What does the EPA R-22 Phase-Out Mean to the HVAC Industry?

Published on: May 14, 2013

Refrigerant is the heart of any machine that uses a cooling cycle, from the first air conditioners invented by Willis Haviland Carrier more than a century ago to contemporary air conditioners and heat pumps. The refrigerant chemicals physically transfer heat out of the home, cooling residents down in the summer; in some systems, this cycle reverses to transfer outdoor heat to the indoor air. Because refrigerants play such a vital role in the HVAC industry, manufacturers have been working to make them cleaner, safer and more efficient for generations. The most significant recent development in the progress of refrigerants is the current EPA R-22 Phase-Out.

The Cooling Cycle

Every modern air conditioner uses a simple property of matter to transfer heat: the phase change. Liquid substances that evaporate to become gases consume heat in the process; likewise, gases that condense and become liquid release that previously absorbed heat. An air conditioner cools the home by allowing chemicals to evaporate at the indoor coil, pumping them to the outdoor coil and forcing them to condense under intense pressure. This cooling cycle is a fairly efficient process because the chemicals are never “used up” along the way; they merely change phase continuously from liquid to gas and back again.

Heat pumps are reversible air conditioners that can run the cooling cycle in either direction. In the summer, they collect heat from inside and transfer it out; in the winter, the cycle runs in the opposite direction as the chemicals evaporate outside the home and condense inside. The power of the cooling cycle is such that heat pumps run quite efficiently in either cycle, especially in areas with fairly mild climates.

Because this cycle is at the heart of every air conditioner, the HVAC industry needs chemicals that can evaporate and condense at relatively low temperatures. Thus, since Willis Carrier invented the first air conditioner a century ago, the search has been on for the right refrigerant chemicals to handle the load.

A Brief History of Refrigerants

Early Cooling Systems

The first modern cooling systems were designed for large-scale industrial and commercial applications, and they used a wide range of refrigerant chemicals to accomplish their purposes. Ammonia and carbon dioxide emerged as popular choices for these large-scale systems. As refrigeration and air conditioning shifted to smaller-scale applications, new refrigerants such as sulfur dioxide and methylene chloride entered common usage. Since different chemicals evaporate and condense under different conditions, there is no single best refrigerant for every application.

While these early refrigerants had the right chemical properties for the cooling cycle, many of them were highly toxic or flammable gases, which made them dangerous to human handlers. After a series of deadly accidents, the HVAC industry set out to create a safe refrigerant.

The Invention of Freon

In 1928, a team of chemists led by Thomas Midgley Jr. created the first modern refrigerant gas, Freon. A type of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), Freon offered the desirable chemical properties of older refrigerants in a safe, non-flammable, non-toxic package. This invention effectively led to the first big phase-out in the HVAC industry, as manufacturers quickly abandoned older refrigerants to use this dedicated chemical.

Today, the term “Freon” actually refers to a wide range of refrigerant chemicals with different physical and chemical properties. By convention, refrigerant names use the letter R accompanied by a number that describes the molecular structure. Common refrigerants include R-11, R-12, R-22 and R-134A.

R-22 refrigerant, the focus of the current EPA phase-out, is chemically known as Chlorodifluoromethane. First introduced in the mid-twentieth century, R-22 has been the refrigerant of choice for home air conditioners for decades.

Ozone Controversy

Decades after the invention of Freon, concerns began to mount that chlorofluorocarbons contributed to depletion of the ozone layer and to global warming. Because these chemicals actually destroy ozone when released into the air, they gradually destroy a portion of the Earth’s atmosphere that prevents harmful ultraviolet radiation from reaching the surface. CFCs also act as greenhouse gases, which contribute to rising global temperatures and major environmental concerns such as the melting of the polar ice caps.

The first refrigerant to be targeted by environmental organizations was R-12, which for decades had been used in automotive heating and cooling systems. R-12 has now been banned in the United States and elsewhere for almost two decades. Next, the world turned its attention to R-22.

Timeline of the EPA Phase-Out

Because R-22 was so heavily entrenched in the HVAC industry for decades prior to the introduction of EPA regulations, eliminating its use was not as simple as just banning the chemical outright. Instead, HVAC manufacturers have been required to cut down and gradually cut out use of the refrigerant over time. All of these regulations went into effect on January 1st of the listed year.

  • 2004: The Montreal Protocols, signed by the US, required the first reduction in R-22 production. The United States is required to reduce its consumption of R-22 by 35 percent.
  • 2010: The next stage of the Montreal Protocol calls for R-22 consumption to fall 75 percent below the baseline. EPA regulations ban manufacturers from using R-22 in new air conditioners and heat pumps, although small quantities may still be produced to service existing equipment.
  • 2015: As the phase-out process nears completion, use of R-22 must drop to 90 percent below the original baseline. Manufacturers are still permitted to produce very small quantities of R-22 for service purposes, but that quantity falls every year.
  • 2020: By this point, use of R-22 is required to fall 99.5 percent below the original baseline, and manufacturers are no longer permitted to produce R-22 for service purposes.

Thus, after January 1st, 2020, the only legal source of R-22 to service existing air conditioners and heat pumps will be reclaimed and recycled refrigerant from other systems. Because most HVAC systems are designed to last about 10 years, it is expected that there will be few remaining systems that require R-22 by the time the refrigerant is completely phased out.

Replacing R-22: R-410A Refrigerant

As R-22 may no longer be used in new air conditioners and heat pumps, manufacturers are required to transition to new refrigerant chemicals to keep their systems running. The current standard-bearer in the industry is R-410A, first used by Carrier under the brand name Puron. Because R-410A contains only fluorine, replacing the bromine and chlorine that existed in previous refrigerants, it does not contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. It does, however, have a global warming potential comparable to that of R-22.

Effects on the HVAC Industry

Because manufacturers are only permitted to produce R-22 in very small quantities, contractors have had to work very hard to reclaim and recycle existing refrigerant up to EPA standards. R-22 is becoming harder to come by and significantly costlier to obtain. Thus, whenever contractors replace an aging air conditioner or heat pump that uses R-22, the technicians must take great care to keep the R-22 in usable condition for service purposes.

Effects on Consumers

In order to keep making a profit on their heating and air conditioning services, HVAC contractors need to push some of the cost of acquiring R-22 onto their customers. Thus, if you have an older unit with a refrigerant leak, you will have to pay an increased fee to reload it with fresh R-22 refrigerant. Likewise, if your existing system needs to be replaced, you will be charged a fee for the recycling of the existing R-22 in the system. As the EPA R-22 phase-out continues, the cost of servicing older air conditioners will continue to rise.

Since R-22 can no longer be used in new systems, all replacement air conditioners and heat pumps use new R-410A refrigerant. Thus, if you upgrade to a new system, you will benefit from reduced service costs, as R-410A is now substantially cheaper to obtain than R-22. Furthermore, you can rest assured that your air conditioner will not contribute to the erosion of the ozone layer even if there is a leak.

Ultimately, the R-22 phase-out encourages contractors and homeowners alike to transition to new air conditioners and heat pumps that use clean R-410A refrigerant. Because the HVAC industry is constantly working to make better, quieter, more efficient systems, the benefits of upgrading have always been substantial. The R-22 phase-out, then, provides an added incentive for customers to get rid of their old air conditioners and replace them with current models that use environmentally friendly refrigerant. In short, there has never been a better time to call one of our AC Southeast® dealers in your area and choose a new air conditioner or heat pump that will meet your family’s cooling needs.