Freon and the Exploding Cost of Your Air Conditioning Units

Ever since 1970, we have been celebrating Earth Day and we just did that again this past week. You probably saw something on the news about it and maybe even participated to help celebrate it and defend the honor of our planet, too. Even if you didn’t actually celebrate it, you at least, hopefully, did some recycling of your own garbage that helped. And soon, like it or not, you’ll have to trade in your freon air conditioning for something more ecologically-friendly.

Freon air conditioning is a danger to our planet and is about to become significantly more expensive. Find out why and what you can do about it.

Let’s face it, Mother Earth has been fighting a huge battle against pollution now for what seems like forever and she hasn’t exactly been winning the war, has she? Climate change that has been aided by humans is a real issue and there are some ways you can actually help in the fight.

Air Conditioning – Is it all that wonderful?

Here’s some food for thought and information as we enter the summer cooling season this year. One of the best creature comforts that all of us use and love is our air conditioning. Just imagine what your life might be without it each hot summer as it was for all of the generations that came before the middle of the 20th century. Home air conditioning didn’t really boom here in the U.S. until the 1950’s, which means for almost everyone alive today, it has become a basic part of their lives.

British scholar S.F. Markham once wrote “The greatest contribution to civilization in this century may well be air-conditioning—and America leads the way.” The brilliant new idea is “the best thing since sliced bread.”

If you’re like most people, you probably don’t know a whole lot about how your air conditioning actually works or what it depends on to make it nice and cool the way you like it! On a rare occasion in my life, I have heard about and actually had to purchase something called “freon”* and had my A/C serviced and fixed by doing so (an annoyance and expense, but required, right?).

*Freon is a registered trademark of The Chemours Company, but is widely used as a term to refer to any fluorocarbon refrigerants.

You rely on your air conditioner in the summer to keep you cool and comfortable. Whether it’s in your car or home, most every air conditioner manufactured before 2003 used freon or R-22 as the refrigerant that cools the warm air.

Freon – What’s wrong with it?

Freon or R-22 (also known as HHFC-22) has been the refrigerant of choice for residential heat pump and air-conditioning systems for more than five decades. Unfortunately for the environment and Mother Earth, releases of R-22, such as those from air conditioner leaks, have contributed to our ozone depletion. In addition, R-22 is a greenhouse gas and the manufacture of R-22 results in a by-product (HFC-23) that contributes significantly to global warming.

Because of the negative effects of this refrigerant, in 1987 the Montreal Protocol, an international environmental agreement, established requirements that began the worldwide phase-out of ozone-depleting CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons).

The Montreal Protocol Will Now Affect You!

The requirements of the Montreal Protocol of 1987 (later modified in 1996) are now leading to the phase-out of all CFC production in all developed nations. That complete phase-out concludes in the year 2020—next year.

In 1996, the Montreal Protocol was amended to establish the schedule for the phase-out of HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons). HCFCs, although less damaging to the ozone layer than CFCs, still contain ozone-destroying chlorine. The Montreal Protocol as amended is carried out in the U.S. through Title VI of the Clean Air Act, which is implemented by the EPA. It affects every source of air conditioning we use such as:

Commercial and industrial uses

Dehumidifiers

Chillers

Cold storage warehouses

Transport refrigeration

Air-to-air heat pumps

Ductless air conditioners

Automotive air conditioners

Window air conditioning units

Packaged air conditioners and heat pumps

Retail food refrigeration

Industrial process refrigeration

Central air conditioners

Ground-source heat pumps

Chest or upright freezers

Initially, the EPA looked at allowing as much as 36 million pounds of new and imported freon/R-22 in 2015; but, instead they opted to limit the total amount to 22 million pounds—making that almost a 60% drop-off from 2014. The step down continued with 18 million pounds of new and imported R-22 allowed in 2016, 13 million pounds in 2017, 9 million in 2018, and 4 million this year in 2019 and finally:

No new produced or imported R-22 will be allowed in the U.S. on or after January 1, 2020.

What Does All That Mean to You and Me?

As the manufacture of freon/R-22 has phased out over years, manufacturers of residential air conditioning systems have been offering equipment that uses ozone-friendly refrigerants. The EPA reviewed several alternatives to R-22 for household and light commercial air conditioning and has compiled a list of substitutes that EPA has determined are acceptable. One of these substitutes is R-410A, a blend of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that does not contribute to depletion of the ozone layer, but, like R-22, contributes to global warming. (R-410A is manufactured and sold under various trade names, including GENETRON AZ-20®, SUVA 410A®, Forane® 410A, and Puron®).

Your existing units in 2019 using R-22 can still continue to be serviced with R-22. The R-22 must be recovered and recycled for reuse in the same system and reprocessed to the same purity standard as new R-22 or destroyed and that is now pretty expensive to do when servicing your “old” A/C or system.

After January 1, 2020, the servicing of R-22-based systems will rely solely on recycled or reclaimed refrigerants. It is expected that reclamation and recycling will ensure that existing supplies of R-22 will last longer and be available to service a greater number of systems. For the next ten years or more, R-22 should continue to be available for all systems that require R-22 for servicing so that is some good news, well “sorta”.

The Cost Factor

“Sorta” because the cost of R-22 is dramatically increasing now because of the declining supply, and since new refrigerant will no longer be available for use at all after 2020 (with the exception of the recycled quantities), the cost will then be astronomical!

If you’re thinking, “Holy cow, this is starting to sound expensive,” you’re correct, it is. That is why you may want to have some service technicians come out to inspect your A/C unit to see what refrigerant it uses, and in the majority of the cases, you may need to upgrade its coolant due to the increasing cost of maintaining an R-22 air conditioner.

Determining Which Refrigerant You Use

If your home has an air conditioning system that was built before 2010, your A/C will likely have R-22. However, if you installed your air conditioner after January 1, 2010, then your unit may or may not have R-22. It depends on what year you purchased and installed it and what inventory the dealer had at that time when they sold it to you.

If you got a super-duper deal on a unit, it was probably discounted through the years dramatically because it was becoming obsolete and no one was going to tell you about that when you purchased it (and you probably didn’t ask)!

If your heating and air conditioning system was built after January 2010, you are probably safe and the R-22 phase-out dilemma may not apply to you. It is probable that your system uses the new, approved replacement refrigerant, R-410a. However, systems installed after 2010 could potentially use R-22, so it’s best to check with an HVAC expert. You can always find the refrigerant type by checking the nameplate on your condenser (the condenser is the outside unit).

If you can’t find it, you can grab your user’s manual. If that doesn’t work either, you can reach out to your local service experts. If you have a maintenance agreement, they also have your information on hand and a tech can let you know immediately if your unit uses R-22.

What Are Your Choices?

To review, if your HVAC equipment was produced prior to January 2010, specifically if it’s older than a decade, you have these options:

  • Buy an upgraded, more environmentally-friendly system that uses the newer R-410a refrigerant
  • Call an HVAC expert to replace the parts in your current A/C system to help make it compatible with an approved air conditioner refrigerant (I don’t really recommend it)
  • Stick with using recycled R-22 and burn through costs like it’s the ozone layer

To be clear, the EPA regulates the production and use of this R-22, but not your system itself. You aren’t required by law to replace your air conditioner. But, at some point, your A/C will quit running and it will need to be replaced, and only the newer R-410a units will be available to buy.

Just like many of you reading this, my central air conditioning unit runs on R-22, so I’m facing the same options. In my case, the unit was installed twelve years ago and has been running just fine, so far. At some point in the near future, my wife and I will need to make a decision about replacing it.

Final Thoughts

The most straightforward option is to buy a new, upgraded air conditioner, especially if your current air conditioner is already more than ten years old. If it’s already that old, its life expectancy and efficiency is typically reaching an end.

Service experts in the heating and air conditioning field have many new, much more efficient and environmentally friendly options that will actually save you money after your initial expense and ultimately help you avoid using recycled, “who knows what the cost will actually be” of a temporary supply of R-22 to keep your old unit operating!

Financing options help make the purchase affordable, and you can look for rebates from HVAC manufacturers, local utilities, and even governmental assistance to help make it easier and more affordable for you. New A/C equipment can be more efficient and give you superior comfort, helping to lower your energy costs.

Oh and Mother Earth will thank you (and your children and grandchildren), too!

You want to keep your cool, keep cool, and protect the Earth, too. Big and important goals all, so what are you going to do about it? Are you concerned about any of this? Are you prepared for these changes and what is your plan of action?

One Comment

  1. Great informational post, Gary! We have central A/C using R-22. I was just about to set up a maintenance call to tune it up for the season. I might have a few more questions for my maintenance guy now. Thanks for the info!

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