What the Phase Out of R-22 Refrigerant Means for Homeowners

The U.S. Federal Government is phasing out the R-22 refrigerant used in many residential air conditioners. What does that mean for home owners?

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What’s Refrigerant?
A refrigeration cycle uses a refrigerant: a fluid that changes states from liquid to gas and back to liquid. Liquids absorb heat when changed from a liquid to a gas. When that happens in your air conditioner, the liquid (the refrigerant) changing to a gas absorbs the heat in your home.

The refrigerant, in its gas form, is pumped to a condensing unit outside your house where it’s changed back to a liquid. Gases give off heat when changed from gas to liquid so the heat the refrigerant was carrying when it left your house is given off outside your house. In this way, your air conditioner is able to move heat inside your house to the outside of your house.

A refrigerator works the same way. It uses a refrigerant to pump heat from inside the refrigerator to the outside of the refrigerator so your food stays cold. The big difference is that the refrigerator is dumping that heat inside your home – in your kitchen. Your air conditioner has to move that heat to the outside of your home.

The Refrigerant Phase Out
HCFC-22 (known as R-22) has been a popular refrigerant in residential heat pumps and air conditioners for more than four decades. It’s been found to deplete the ozone and it’s a greenhouse gas so the United States agreed to phase out the use of R-22 in favor of other, non-ozone depleting refrigerants.

In 1987, an international environmental agreement known as the Montreal Protocol was used to establish requirements for the worldwide phase out of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) like R-22. According to the terms of the Montreal Protocol, R-22 may not be manufactured beginning January 1, 2020.

What This Means for Existing Systems
The result of this phase out will likely be a significant, if not severe, increase in the cost of R-22 refrigerant after 2020 because it will no longer be manufactured. The U.S. Clean Air Act requires technicians who service air conditioners to recover and recycle R-22 refrigerant rather than releasing it into our environment. Still, it’s common for some refrigerant to escape your air conditioning system through small leaks in lines, valves and your air conditioning coil.

Air conditioners need a refrigerant charge (the addition of refrigerant) when these small leaks allow refrigerant to escape. Your air conditioner is designed to run with a certain amount of refrigerant in it and running it without enough refrigerant can severely damage the system. A pound of R-22 refrigerant can cost upwards of $125 and it’s common for a leaking system to lose upwards of four pounds if the leak is bad or hasn’t been found due to lack of service. The cost for replacing that refrigerant adds up quickly at $125 per pound.

It’s critical to catch refrigerant leaks early by having your heating and cooling system serviced twice each year. Most heating and cooling service companies offer an annual cost for the two service calls – one for when you start using your air conditioner and one when you start using your heating system. If your air conditioner isn’t performing, don’t put off a service call. If you’re losing refrigerant, waiting to fix the leak lets more refrigerant escape so the cost to recharge the system continues to increase even if fixing the leak does not.

Do Newly-Manufactured Systems Use R-22?
As of January 1, 2010 (per the Montreal Protocol), air conditioning manufacturers aren’t allowed to manufacture units with virgin R-22 refrigerant in them. Producers of R-22 are allowed to continue producing it until January 1, 2020 to service existing units.

Air conditioning manufacturers started using refrigerants like R-410A by January 1, 2010 to remain in compliance with the regulations. It’s possible that a unit charged with R-22, manufactured prior to January 1, 2010, was sitting in a warehouse and was installed after the cut-off date for production though brand-new systems should not have R-22 in them.

The image above is the above is the plate from the outdoor unit (the condensing unit) of an air conditioner. You can find the type of refrigerant among the information it provides – RTA has added a red arrow pointing to the note about the refrigerant. If you can’t find the refrigerant type noted on your unit, you can ask your service technician during his|her next visit.

Was Your Air Conditioner Manufactured Before 2010?
While many residential air conditioners come with a ten-year warranty, it’s not uncommon for them to perform much longer than ten years. The plate in the picture above shows the condensing unit was manufactured in March of 1988. It’s still running twenty-seven years later. This isn’t unusual for equipment that’s been well maintained.

Replacing a heating and cooling system can cost thousands of dollars. It’s important to budget over the warranted life of the system for replacement – save enough money over the warranty period to replace the system when it fails. That will prevent a significant expense for which you’re unprepared. That’s the type of home ownership cost that traps financially-struggling families in a debt cycle. They pay more, sometimes much more, for big expenses because they finance the payments.

If your air conditioner was manufactured before the 2010 cut-off for systems using R-22 refrigerant, you should be saving up for a new system. If you can save some or all of the amount to replace your heating and cooling system, you’ll be protected against the rising costs of R-22 refrigerant and you’ll be ready when your system reaches the end of its useful life. You may not replace your system in 2020 though you’ll be able to make the decision based on what makes the most financial sense for your household.

It’s also important to note that the ductwork for your heating and cooling system needs to be carefully designed to flow a certain amount of air to certain locations. Connecting new a new air handler (the indoor unit) to an old ductwork system can be a recipe for disappointment. If you want to figure out how much you should be saving for your next heating and cooling system, ask your service company for an estimate – and be sure to ask them about the ductwork so you can budget for that too!

Can Existing Systems Be Converted?
It’s typically not practical to convert an existing air conditioner to use a different refrigerant. Some refrigerants are used at a higher pressure and system components need to be replaced to use a different refrigerant. While there are refrigerants like R-407C permitted for retrofit uses, you should always contact the manufacturer’s representative in your area to ask about retrofits. Please don’t take a recommendation for retrofitting your system from your service technician without consulting the manufacturer.

In Conclusion
If you have a system that uses R-22 refrigerant, don’t panic. We don’t know how quickly the cost of R-22 will increase after 2020 when there’s demand without new supply. We have five years to plan for that.

Also, if you’re in the market for a new heating and cooling system, it should be difficult to buy one with R-22 refrigerant since they’ve not been manufactured for five years – difficult but not impossible. You should ask what kind of refrigerant a system uses before agreeing to an install in your home.

As always, if you’ve got a comment or question, please share it below. Thanks!

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