As atmospheric knowledge advanced, scientists realized that R22 wasn’t that great for the environment: chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) like R22 were helping to create an expanding hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica. Since ozone absorbs ultraviolet radiation, which can contribute to maladies such as cataracts and skin cancer, the EPA, in conjunction with other agencies and groups around the world, began to phase out many ozone-depleting substances as part of an international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol. Although the protocol lists many CFCs, R22 is widely considered to be the major culprit in the depletion of the ozone layer.
In 2003, the Montreal-Protocol-mandated phase-out of R22 production and imports kicked in. By the year 2020, production and imports will be banned altogether. It’s still acceptable to service current, existing equipment with an available supply of R22. However, after 2020 only recycled R22 refrigerant can be used.
Of course, the older the air conditioning unit, the more likely it is to need repairs, and any pre-2010 air conditioners probably use R22. With increasing demand and ever-diminishing supply, R22 prices are spiraling upward.
The remaining R22 supply is tightly controlled because the chemical can only be purchased by an EPA- certified technician. There are also strict regulations for R22 reclamation and recycling, which further raise the price. As companies scramble to cover the increased overhead R22 repairs are incurring, they’re passing these fees on to their residential customers.
If you haven’t had to deal with any cooling system concerns for the past several years, you may not even know whether your system uses R22 or not. However, at least in this case, ignorance is not bliss. Since R22 will become much more expensive in January 2020, it behooves you to figure out which refrigerant your system runs on. The easiest way to do this is to hire a technician to tune up your system and ask whether your unit uses R22 or R410a.
If you prefer to go the do-it-yourself route, though, you can also find this information by looking at your appliance’s nameplate, which is typically found on the outdoor condenser of your central AC unit. Refer to your owner’s manual if you can’t locate the number on the nameplate, or reach out to a local repairman. Also, if you have a maintenance agreement, simply call the service company, which has that information on hand.
To replace R22, the cooling industry has come up with R410a, commonly known as Puron. Although Puron is a well-known brand name, some companies use different trade names, so this article will call the new refrigerant R410a.
R410a systems improve on R22 ones in several ways. R410a provides a higher safety rating, it doesn’t deplete the ozone layer whatsoever, and it’s even slightly more energy efficient than R22.
Unfortunately, despite what you may have heard about “drop-in” replacements for R22, there’s no such thing. You can’t just swap out R410a in a system that’s designed to run on R22. The term “drop-in” refers to retrofitting an R22 system to run on R410a. When this is done properly, it costs customers as much, or even more, as buying a new unit that runs on R410a. The two refrigerants operate at different pressure levels and need different parts to run, so the tech needs to replace the most expensive parts of the system anyway. If this isn’t done, your system will quickly give up the ghost, and you’ll need to install a new unit anyway.
Moreover, your manufacturer may well refuse to pay for the components needed to retrofit your system because installing those parts will probably void the warranty. If your HVAC unit is on its last legs anyway, it’s best to bite the bullet and invest in a new unit. To avoid emergencies on a hot day and to save money by taking advantage of off-season pricing, many homeowners decide to proactively replace their old AC systems before they stop working. If you’re leaning toward that decision, you’re in good company! You’ll reap the benefits of your new system in dependability, satisfaction, and long-term comfort.
Of course, installing a new air conditioning system is a significant expense, so you’ll want to get estimates from several companies. If you can’t come up with the money all at once or you prefer not to decimate your emergency fund, ask about financing plans to help smooth out your costs. Also, make sure to inquire about any manufacturer and utility rebates that are available.
Most post-2010 systems use the new ozone-friendly refrigerant R410a, so you should be safe. However, it’s possible that even systems installed after 2010 use R22. You can always ascertain whether your system uses R22 or R410a by checking the nameplate on your condenser, which is the outside unit.
To review, if your HVAC unit was manufactured before January 2010, and especially if it’s older than that, you have these options:
To be clear, the EPA regulates the production and use of R22, but you’re not required by law to replace a unit that uses R22. At some point, though, your system will need to be replaced, and you won’t be able to buy a R22 unit.
Your most straightforward option is to buy a new, upgraded air conditioner, especially if your current air conditioner is already more than 10 years old. New AC equipment can be more energy efficient and give you superior comfort and lower energy costs.
Change is hard at the beginning and messy in the middle, but it’s worth it at the end. Although Installing a new HVAC system may be a hassle, you can console yourself by looking at the bigger picture and realizing that you’re helping repair the ozone layer by replacing the environmental foe R22 with the environmental friend R410a.
If the Montreal Protocol—remember, that’s the agreement that phased out ozone-depleting chemicals, especially R22—had never been enacted or enforced, scientists estimate that Antarctica’s ozone hole would have grown 40% by 2013. As things stand now, though, the hole is expected to heal completely by 2040 to 2050, thus saving us from blind sheep (radiation from the sun that isn’t blocked by ozone is thought to contribute to cataracts) and increases in skin cancer cases. And just think—you, as a homeowner who replaces an old R22 unit with an ozone-friendly R410a unit—are part of this heartwarming, much-needed environmental success story.