HFCs Lurking in Your Air Conditioning System?

If you have an older central air conditioning system, it could be leaking HFCs without your knowledge.

One of the most important accomplishments of the Montreal Protocol, where the world came together to successfully address the growing ozone hole, is the phase-out of super-greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are used in refrigeration, air conditioning, and insulating foams.

Phasing out HFCs is also hugely important for slowing down climate change – they are among what’s known as "climate forcers."

By 2015, the US agreed to cut production and imports of HCFC-22 to 10% of levels from 10 years ago.

And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been following through. It enacted strict bans on HCFC production and since 2010, has banned sales of new air conditioning systems that use HFCs. EPA also encourages the gas to be recycled from old machines to prevent release into the atmosphere. That recycled gas is supposed to be use to fix older units.

But getting full compliance isn’t so easy. Some 140 million older central air conditioners across the US still use that coolant.

Decades-old habits among air-conditioning repair and services conspire to keep it use, as illustrated in a New York Times article

The story recounts the experience of Connecticut homeowner Mark Spector, whose aging central air-conditioning system stopped working over the summer. 

Instead of finding and repairing the leak, the service technician pumped in more coolant – which leaked out by the next day,  flaunting EPA’s rules. Then the repairman offered to replace the condenser unit, but with one that still uses HCFC-22.

"The US has aggressively pressed poor countries to pick up the pace [to phase out the coolants]. But the US has yet to put its own house in order," says the New York Times.

"Leaks abound in working equipment. Coolant seeps out of discarded equipment in landfills. Regulatory loopholes allow manufacturers to sell parts that rely on HCFC-22, so systems using the old gas can be refurbished rather than replaced. There is almost no reclamation of the gas from old machines for recycling. The E.P.A. is behind schedule in imposing rules to ratchet down domestic production, and smuggling is rarely detected. Even where there are regulations – for example, repair technicians are legally bound to collect old gas rather than vent it – there is little enforcement."

This anecdote is apparently a common one. Older condenser units are still on the market, but without the coolant gas. After it’s installed, techicians add the gas. Homeowners would rather repair an old system rather than replace it because it’s about three times cheaper.

“It’s probably legal since you could claim it’s just servicing, but it’s ethically disturbing and not fair to companies who’ve spent a lot to develop new products,” Dr. Andersen, director of research at the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, told the New York Times.

The situation shows how difficult it is to make changes across an economy. Most homeowners aren’t aware of the rules, much less which coolant their air conditioning system uses.

Clearly the EPA needs to eliminate loopholes that extend the use of these harmful gases.

Concentrations of HCFC-22 in the atmosphere are more than double that of 20 years ago, partly due to leaks in faulty or old equipment, and also because service personnel dispose of coolants in the cheapest way. They cut a line and simply let the gas leak out (into the atmosphere) rather than siphoning it off. 

“There are contractors out there who refuse to make the investment in recovery equipment to reclaim or recover refrigerants, and no one is looking, so — phsssst — they let the refrigerant escape,” a New Jersey service technician told the NYTimes.

Some larger companies have paid fines for HCFC-22 leaks but the EPA has yet to prosecute a residential service company for something like this. You can, however, report potential violations here.

The European Union has moved far more aggressively on this matter – only recycled HCFC-22 can be legally used to service equipment. Other countries, such as Australia and Japan, make recovery of the gas from old appliances mandatory and pay a fee for collection.

The US EPA has no plans for either recycling requirements or incentives, preferring to rely on market pressures. It was supposed to announce new rules to limit domestic production to force recovery and reuse, but that was back in May.

Read the full New York Times article:

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Comments on “HFCs Lurking in Your Air Conditioning System?”

  1. Jessica Mahoney

    If you have airconditioner at home it is best if you check it always. Maintenance is very important so that you wont pay for for the repair of your unit.


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