Understanding New Refrigerant Regulations and the Phase-Out of R22
R-22 is a refrigerant for air conditioning systems that has been in use for more than 40 years. This refrigerant was originally introduced as being something that was better for the environment than other refrigerants but it was later discovered that it is actually bad for the ozone layer. Because of this discovery, there was an international agreement to phase out the use of R-22.
If your air conditioning was installed before 2010, then it may well rely on R-22 refrigerant. Indeed, some air conditioning systems that were installed after 2010 were ‘dry shipped’ and had R-22 added after they were installed.
The phase-out began with a ban on the production, use and import of R-22 and HCFC-142b in January 2010. Then, in January 2015 the next stage of the ban happened, as production, import and use of all HCFCs became prohibited except for the continuing servicing needs of existing equipment.
In January 2020, there will be a ban on the remaining production and import of HCFCs. If anyone has any air conditioning units which rely on those substances then they will have to rely on stockpiled resources, or HCFCs that have been reclaimed from existing units that are being decommissioned.
In January 2030, the phase-out will be complete. By then, however, all air conditioning units that were powered by HCFC refrigerants should have been replaced or converted to use an alternative kind of refrigerant.
The Cost and Availability of R-22
R-22 was the most common refrigerants used for a long time, because it was so high performance and cost-effective. However, when the issues with it became apparent, governments agreed to do a staggered phase-out on the production of R-22. It is not a legal requirement to stop using R-22 in your air conditioning units however it makes sense to do so because the cost of the substance is increasing dramatically as it becomes harder to get. Indeed, the supplies will be even more limited in the coming years, and this means that a full recharge of R-22 could become far more expensive than it is now.
Servicing Your Systems
You are permitted to have your equipment serviced, even if it uses R-22. It is vital that you keep your unit in good working order. Being proactive about servicing your unit will minimize maintenance costs and also reduce the risk of environmental damage. It is important that you find a reliable contractor, who can identify leaks and other potential issues, and who will do their best to ensure that any underlying problem is fixed rather than simply recharging a system that has a leak.
Legally, contractors are forbidden from intentionally releasing refrigerant when they repair a system. If they know that there is a leak then they are not allowed to just top up the unit. They must fix the leak before they add more refrigerant. If they are working on the system and need to remove refrigerant, then they must use appropriate recovery techniques and equipment.
Getting a New Air Conditioner
The EPA has put a ban on the manufacture of air conditioning systems that use R-22. New systems must use an alternative refrigerant. If you have an older system that is still in good working order, then you may want to consider getting it converted to use one of those alternatives. The most common of the alternatives is R-410A, which is a HFC blend that is non-ozone-depleting. R-410A is sold under a number of different brand names, including SUVA, 410A , GENTRON AZ-20 and PURON. The EPA reviews all alternative refrigerants and has a list of refrigerants that are acceptable as an R-22 substitute for light commercial air conditioning and for household use.
If you are considering using an alternative refrigerant then you should make sure that your unit can accept it. Units which rely on mineral oil for lubrication may not be compatible with all of the alternative refrigerant options. It may be that you will need to replace your compressor so that you can use different refrigerants, but it is still worth considering doing this, because there are some great new refrigerants that are almost as energy efficient as R-22 and that are less expensive, which means that in the long term you will save money by using them.
Remember that the cost of R-22 is only going to increase over the coming months and years. The phase out has been known about for over a decade, and it is something that contractors and air conditioning companies have had a lot of time to prepare for.
The expected lifespan of an air conditioning unit is usually around 10-20 years, depending on the size, and how well it is maintained. If you have a unit that is coming to the end of its useful life, then buying a new ENERGY STAR rated unit could be a good idea, and may save you a lot of time and money in the long run. In some cases, particularly in very hot areas, a new, more energy efficient air conditioning unit could save you as much as 40% on your utility bills. Add in to that the rapidly rising cost of R-22, and the other downsides of having an older unit, such as them running louder and taking longer to cool a room, and you have a compelling case to upgrade.
If you cannot afford to pay for a new unit up front, look to see if there are any green grant schemes running in your area. R-22 is not dangerous while it is inside your unit, but if your air conditioning system develops a leak then it will be releasing the gas into the atmosphere and the chlorine will be damaging the ozone layer. It makes sense to try to get rid of it as quickly as possible and move on to using something safer and that is more environmentally friendly. Your great grandchildren will thank you for it when they still have a nice planet to live on.