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What’s the real truth about R22/Freon phase out and prices?

There’s lots of information floating around about the phase-out of R22/Freon, but what should you believe and how do you make an informed decision for your home or business? Read this short article for a background regarding refrigerants, the environment, and how to make a good decision about your system.

The technical:

R22/Freon is a hydrochlorofluorocarbon or HCFC.  Chlorofluorocarbons as a broader class, contain chlorine, which is damaging to the ozone layer and bad for the environment. In 1987 an agreement called the Montreal Protocol was signed to begin the worldwide phase out of ozone-depleting CFCs and in 1992 HCFCs were added.  In 2010, manufacturers were no longer able to produce new equipment designed with R22 and at the end of 2020, production and import of R22 will be eliminated. Meaning the phase out of R22 has been planned for almost 30 years.

So in summary, it’s true, the EPA has mandated that no new “virgin” “HCFC 22” can be manufactured or imported after 2020 due to its effect on the environment. It’s also true that at some point R22 will become scarce and very expensive. There have been restrictions from suppliers at certain times over the last couple years, that have inhibited contractor’s ability to buy an unlimited amount. As the market quickly moves to new equipment that uses the 410A/Puron refrigerant the demands for R22 are shrinking and pricing, while elevated, isn’t presently entirely prohibitive.

Stories in the Marketplace:

There is a fairly high prevalence of HVAC companies using the phase out of R22 to scare customers into believing they need to immediately replace their systems. In reality if your system is leaking refrigerant you should either fix or replace it, regardless of the cost of R22. So far we haven’t seen the run on the bank for R22 that everyone predicted. Equipment is getting phased out fast and there are lots of suppliers stockpiling the R22.  There are also many new companies purchasing recovered R22, cleaning/treating it and selling it for reuse as well as several alternatives to Freon being sold.

Alternatives to R22/Freon:

The most common replacement (meaning what’s used on new systems) for R22/Freon is R410A/Puron, but R410A is not a direct replacement.  R410A is not ozone-depleting, but does produce greenhouse gas. R410A operates at different pressures, uses different oils, and is a different compound than R22.  This means parts designed for R22 will not work with R410A, so equipment has to be replaced or a “drop-in” refrigerant will need to be used for direct replacement.  One benefit of R410A is that it is better at absorbing and releasing heat than R22, making it more energy efficient. A drawback of R410A is that while it doesn’t deplete the ozone, it is still considered a “greenhouse gas” and in 2016 the Montreal Protocol adopted a phase down in production and consumption of R410A and other HFCs.

Is there a substitute for R22 to use in old equipment:

There are several “drop-in” refrigerants, that while rarely approved by original equipment manufacturers, can be used with reasonable success in equipment. The trick is figuring out which scenarios it really makes sense for. If you are just a little low on freon, you can’t just “top up” with a drop-in refrigerant. Most refrigerants are not compatible with one another, and mixing refrigerants can cause a variety of issues, the best case scenario being poor performance. The worst case being damaged equipment. The primary scenario where drop-in refrigerants make sense is often the commercial space. An example would be a large and expensive chiller system designed for R22. The system develops a leak and all of the refrigerant escapes (which might be 30 or 40 lbs). At over $100 a pound the costs will add up quickly, but are still less much less than replacing the equipment. If all of the refrigerant has already escaped, replacing with a drop-in alternative might make sense. The system still has to be evacuated and purged of old refrigerant to the greatest extent possible and then a carefully selected alternative can often be used. Consulting with the equipment manufacturer is often advised. In residential scenarios, the replacement refrigerants come into play much less often. If your equipment has a severe leak, it is likely the repair will be expensive and you should consider replacement of the system. We have written a helpful article to help you know when to repair or replace.  

The bottom line

It’s true that R22 is being phased out, but it’s no time to panic. You should still make a decision to fix or replace your system based on the merits and timing that fits your needs, not undue pressure and scare tactics about R22. Make sure you get the facts and discuss the options with an HVAC technician you trust. If you need some help, call us at 919-MONSTER and we’ll be happy to talk about recommendations and options.