Why Your Freon AC Unit Might Be Picking Your Pocket
If your home’s aging Freon AC system has been needing more frequent repairs while you watch the price of Freon soaring to new heights, you may want to consider replacing it sooner instead of later. This may be a good time to cut your losses, before your air conditioner picks your pocket clean.
Given the choice of paying now or paying later, most people prefer the second option. But in the case of a central air conditioning that uses Freon refrigerant, nursing along an old system can mean you pay now AND later.
The reason is simple: Starting on January 1, 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency will enforce a total ban on the manufacture and import of R-22 refrigerant, commonly known as Freon, which has been used as an air conditioning refrigerant for decades.
Financial Impact of the Freon Phaseout
Does that mean your Freon AC equipment will be illegal next year? No, but it will become increasingly more expensive to maintain – with Freon price increases of 200 – 300 percent quite possible.
The Freon phaseout does mean the supply of Freon is dwindling because after next year only Freon that has been recovered or stashed away somewhere will be available. Applying the law of supply and demand we all learned back in school, the Freon price is steadily increasing despite many air conditioning systems still needing it to operate.
New AC units use refrigerants that are better for the environment and are more energy efficient than Freon. More on that in a minute, but first let’s consider what Freon is and why it’s going away.
Freon Is a Registered Brand Name
Freon has become the common name for R-22 refrigerant, so you will hear it referred to as Freon, R-22 or both. Freon originally was hailed as a miracle invention that offered a safer alternative to refrigerants then in common use, including ammonia, sulfur dioxide, and methyl chloride, all of which are toxic.
Freon became the preferred refrigerant in the late 1920s thanks to researchers led by Charles Kettering, head of research at General Motors. In 1930 GM and the DuPont chemical company formed a startup company to manufacture the new wonder product and trademarked the name Freon.
Other companies have been producing R-22 under different brand names. Regardless, after being used as a stable refrigerant for nearly 100 years, R-22 is headed for the same fate as VCRs and dial-up Internet.
Why Freon AC Refrigerant Will Soon Be a Thing of the Past
Freon is on the way out, quickly, because it is one of a group of chlorofluorocarbons that have been shown to cause depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer – a situation that didn’t come to light until the 1970s.
Without getting too into science here, let’s just say that the ozone layer is extremely important because it’s an upper region of the stratosphere that protects us from most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Imagine this sentence being read by one of those deep, dramatic voices in a movie preview: “In a world where there’s no ozone layer, life on the planet Earth cannot exist.” It’s scary and true.
Your Air Conditioner May Be Part of the Ozone Depletion Problem
You may hear people talk about a “hole in the ozone layer,” but there is no such thing. Ozone depletion is a thinning out of the protective ozone layer. That allows more harmful UV rays to reach Earth’s surface where they cause skin cancer and cataracts, among other problems. The thinnest spots are over the poles, due to colder temperatures there.
Ozone depletion starts when certain chemicals used in air conditioners, fire extinguishers, insulating foams, solvents and aerosol products are released into the air during use. Freon AC units leaking refrigerant are a big part of the problem.
Each time a pressure check is performed on an air conditioner that uses Freon, some of the refrigerant leaks into the air. As a result, many AC techs now measure the differences between outdoor and indoor temperatures, looking for the capability to cool 20 degrees or more. They do refrigerant pressure checks only when necessary.
The EPA prohibited the manufacture of new Freon air conditioning units on January 1, 2010. No, that’s not a typo – the ban of new Freon AC units went into effect more than nine years ago.
Most new central air conditioning units manufactured since that date use R-410A refrigerant, most commonly know by the brand name Puron, but also by brand names of Suva, Forane, EcoFloour, Genetron, AZ-20 and HFC-410A. These refrigerants are non-ozone-depleting and are more efficient that R-22.
Puron is the name trademarked by the Carrier Corporation, which was first to introduce the R-410A refrigerant in home AC systems in 1996.
How Big Will the Increase Be in Freon Cost?
Although the EPA banned the manufacture and installation of Freon AC units back in 2010, existing units are still allowed to use Freon. But the phaseout is upon us and Freon prices are rising.
This is not just a ban by the United States, after all. Freon is in use worldwide. Because of its effects on the environment, the Montreal Protocol international treaty, which includes nearly 200 countries, has restricted the production of R-22 over the years. This is the schedule for phasing out Freon and other hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs):
- 2004: 35 percent reduction (based on 1996 levels)
- 2010: 75 percent reduction
- 2015: 90 percent reduction
- 2020: No production or import of HCFCs, including Freon R22
It’s difficult to predict how much the price will rise, but we can get an idea by looking at what happened in the late 1980s with a similar refrigerant, R-12, that was used in automotive air conditioners. When R-12 was phased out because of environmental concerns, the price spike was immense. By the mid-90s, the price of R-12 had increased by 600 percent.
Freon R-22 is already expensive, sometimes costing $100 or more per pound, and some companies are charging nearly twice that. A Freon leak might require the addition of two-to-three pounds (or more) of refrigerant. Most central air conditioners require 6-to-12 pounds of refrigerant, depending on equipment size and the distance between inside and outside units.
Labor is part of the cost of recharging AC refrigerant in a central air system. For perspective, think in medical terms – the procedure is more like a blood transfusion than an injection from a hypodermic needle. The refrigerant flows gradually from the refrigerant bottle into the AC unit. The lower the refrigerant level and the longer the distance between inside and outside components, the longer the recharge time. This may consume 45-60 minutes, a half hour minimum.
Recharging used to be something ambitious home handymen would take on, but that now is more difficult because: “Only EPA-certified technicians are allowed to purchase ozone-depleting substances (ODS) used as refrigerants.”
Low Refrigerant Is a Symptom, Not the Problem
If you simply recharge your Freon AC unit because it’s low on refrigerant without finding and fixing the leak you haven’t addressed the problem. You will have a temporary solution that sets you up for a repeat performance down the road. In other words, you pay now AND you pay later. You also will be pouring money into an air conditioner that’s at least nine years old, nearing the end of its service life.
Finding and repairing a leak in an evaporator or condenser coil, in the compressor, or somewhere in the refrigerant tubing that connects them can be difficult, perhaps even impossible, to do visually. When you find a refrigerant leak it may make more sense to replace a component than repair it. The cost of replacing a condenser or evaporator coil or a compressor may range from $1,500 – $3,000, depending on the equipment and manufacturer.
When the R-22 ban goes into full effect in 2020 and the supply becomes finite, the price to maintain a Freon air conditioning system will continue to increase. At the same time the likelihood of your aging air conditioning system needing major service keeps going up.
New AC Systems and the Earth-Friendlier R-410A Refrigerant
Considering that new Freon air conditioning systems have been banned since 2010, every Freon AC system is nearing the end of its lifespan (8-12 years in hot climates, 10-15 years elsewhere). If those numbers surprise you, consider that in hot Southern climates air conditioners run the equivalent of driving your car more than 200,000 miles at 65 miles per hour, year after year.
Homeowners will need to decide whether the rising cost of fixing the old air conditioning system, spiked by the scarcity of Freon refrigerant, makes switching to a new system the cost-saving choice.
The new AC unit will almost certainly use R-410A refrigerant, so some facts about it are in order.
- R-410A is approved by the EPA as replacement for Freon.
- R-410A -based systems use less energy than the Freon AC units, making them less expensive to operate and more environmentally friendly.
- R-410A absorbs and releases heat better than Freon, making the AC compressor less likely to overheat.
- R-410A is becoming the standard refrigerant for AC units around the world.
- R-410A systems operate at higher pressure than R-22 systems; you cannot mix components of the two systems.
- R-410A is considerably less expensive than R-22.
If a Freon AC system needs only needs a minor repair, you might consider putting off the purchase of a new system. But as the sun sets on that AC equipment’s lifespan and its refrigerant is on death row, the outlook is bleak-to-terminal. A decade ago, a small Freon leak could be a fairly inexpensive repair, but not now.
You need to make the choice that’s right for you, of course. But remember that whatever money you sink into a repair of Freon air conditioning will not pay off for years to come, if ever.
Other Things to Consider as the Freon Ban Approaches
R-22 and R-410A are not interchangeable as refrigerants, nor can you mix an R-22 compressor or condenser with an R-410A evaporator. Any change requires a full system replacement.
Homeowners sometimes ask if an HVAC system can be modified to switch from Freon to Puron. The answer is yes, but it comes at a steep price because it’s like converting a diesel engine to run on gasoline. Conversion requires replacement of the compressor, evaporator and condenser with those designed for Puron, and that expense still leaves the AC unit with other parts nearing the end of their lifespans, and no whole-system warranty.
More reasons to consider a new air conditioning system:
- Newer AC units run far more efficiently than Freon AC models manufactured 10 or more years ago, frequently achieving savings on utility bills in the 30—50 percent range.
- High-efficiency central air conditioning equipment is available with two-stage and variable-stage compressors that operate work at high, low and intermediate speeds. Older, less efficient equipment usually runs full-out all the time.
- Higher efficiency AC equipment not only result in lower utility bills, it makes homes far more comfortable. Variable-speed compressors run slower for longer periods of time, which enables them to remove more humidity from the air. Many people set their thermostats higher with high-efficiency air conditioning because drier air at 76 degrees, for example, is more comfortable than 72-degree air with higher humidity.
- New U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum are expected to make HVAC equipment prices rise.
The comfort and safety of those in your home are the primary concern, so be alert for some of the common signs that an air conditioner isn’t working properly and consult an HVAC professional.
Air conditioning is a must in this world, and Freon R-22 helped provide us with comfort for nearly a century. But the devastating effects on the environment require us to move to a more Earth-friendly refrigerant. That refrigerant is Puron R-410A, and the benefits of switching to a R-410A-based system go well beyond being “green.”
With a new AC system, homeowners can avoid the rising Freon price, which is expected to spike even more when the EPA ban on its manufacture and import begins Jan. 1, 2020. A new Puron-based HVAC unit also brings the advantages of technological breakthroughs that have created air conditioning systems that are more energy-efficient and less costly to operate than any we’ve ever seen before.
Are you ready to scrap the old Freon AC equipment to cut repairs and utility bills, get some peace of mind and help the environment?