I recently received a call from a concerned elderly customer because she thought she understood a news outlet to say that everyone will need to replace their air conditioners after next year because refrigerant won’t be available. I also had a friend living in the Washington D.C. area express concern because her contractor told her that her air conditioner would only be repairable for another year because the refrigerant would not be available. Neither of these beliefs are true. I am concerned that misinformation and unscrupulous contractors will twist the true state of refrigerant supply, especially R-22.
“The Montreal Protocol, finalized in 1987, is a global agreement to protect the stratospheric ozone layer by phasing out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances (ODS). The stratospheric ozone layer filters out harmful ultraviolet radiation, which is associated with an increased prevalence of skin cancer and cataracts, reduced agricultural productivity, and disruption of marine ecosystems. The United States ratified the Montreal Protocol in 1988 and has joined four subsequent amendments. The United States has been a leader within the Protocol throughout its existence, and has taken strong domestic action to phase out the production and consumption of ODS such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons.”
As part of the Montreal protocol, the manufacture and import of R-22 (among other substances), considered to be an ozone depleting substance, will no longer be permitted as of January 1, 2020. As anyone knows who has had to have their air conditioner or heat pump charged with R-22 recently, the cost has skyrocketed. Knowing the ban was coming, fewer manufacturers were creating it and because of limited supply, prices increased. However, from all of the information I could gather from ACCA (Air Conditioning Contractors of America) and our suppliers, R-22 has been stockpiled.
As well, we have to use refrigerant recovery machines to remove old R-22 (and other refrigerants) when needed. When we have enough full cans, we return these to a supplier, who then submits it for recycling. We keep separate cans for each type of recovered refrigerants. Some contractors mix their refrigerants in the same can. Recyclers don’t have the capacity to separate them, so, availability of recycled R-22 can be affected by the purity of what is turned in by the contractors.
There is also a “drop in” refrigerant that can replace R-22. We use M099 most frequently. Use of this refrigerant can reduce your cooling capacity between 3 and 5%. So, if your system struggles to keep up due to under-sizing, this reduction in capacity may make your unit run longer or it cannot provide the same comfort level for the space you are conditioning.
From what I understand, between the stockpiling, the availability of recycled R-22, and the use of “drop-in” refrigerants, there should be enough supply to fulfill future need until all R-22 units will have lived their longest possible life and been replaced or abandoned.
There are many instances when it is more prudent to replace an R-22 unit than to keep repairing it. For example unfixable leaks mean you have to charge the unit more often, or you want a newer more efficient unit with a long term warranty, your compressor or other expensive components have failed, and so on. However, it is not true that they won’t be able to be repaired because R-22 is not available or is illegal nor is it true that you will be required to replace your air conditioner.
I would like to add R410a, used in the manufacturing of current systems, will also be phased out in the future as it has been determined to be an ozone depleting substance as well. California currently has mandates in place for its phase out. Europe also has moved away from R410a. The national implementation of replacement refrigerant for R410a and the timeline for such is still on going, but the new refrigerants will likely include mildly flammable or flammable products.
As the industry begins to introduce new refrigerants it will be more important than ever to ensure consumers are hiring professional contractors who will follow industry guidelines for the safe handling of these refrigerants. Those changes are a few years away, but it’s important for contractors to start learning about these products and educating their staff about what this means for this industry.