Chlorodifluoromethane, more commonly known as R-22, is a hydrochlorofluorocarbon gas used as a refrigerant in the AC systems of most homes, businesses, restaurants and stores built before 2010. Due to its chemical structure, which contains chlorine, R-22 is considered a greenhouse gas with ozone-depleting and environmentally hazardous potential.
In 2004, the EPA began enforcing restrictions on the consumption of all hydrochlorofluorocarbons nationwide in an effort to minimize environmental impacts. When those restrictions increased in 2010, the use of R-22 was banned in all new AC systems and its production and import were cut sharply.
A total of 110 million pounds of R-22 were available in the U.S. in 2010. That total dropped to 80 million in 2011 and 55 million in 2012. As of January 2013, only 39 million pounds of R-22 are still available.
“By 2015, there will only be about 10 million pounds left, well below servicing needs,” said Barkley Gause, territory manager at Contractors’ Heating and Cooling Supply. “It will be basically obsolete by then.”
As production continues to plummet, the price of R-22 has soared to new heights, an increase of more than 400 percent over five years. In the last year alone, the price has risen over 100 percent. The current cost of R-22 averages around $60 per pound, which can add up quickly when it comes time to service an AC system.
“Because we hand down the costs to the consumer, when there’s a leak or repair we’re usually seen as the bad guy,” Jeremy Green, owner of Ridgeline HVAC, said.
Replacements and alternatives
R-410A is a mixture of difluoromethane and pentafluoroethane that contains fluorine, not chlorine, and has no ozone-depleting qualities. It has been the preferred AC refrigerant in the U.S. since 2010 and is used in all new systems.
Because R-410A is not compatible with any system using R-22 or another older refrigerant, environmentally safer alternatives for systems built prior to 2010 have been developed. These alternatives will be available for at least the next 15 years, but are generally considered by the HVAC industry to be a only temporary fix with poor cost efficiency.
“Eventually, the cost of repairing R-22 systems will become so high that it will be cheaper to replace them,” Gause said.
Impact on the HVAC industry
Both HVAC suppliers like Contractors’ Heating and Cooling Supply and service companies like Ridgeline HVAC are feeling the squeeze of minimized availability of R-22. Suppliers must pay a higher price to buy R-22 from manufacturers, and service companies must pay more to buy from suppliers in turn.
There are benefits, however. As technology ages, the demand for new developments increases.
“More people are switching out their whole systems, which creates more work for us,” Tim Best, owner of Best HVAC, said.
“The distributors, manufacturers and contractors will survive, but the person who ultimately pays the price is the homeowner,” said Joe Kirton, a sales consultant for the Gustave A. Larson Company.
Impact on consumers
In 2010, the approximate cost of charging the AC system of a 2,000 square-foot home was $100. This year, the price will likely be around $500 and is expected to hit $800 or more by 2014. Gause said that every home or business owner who has needed to add, needs to add or may need to add refrigerant to their AC system will eventually be affected by the ban.
“It was surprising to me as a homeowner that this is happening,” said Kim Worton, who owns a six-year-old house in St. George and a five-year-old house in Idaho. “One of our AC systems has only been used once and pretty soon it will be outdated. If either of them did have a problem, I would pay to repair it just because they’re so new.”
Santa Clara resident Jason Connolly opted to replace the seven-year-old system in his family’s house last year, after a string of costly and inconvenient repairs.
“It had a small leak and needed a charge of R-22 each spring. Last year, we noticed a sizable increase in the price of the charge, more than double what we had previously paid,” Connolly said. “We made the decision to replace it. So far it has been worth it and we look forward to not paying several hundred dollars to charge it this year. We were also pleased with the decreases in our electric bill.”
Best said that if home or business owners need any repairs or maintenance in the near future, it will be a wiser decision to install a new system. Kirton said that his company encourages consumers to replace their systems, but offers all available alternatives.
The decision to repair or replace is solely the owner’s and depends upon each unique situation. It is important to make an informed decision and consult with industry professionals to gain the best result possible.
“I will always offer the customer as many options as possible as long as the product is available,” Green said. “I have worked with new technology and changes in the industry for many years and most of the time the changes are good for the customers and environment. I encourage new changes and technology and I am really excited to see our industry changing and looking for ways to improve.”
St. George News reporter Dave Amodt contributed to this story.
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