If you have an air conditioning unit that is more than about 10 years old, then you have probably noticed that it’s quite expensive to service it. If you’ve needed to top up the Freon, then you may have gotten quite a shock at how expensive it is to do that these days. The price of Freon has skyrocketed recently, and that trend is only set to continue.
What is Freon?
Freon is a refrigerant that is used in air conditioning units. It is a gas that is used in the units, at high pressure,to help support the exchange of heat. Air is brought in and passed through the unit, where it is cooled before being circulated through the room. Heat sinks transfer the heat out of the unit, and into the atmosphere (usually outside the building).
Why is Freon/R-22 Refrigerant So Expensive Now?
Air conditioning units are nothing new, and over the decades they have been powered by a number of different refrigerants. You may remember in the 80s there was a lot of fuss about CFCs, and how they were contributing to the hole in the ozone layer. Freon was a replacement for those early CFCs, but it did not take long for researchers to figure out that Freon, also known as R-22, was better than CFCs, but still not perfect. Freon still contributes to the damage to the ozone layer, and it has a high ‘global warming potential’.
Because of this, the world’s governments came together to reach an agreement that they would all stop using Freon (and other similar refrigerants). Of course they couldn’t just ban the sale of such refrigerants overnight, because there was a huge base of installed air conditioning units that rely on them.
So, rather than an immediate ban, they agreed a long phase out. This started with the agreement that no new air conditioning units could be made that rely on Freon. Anyone who has bought a brand new air conditioning unit in the last few years will find that the unit was either ‘shipped dry’ (but still uses Freon), or that it uses one of the more modern refrigerants instead. Dry shipping units that use Freon is a bit of a loophole and something that is not happening so much now, because it is so hard to get Freon.
The phase out also saw no new Freon being made in developed countries, and banned the marketing and sale of Freon for new units. Right now, the only Freon that can be imported into the country is Freon that is intended for use to service units that already rely on it. The next stage of the phase out will see a complete ban on the production and importing of not just R-22, but other high global warming potential and high ozone-depleting potential gasses. Essentially, as January 2020, if you want to buy Freon the only product you will be able to get is the stuff that sellers have already stockpiled or the gas that is being reclaimed from existing, decommissioned units.
We are nearing the stage where there is a finite supply of Freon, which is constantly being depleted. Demand, while lower now than it was in the past, is high enough that prices are increasing, because of the scarcity of the gas.
What Does the Law Say?
The law is clear. Freon is being phased out and can no longer be made for use in new units. If you already have an air conditioning unit that uses Freon then you are allowed to have it topped up with replacement refrigerant, but there are limitations to thi. Air conditioning technicians are required to make sure that the unit works properly and that it is not leaking before they recharge it. If the unit is leaking, then they must fix the leak before topping up the refrigerant. If they knowingly recharge a leaky unit they are breaking the law. The rules for how much ‘allowable leak’ can occur will be changed to become stricter in January 2019.
If you want to upgrade an old air conditioning unit, then you must make sure that the existing unit is removed and disposed of properly. The refrigerant in the old unit can be extracted for safe disposal, or for reclamation to keep other old units running.
What Should You Use Instead?
There are several options for replacement refrigerants, including some ‘drop in’ refrigerants that can power old units that previously relied on Freon. Bluon is one such example. If you are looking for a replacement, then consider the temperature that the unit typically operates at and the size of the unit, and look at power consumption and efficiency charts. Consider the GWP and ODP of the different refrigerants, and try to pick the most efficient option for your unit.
Do You Have to Replace your HVAC Unit?
You are not legally required to replace your HVAC unit. Some replacements for R-22 do require that you upgrade your compressor, but not all do. If you cannot afford to replace your existing unit then you do have options. If you are in a financial position where you can replace your unit, then you should consider doing so because newer units are quieter, more energy efficient, and consume less power. They are a much better option for most people, and will save you a lot of money in the long run.
It may be worth looking to see if there are green grants in your area, or even government-assisted loans that could help you to invest in a new unit. The potential benefit to the environment is massive, and over the lifetime of the unit (which will be at least a decade, if not a lot longer) you will find that you save a lot of money, and consume a lot less power too. Updating your HVAC unit is one of the easiest ways to reduce your carbon footprint and to protect the ozone layer for future generations.