The end is near for R-22. Or is it? The answer to that question varies wildly depending on who you ask in the industry.
In an effort to protect the Earth’s ozone layer, the U.S. government agreed to phase out chlorinated refrigerants under the Montreal Protocol. Since 2006, production has been throttled down from 205 million pounds to 110 million pounds in 2010, 8 million pounds in 2019, and no new production starting Jan. 1, 2020. Given its six-year phaseout schedule, most HVACR contractors have adequately prepared for life without R-22.
“The market for contractors has already adjusted,” said Bryan Orr, owner of a Clermont, Florida-based residential and light commercial contracting company. “There’s a massive amount of stockpiling that’s already occurred. Beyond the stockpiles, there will be a lot of reclaimed gas as well. As demand decreases and systems start to age out of the market, demand for R-22 will continue to decrease.”
While most contractors are well informed about the reduction in R-22 production, consumers are not, which Orr said is enticing some in the industry to pursue predatory actions and scare tactics in the name of greater profits.
“Some contractors are telling customers that their R-22 systems must be replaced immediately because they’re now operating illegally,” Orr said. “These statements are being made out of complete ignorance. R-22 will be around for several years. Those opting to scare customers into replacement systems lack integrity.”
Greg Fox, owner of a Rancho Cordova, California-based residential contracting company, references similar encounters in his market.
“One customer we recently worked with had hired a contractor through a big-box store. That contractor told him he was unable to fix the unit’s condenser fan motor because the system utilized R-22,” Fox said. “”The contractor told the customer that R-22 was illegal to use, and that he could lose his license if he worked on their system. We came out for a second opinion and replaced the condenser fan motor, since the customer said he was looking to get a few more years out of the system. I ended up selling him some 407C. It’s really sad that some contractors are more interested in making maximum money off a system replacement than actually serving their customers.”
CYLINDERS PER TRUCK
The prohibition of new R-22 production is likely to provoke contractors to seek alternative gases. This begs the question: As a contractor, what refrigerants, and how many cylinders of each, should I carry on my service truck?
John P. Maiorana, product support manager, Forane Refrigerants, Arkema Inc., said most residential contractors should consider carrying three or four cylinders and two reclaim cylinders.
“You need to have R-22, since R-22 is still the optimal gas in terms of capacity and efficiency; R-410A; and a retrofit gas that is meant to mimic the characteristics of R-22,” he said. “Each manufacturer has its own flavor. Arkema has 427A, and others are 438A, 422D, etc. You may also want to consider a nonproprietary product such as 407C, which is popular because it’s less costly and has been tested by some OEM’s however, it must be used with POE oil.”
When using an alternate refrigerant, Maiorana said contractors must pay close attention to the oil being used — especially those operating on commercial systems.
“On the big commercial side, outside of packaged units, I always recommend changing the oil over to POE, and once that’s done, contractors can choose to use R-22 or whatever HFC retrofit they prefer. There are always tradeoffs when using another refrigerant other than those that are OEM-specified. You may lose capacity and/or efficiency, flow rates change so expansion devices might need adjustment, and in some cases, such as when using 407C, head pressure will rise increasing the probability for leaks.”
Mark Love, account manager, Chemours, said residential and commercial contractors should be able to adequately do the job with two gases: R-410A and a single R-22 replacement.
“If I were a contractor, I wouldn’t even stock R-22 on my trucks,” he said. “Contractors should aim to be free of R-22 within the next 24 months. R-22 will certainly be available through 2020 — you can get it if you need it. But over the next two cooling seasons, you should be doing everything you can to transition away from R-22.”
On the commercial side, Love insists contractors should aim to fully convert qualified systems to an R-22 replacement rather than use R-22.
“We recommend contractors pull all gas out of a system on the spot and convert it to whatever R-22 replacement they’re comfortable with,” he said. “This will help them standardize their customer base. After that, they’re in charge of the refrigerant situation for years to come.”
MIX AND MATCH
While dozens of R-22 replacements are available, each of the experts we spoke with agreed it’s never appropriate for a contractor to “top off” an R-22 system with an R-22 replacement.
“If you happen to put in a different gas than what’s in there, you’re creating new chemistry — a new refrigerant,” Fox said. “None of the R-22 alternatives serve as drop-ins for R-22. Putting a different gas in a system can really screw up the pressures within that equipment.”
While Orr agrees it’s an absolute no-no to mix refrigerants, he said those who do are doing so without penalty.
“If contractors top off a system, there are zero consequences right now,” he said. “There are no incentives for those who opt to play by the rules and no consequences for those who break them. This is a serious problem in our industry.”
When servicing a system, Orr recommends using printed paper or engraved data tags to keep track of the refrigerant inside.
“Taking a sharpie out and scribbling the refrigerant name on the box is not enough,” he said. “Tags should be attached on the quarter panel as closely to the ports as possible. The more pieces of identification you can leave, the better, and make sure whatever you’re marking with will not disappear over time.”
WHAT’S THE FUTURE HOLD?
As more and more manufacturers develop proprietary refrigerants, will contractors be best served to “hitch their wagons” to specific brands going forward?
Air-Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) recently announced significant changes to its refrigerant container color protocol that will require all cylinders carry the same color, RAL 7044, beginning in January 2020. Are colorful cylinders a benefit or hindrance for contractors?
As the government cracks down on hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a gang of different types of refrigerants — including hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), CO2, propane, ammonia, and more — are becoming more popular. How will this impact the types of refrigerants contractors carry in their vans? Check out the next issue of “HVAC News & Headlines” for answers to these questions and more.