The government started to phase out R-22 refrigerant in 2010, and in 2015 placed restrictions on the import and manufacturer of it. The phase-out will be complete in 2020, when it will no longer be permitted to import or make Freon at all. The sale of Freon will still be permitted, but the only sources of it will be stockpiled refrigerant, and any that companies can recover from decommissioned air conditioning units.
This means that anyone who has an air conditioning unit that relies on Freon will find that it is incredibly expensive to recharge their unit, almost to the point that if it develops a leak and needs fully evacuated and recharged then it would be better to replace it.
Understanding the R-22 Phase Out
It is expected that an air conditioning unit would last up to 30 years. If you purchased a unit before 2010 then it is almost guaranteed that it runs R-22. Indeed, many units that were sold afterwards use that refrigerant too. If your unit still has a lot of useful life left in it, and it has been well maintained, then you may want to keep on using R-22 and just gamble on the fact that the unit will not develop a leak in the next few years. If you are considering replacing your unit, however, then the sooner you do it the better.
How Safe Is Your Refrigerant?
There are several different refrigerants, and they are all classified based on toxicity and flammability. The ASHRAE Standard 34 classes some refrigerants as Class B1, which indicates a higher level of toxicity. R-123 is an example of this. A better choice would be R-134a, R-410A or R-407C, which are class A1 – meaning safer and less flammable.
Not All Refrigerants Are Green
R-22 was developed to replace older CFC based refrigerants, which had been found to be highly harmful to the environment. The intent was good, but it was later discovered that R-22 was also harmful. Just less so.
The type of refrigerant that your air conditioner uses is one thing that is considered in the LEED certification process. For air conditioning refrigerant to be considered green, it should be CFC free (which almost all are now). There are extra points for not containing R-22 or R-123. This means that R-407C, R-134a and R-410A are ‘green’. If you are using drop-in alternatives to R-22 then you may find that they are not so green. They may be a temporary alternative to R-22, and cost-effective for you because of that, but if you are environmentally conscious then look for something that is LEED approved.
You Can Still Buy R-22
The government banned the use of R-22 in new equipment as of 2010, but many companies worked around that by dry-shipping units and then filling them with R-22 upon installation, so there are newer units that still rely on Freon. It is still OK to buy R-22 for servicing air conditioning units. On January 1st 2020, the import and production of R-22 for servicing units in the United States will be banned, but it will still be legal to sell R-22 that was stockpiled and any that was reclaimed from decommissioned units.
On January 1st 2030, a total ban on the production of all remaining HFC refrigerants will come into effect.
R-11 Use and Ban
R-11 is another refrigerant that is primarily used in centrifugal chillers. The HCFC refrigerant that replaced it is R-123, and this will not be available after 2020, except to service old units. From 2030 onwards, only reclaimed R-123 will be on the market.
There are some alternatives for large cooling systems. R-134a and R-407C are being used in new positive pressure centrifugal designs, and smaller systems (meaning systems below 100 tons) are relying on R-410a instead of R-22. Find out here why bluon is the best in the business.
Act Quickly to Save Money
While you may be able to get away with running a unit on R-22 or even a replacement such as M099 with a retrofit, it makes sense to act quickly and replace your units with more energy efficient ones. While the up-front outlay for getting a new unit may seem like a lot of money, the cost of R-22 and similar phased out refrigerants is only going to increase over the next year and will jump massively when the next stage of the phase-out hits in 2020.
If you are lucky and don’t need to do a lot of top-ups over the useful lifespan of your unit, then it could be that you would end up financially better off by not replacing the unit in the short term. This is a huge gamble, however, because if your unit leaks then you will find it is incredibly expensive (in excess of $1,000 for a small unit) to recharge it, and there is the cost for repairing the leak as well. In addition, the leak will damage the ozone layer.
Considering that new units are far more energy efficient and cost less electricity to power them it makes sense to replace a unit if it is approaching the end of its life. The stopgap alternative is to retrofit your unit to use a drop-in replacement for Freon, but this is only a temporary solution and you still need to worry about the wear and tear, potential leaks, and the fact that your old unit is simply not as economical as one that was made more recently.
If you are planning on staying in your property for a decade or more than the cost savings associated with a reduced utility bill make sense, as do the quality of life improvements that you would get from a quieter and more efficient unit that may have a better thermostat, programing features, and perhaps even smart features or wireless control. You may not think that you want those features right now, but when you experience how useful they are you will wonder how you ever managed to live with an old-fashioned unit.