If “R-22” just sounds vaguely like a smallish robot from Star Wars, don’t worry—you’re in the vast majority. The U.S. government-enforced restrictions—and the ultimate phase out—of R-22 Freon probably isn’t on your radar, but it has been on ours for years.
The impact for you, the consumer, has been—and will continue to be—felt when you get the bill for an air-conditioning system recharge. A once small fee has skyrocketed as production of R-22 continues to drop.
In fact, only 13 million pounds will be produced in 2017, followed by 9 million pounds next year and 4 million pounds in 2019. Finally, beginning in 2020, only reclaimed or recycled R-22 refrigerant will be available to service existing systems.
But, why? What’s the deal?
The deal is that the government hopes to replace R-22 with a safer material—one that goes easier on the ozone layer. That’s an initiative we can all get on board with, obviously, but one big problem persists: There are several replacements for R-22, all of which are, for the most part, unproven.
If one capable alternative existed, this conundrum would cease, but all R22 alternatives have shown to have unique drawbacks—from a loss in capacity to fractionation and oil return problems. The use of alternate refrigerants in R-22 systems containing polyester oil can lead to performance loss, temperature glide variations and can even be worse on the environment than R-22.
A byproduct of our current state of refrigerant purgatory is an issue that no one is talking about: In the meantime, all HVAC contractors have the freedom to choose any R-22 replacement they deem to be appropriate. That means we’re all carrying different replacement refrigerants on our trucks—and mixing any of these with R-22 or another R-22 replacement will only exacerbate and multiply the above described issues.
Keeping an old R-22 system in operation a little longer can be a tempting money-saving idea, but know that refrigerants almost certainly will be mixed and you will be forced to maneuver a minefield that will actually cost you more in the long run.
The three most popular “alternate” refrigerants are R-407C, R-438A and R-422. The problems associated which each of these are many. Some alternative refrigerants are not compatible with mineral oil. What’s more, the use of alternate refrigerants in systems containing mineral oil voids the manufacturer and compressor warranty.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continues to warn homeowners and service technicians about the risk associated with using refrigerants that are not approved under the Significant New Alternatives Policy program.
The EPA has voiced specific concern as it relates to using propane and other highly flammable hydrocarbon gases as drop-in replacements for R-22 in HVAC systems that were intended for non-flammable refrigerants. This scenario raises significant risk for fire, explosion and injury to homeowners and service technicians.
Not only does the unapproved use of HC refrigerants pose a serious risk of fire and explosion, it is also illegal. The EPA is actively investigating several companies that manufacture, market, or sell unapproved HC refrigerants as replacements for R-22. To date, the EPA has issued findings of violation to two companies alleging violations of SNAP program regulations and has entered into a consent decree with one of these companies. It has also issued requests for information to several other companies.
The EPA has also called on the air conditioning technician community to help spread the word about the risks of unapproved HC refrigerants.
Given the risks, Air Dynamics does not recommend the use of alternative refrigerants at this time. We recommend that you replace R-22 with R-22—and, whether you decide to use us or someone else, we strongly urge you to be involved with the service of your unit and insist that the technician not compromise your system by mixing one R-22 alternate with another alternate or with your R-22.
For more information on the R-22 Phaseout process, check out: The R-22 Phaseout: What You Should Know