All air conditioners and heat pumps, whether they are ductless or central air systems, require refrigerant to run. For several decades, the refrigerant of choice was R-22, often referred to as "Freon."
However, R-22 refrigerant is now on its way out. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is overseeing an R-22 refrigerant phaseout, which will see the product essentially eliminated from the U.S. market within a few years. This R-22 refrigerant phaseout is having a significant impact on the air conditioning industry, and on the choices faced by homeowners with R-22 air conditioners or heat pumps.
Why Get Rid of R-22?
R-22 is part of a class of chemicals known as hydrochlorofluorocarbons, or HCFCs for short. HCFCs contain chlorine, which can be very damaging to the ozone layer; one chlorine atom has the potential to destroy up to 100,000 ozone molecules. Less ozone means that more ultraviolet (UV) rays can reach the Earth's surface, increasing the risk of sunburns and skin cancer.
R-22 is also a powerful greenhouse gas, and the process of manufacturing R-22 produces more greenhouse gases as a byproduct. So, although R-22 is a refrigerant that can cool your home, it can actually cause global warming and raise temperatures outside.
Even with these problems, the R-22 refrigerant phaseout would likely not be taking place if there was not a more environmentally friendly refrigerant to replace it. The primary refrigerant replacing R-22 is R-410A, sometimes referred to as "Puron." R-410A is a hydrofluorocarbon (HFC), which lacks the ozone-depleting chlorine of R-22. It is still a greenhouse gas, but is considered safer overall than HCFCs.
The R-22 Refrigerant Phaseout Process
The Montreal Protocol, an international environmental agreement first signed in 1987, is the official reason for the R-22 refrigerant phaseout. It was amended in the 1990s to provide a schedule for phasing out HCFCs. The phaseout process became U.S. law through the Clean Air Act, which the EPA is in charge of implementing.
The R-22 refrigerant phaseout process, which is already well underway, consists of several steps.
- A baseline amount of HCFCs was set, equal to the U.S. consumption in one year before the phaseout took effect.
- Targets were then set for how much HCFC use had to be cut each year compared to the baseline amount. At first, these cuts affected other HCFCs, but not R-22.
- In 2010, HCFC use had to be 75 percent less than the baseline amount. That same year, the EPA prohibited the use of R-22 refrigerant in new A/C or heat pump systems; it could only be used to service systems that were already installed. This effectively meant that no new equipment designed to work with R-22 could be manufactured from 2010 on.
- By 2015, HCFC use must be cut by 90 percent compared to the baseline level. To reach that target, the EPA has been decreasing the amount of new R-22 it allows on the market each year, with current inventories sitting about one-half the 2010 levels.
- By 2020, HCFC use must be cut by 99.5 percent. This effectively means that no new R-22 will be available after 2020.
In addition to the R-22 refrigerant phaseout schedule, HVAC technicians are required to use due care during service or repairs to prevent the refrigerant from escaping into the outside air. That includes recapturing and reusing the R-22 that is inside existing A/C units.
Effects of the R-22 Refrigerant Phaseout
The R-22 refrigerant phaseout affects homeowners in several ways.
- Higher refrigerant prices. The supply of R-22 has been dropping faster than demand, causing the price to increase dramatically. The price will likely continue to increase throughout the R-22 refrigerant phaseout process. This directly impacts the cost of A/C service, and may make getting a new air conditioner cheaper in the long run than repairing an old system.
- Incompatible parts. R-410A operates at a higher pressure than R-22. It cannot be used in older R-22 air conditioners unless you overhaul the system with new parts. That also means you typically cannot upgrade one part of an old A/C system without replacing the whole thing.
- Obsolete systems. After 2020, the only R-22 available to service old air conditioners will have to be reclaimed from other old systems. It will therefore be difficult to keep R-22 air conditioners running, and they will all eventually have to be replaced by R-410A systems.
If you have any questions about the R-22 refrigerant phaseout and how it affects your A/C options, please contact the experts at your local Mitsubishi Electric HVAC dealer.