In 1987 most of the world (190 countries) ratified the Montreal Protocol to reduce the use of ozone depleting refrigerants, not only in air-conditioning and refrigeration, but also in aerosol spray cans (like hair spray and spray paint). At that time, the most commonly used refrigerant was R-12 a chlorofluorocarbon (CFC). CFC’s were the most aggressive ozone depleting refrigerants, having the most destructive effect and lasting the longest in the atmosphere before break down. Refrigerants were classified by their ozone depletion potential (ODP), and the CFC’s were the worst, so they have an ODP of 1.0.
In 1996 all of the CFC gasses were phased out of production and no longer used in new equipment. Manufacturers had identified new refrigerants based on hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFC). These were called the transitional refrigerants, much better than the CFC’s in terms of ozone depletion, ODP of 0.05, but not perfect. Most common were R-22 and R-123. These were intended to be a temporary solution until even more ozone friendly refrigerants could be developed.
This changeover and elimination of the commonly used refrigerants caused some chaos in the refrigeration and HVAC service industry. Four of our technicians have been around long enough to have been through this – there was a period of many new replacement refrigerants, some being advertised as drop in replacements for R-12 – but it was never that simple. Of the four or five so called replacement refrigerants some had different operating pressures, or required different types of gaskets. And because these refrigerants were really blends of two or more pure refrigerants, other operating parameters of the refrigerants came to light such as temperature glide, fractionation, non-condensables, and even the efficiency of the refrigerant changed. All the while, R-12 prices went through the roof, so it quickly because important change refrigerants or replace equipment.
Well, here we are again – the last new machines charged with R-22 rolled off the line in 2010, and R-22 production is already being ramped down. By 2030 the only R-22 available will be what is reclaimed from old systems and recycled. Already we are seeing prices for R-22 increase. Many of our customers know that the refrigerant can be one of the most expensive components of a job, even outweighing the cost of a new compressor sometimes – so some customers and contractors are already making the choice to switch to newer refrigerants. Out in the field we are already seeing some of that chaos again, we see some wacky things when refrigerants are mixed because someone didn’t use a strong enough vacuum pump to get all the old refrigerant out. Or the oil wasn’t changed to be compatible with the new refrigerant.
But there is some good news. The newest refrigerants, the hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) have an ODP of 0.0, and they are approved for use with no phaseout date – so hopefully this will be the last time we go through this. Also, the longer time-frame of the phaseout of R-22 should allow owners to keep their R-22 equipment running until they’ve gotten the useful life out of it, and then replace it with a system running an HFC refrigerant like R-410a or R-134-a.
At BlueHat Mechanical we are also prepared. All of our technicians are taking ongoing courses in the new refrigerants and in the subtleties of refrigerant changeovers. And we’ve upgraded our equipment, including buying the best vacuum pumps, to make sure we can properly evacuate all the old refrigerant before installing something new. And, as always, you can trust us to help you make a sensible decision on whether to repair, upgrade or replace equipment in light of the complexities of the refrigeration changes.
And just in case, we have a ton of R-22 stockpiled…