If your air conditioner is older than 11 years, your system likely runs on R-22 refrigerant. R-22, or HCFC-22, is the most widely used refrigerant in the United States. HCFCs are also ozone depleting chemicals, and by 2020 no more R-22 refrigerant will be manufactured or imported into the country. This upcoming ban on new R-22 means it’s time to take a hard look at your old air conditioner. R-22 supplies are currently stable, and there’s still time to make an informed and thoughtful decision about your units. In this article, we’ll go over the history of the R-22 phase-out decision, what it means for your air conditioners, and what to do about it.

A short history.

Although the R-22 Phaseout began within the past decade, the principle idea for it started in 1987 as a result of the Montreal Protocol. The Montreal Protocol was “an international environmental agreement . . . to protect the earth’s ozone layer by eliminating use of ozone depleting substances.” Signed by 197 countries, the agreement kick-started the removal of CFCs, the pre-cursor to the HCFCs that are being phased out now.

The current 2020 R-22 Phaseout is the third stage of the EPA’s four-part plan. This twenty-year program started in 2010 and will end in 2030 with a complete ban on the import and production of all HCFCs. The first half of the phaseout focused on removing R-22, as well as R-142b, from circulation except for use in refrigeration equipment. Now, as 2020 draws closer, all remaining production and imports of those two HCFCs will cease. The last phase in 2030 will make sure all other HCFCs manufacturing in the U.S. ends, and no more imports accepted.

What it means for your equipment.

So now you know the history of the phaseout, when and why it’s happening, but the main question remains: What does it mean for your air conditioners? Per a recent article in PHC News magazine[1], the good news is that there is currently enough R-22 in circulation to avoid an immediate shortage. With roughly 12 million pounds of new R-22 brought to the U.S. from 2018 to 2019, and a reported 100+ million pounds reclaimed since roughly 2010, the market should be well-supplied.

Existing R-22 equipment also provides a reservoir of potentially recyclable refrigerant. HVACR technicians already recover R-22 during refrigerant repairs. By 2020, recovering and recycling of used R-22 should be common-place, as this will be the only method to return this refrigerant to the market. Future reclaims will help bolster existing supplies.

However, not all R-22 that’s recovered can be recycled. Refrigerant that’s become too contaminated due to exposure or damage to the system will have to be destroyed.

Assessing and planning for the change.

If you have R-22 equipment, it may be time to consider a game plan for it. Remember that the dawn of 2020 doesn’t mean you can’t continue to use, and repair, your system. Reclaimed R-22 will remain available for purchase as long as supplies hold. But you should take the time to assess your air conditioner and plan your future budget accordingly.

Consider the condition of your R-22 unit:

  • Does your unit suffer from frequent failures, especially refrigerant leaks or compressor failures? An air conditioner with damaged or rusted coils, for example, has a higher likelihood of refrigerant leaks. If you continue to pay for repairs for a leaky system, remember the inevitable increasing costs of R-22 refrigerant as you do.
  • How old is your system, does it still keep your business cool? The older a unit, the lower its efficiency. All R-22 units are a minimum of 11 years old, as all units manufactured after 2008 are required to use the newer R-410A.
  • What type of costs would work better with your budget? Like any heavily used equipment, those older R-22 systems will inevitably require repairs as they age. It may be that the cost of a new air conditioner seems steep up front. Consider, however, the price to keep a 20 year old system functional for another 10 years. Fan motor replacements, new compressors, a replacement coil. Add in the visits for electrical or refrigerant leak repairs, and you might end up spending the full price of a new unit, and still be left with that same old R-22 system.

Besides replacing your R-22 unit, you can also consider retrofitting it to run on a different refrigerant type. While you can’t swap it straight to the newer R-410A, replacement refrigerants can be a cheaper option to combat the eventual rise of R-22’s cost. The catch with the retrofit is a loss of efficiency. A unit that was designed to run on R-22, even after retrofitting, will not run as well on a swapped in refrigerant. If your unit is already older and not running well to begin with, the swap may not be the best long term solution.

With the phase-out of R-22 drawing nearer, you might feel pressured to make a decision about your old AC. Take our advice and have a conversation with your HVAC contractor before you make any commitments. Your contractor can help you review your options, like the ones we’ve gone over in this article, and help you make the best choice for you, your business, and your budget.

Don’t have a contractor, or need a second opinion? Any of our Customer Support team will be happy to take you call at 800-273-7710.

[1] Waggoner, M. (2019, January). What You Need to Know about the R-22 Phaseout. PCH News, Vol 19(1), 88-90.