Why Is Air Conditioning Refrigerant So Expensive?
If you have an older air conditioning system, chances are that an air conditioning company has added refrigerant to it. If this was within the past couple of years, then you were probably very shocked when you saw the price per pound.
Montreal Protocol and Clean Air Act
There are two main refrigerants used in home air conditioners: R-410a and R-22. R-22, Chlorodifluoromethane, Diflouromonochlormethane, or HCFC-22 all refer to the same refrigerant that was used in almost all home air conditioners up until around 2010. Since it is a hydrochloroflourocarbon, it has ozone depletion potential.
Under the Montreal Protocol and Clean Air Act the US was required to phase out HCFC's by 2020 and required to meet certain benchmarks along the way. Effective January 1, 2010, the US had to reduce its HCFC usage by 75% below the preset baseline cap. R-22 was not the only HCFC affected by this, and some HCFC's were easier to phase out. After 2010 manufacturers cannot produce new equipment with R-22. The EPA sets the production limits for R-22 each year.
Due to the speculative market of R-22 and high wholesale prices, consumers have borne the brunt of the price spike. The price the consumer pays is based on: the price the dealer paid for the R-22, the cost to replenish the dealer's stock of R-22, and the mark up the dealer uses to cover overhead, labor costs, and make a small profit. Consumers can expect to see prices around $100.00 -$150.00 per pound from a licensed dealer, as of October 2013. Prices will continue to rise each year as the EPA reduces production limits to meet the phase out by 2020.
Only EPA licensed and trained professionals can purchase HCFC's.
With these increased prices, illicit activities have increased. Many Organized Crime groups have been arrested for smuggling in R-22 from countries not participating in the Montreal Protocol. Beware of anyone offering to sell R-22 directly to consumers without verifying a EPA card. It is likely the refrigerant came from illegal means.
Prices will continue to rise as production and stockpiles decrease. By 2020 all R-22 needs will have to be met from recycling existing R-22.
What to watch for
If you see anyone "venting" R-22 into the air, please notify the EPA and Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. All R-22 should be reclaimed and only de minimis amounts are allowed to escape, such as when the air conditioning technician disconnects the hoses from the condenser. A small amount will escape.
Your home air conditioner is a closed loop. If you have to pay someone every year to add refrigerant to the system, there is a leak that should be repaired. The most common location for a leak is in the evaporator coil. Attempting to repair evaporator coil leaks is almost always a bad decision. By the time an evaporator coil develops a leak more leaks will soon follow. A new evaporator coil should be installed. There are some products marketed as leak stoppers, but we do not recommend using them. In homes where a leak stopper is used and we are putting in a new air conditioning system, the existing refrigerant lines must be cleaned very well. The leak stopper can clog the expansion valve in the new system, preventing it from working. It will also diminish the efficiency of the existing system and damage internal components.
R-22 should never be reused without undergoing a complete cleaning process from a recycling facility. Some struggling contractors have reused R-22 from systems they replaced. This can introduce contaniments into your refrigerant lines. The refrigerant lines should only contain refrigerant. Anything else can corrode the lines, which will lead to a leak, or cause premature system failure. New R-22 comes in a green metal cylinder. The recovery cylinders used to store old refrigerant are typically yellow and gray.
Dry Charge Systems
The EPA does not allow new systems to be produced with R-22; however, they do allow new systems to be produced that are R-22 compatible, but do not have any refrigerant added. These systems are typically the lowest tier of equipment for efficiency. They are less expensive to start, but the lifespan of a typical air conditioner is from 10-15 years. The price of R-22 in 2020 (only a little over six years from now) will be astronomical since R-22 will no longer be produced. Saving a little bit today will definitely cost you more down the road if you develop a leak.
Alternate "Drop In" Replacement Refrigerants for R-22
Some air conditioning contractors are offering their customers alternate refrigerant blends that are marketed as "drop in" replacements for R-22. None of these are endorsed by HVAC equipment manufacturers and will void all warranties if used. The replacement refrigerants will also reduce system efficiencies when used. A common problem we see is air conditioning contractors "topping off" the charge with the drop in refrigerant. This is not the correct way to do this nor do the refrigerant manufacturers recommend this. When using a replacement refrigerant, all existing R-22 must be recovered from the system. The drier should be replaced. Oil should be added per the directions. The entire refrigerant charge should be the replacement refrigerant. A sticker should be placed on the condenser notifying every one of the new refrigerant. The common alternate refrigerants are MO99, R-427a, and R-422b. Wholesale costs on all these refrigerants are near 66% of R-22. To replace a typical 12 pound charge in a residential system would be $792.00 for just the alternate refrigerant. An oil change and new drier may be needed as well.
Dangerous replacement refrigerants
Some companies are marketing a replacement known as R-22a, Enviro Safe, or Mr. Frosty. This refrigerant is almost 100% propane. It is discouraged from use by the EPA in home air conditioning systems and is illegal to sell it as such. Propane is highly combustible, so if a leak were to develop, the consequences could be dire.
Most new air conditioners on the market use R-410a refrigerant. It is also known as Puron and Forane 410a. It is not an ozone depleting HCFC, although it does have 2088 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. R-410a operates under much higher pressures so systems designed for R-22 cannot use R-410a unless specifically noted (some systems have been designed to allow for the switch from R-22 to R-410a with a few system modifications such as replacement of the expansion valve and replacement of the drier). The current price per pound to replace R-410a starts around $30.00 a pound.
Main Points to Remember:
R-22 is being phased out and prices will continue to rise.
If shopping for a new system, ensure it uses R-410a.
Alternate refrigerants have their place, but ensure they are used correctly.
Do not use R-22a as a replacement refrigerant.