrophes
So you decide to keep running your old R22 system after the ban makes the old refrigerant impossible to get. Now what happens when it’s the middle of summer and your AC goes south? If your repair requires refrigerant, you cannot just replace it anymore. You will have to either replace your system altogether, or if you are lucky, you may be able to convert your existing units to run on one of the newer, more environmentally friendly chemical refrigerants, such as R134. Either way you are faced with a sudden expense vastly greater than what you may be prepared for, and a longer time lag before restoring your climate control.
In the meantime, your house is miserably hot, and may be completely uninhabitable for people with compromised health. And if you own a business, think of your employees and customers. How much business will you lose when your regular clientele are not comfortable in your building? How much productivity goes down the drain when your staff is sweating?
Beware of Fakes!
Everybody knows about supply and demand, and when demand for something outstrips supply, the sharks come out. Even now there have been numerous reports of counterfeit or contaminated R22 being sold by unscrupulous predators cashing in on the scarcity of the doomed refrigerant. In some cases, this has caused explosions and fires!
Under US law, only certified technicians are allowed to handle Freon when servicing HVAC and refrigeration equipment. These people have been trained to know the dangers of refrigerants and how to keep them from being released into the atmosphere. When you call your local HVAC professionals, you will know you are talking to people who will steer you the right way — and will never sell you subpar products.
Plan Your Phaseout Now
If you happen to be operating an R22 system for refrigeration or air conditioning, now is the time to put together a plan for how you will weather the phaseout of Freon. It pays to be proactive, making the necessary adjustments before you run into an emergency situation.
If your equipment is more than eight years old, you have only three options: retrofit your system to use R134 or another more modern refrigerant, replace your entire system or do nothing but cross your fingers and hope for the best until your current system gives out.
Contact your HVAC experts and ask them for advice on the best course of action. They will be happy to help, regardless of which path you decide to follow.