R-22 Phaseout: What does it mean for air conditioners and heat pumps currently in operation?

Definitions—CFC, HCFC, HFC

There are four types of refrigerant that we will discuss to better understand why the phaseout is being implemented. The two refrigerants you will see in most residential air conditioners and heat pumps are R-22 and R-410a, so those are what we will focus on.

CFC = Chlorofluorocarbons (chlorine, fluorine, carbon) R-12, R-502
HCFC = Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (hydrogen, chlorine, fluorine, carbon) R-22, R-123
HFC = Hydrofluorocarbons (hydrogen, fluorine, carbon) R-410a, R-134a
HFO = Hydrofluoroolefins (hydrogen, fluorine, carbon) R-1234yf

These refrigerants are listed in order of the greatest ozone depletion potential (ODP) to the least. CFCs and HCFCs have high ozone depletion potential, while HFCs and HFOs have zero ODP.

The main culprit in ozone depletion is chlorine. One chlorine atom can destroy up to 100,000 ozone atoms.

The ozone layer in the Earth’s stratosphere is about seven miles above sea level and protects the Earth from ultraviolet radiation that comes from the Sun and helps maintain stable temperatures on Earth. Ozone depletion can lead to skin cancer, eye cataracts, crop loss, and reduction in microscopic marine life.

Montreal Protocol and Clean Air Act

In 1985 a group of scientists announced the discovery of a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica that they had been observing since the 1970s. They also determined that several man-made substances, like refrigerants released into the atmosphere, were responsible for ozone depletion. NASA then did its own investigation and confirmed the scientists’ findings.

After several years of negotiation the Montreal Protocol took effect in 1989. It is an International Treaty regulating the production and use of substances that are responsible for ozone depletion. It called for a stepwise reduction and eventual production phase-out of various ozone depleting substances including CFCs and HCFCs.

The United States’ response to the Montreal Protocol was to amend the Clean Air Act. The 1990 Amendments laid out the U.S. action to comply with the Montreal Protocol and created a phaseout schedule. Here is the portion that applies to R-22 and R-410a.

2010-All new units are charged with HFCs (R-410a). HCFCs (R-22) can only be manufactured for use in existing systems
2020-No more production or import of HCFCs (R-22).
2024-All new units manufactured will be charged with HFOs
2030-No more production or import of HFCs (R-410a)

You may notice that HFCs (R410a) are also being phased out. While R-410a does not have any ozone depletion potential it does have a global warming potential (GWP) 2,090 times greater than carbon dioxide. That is why it is also being phased out and replaced by HFOs that do not have any ODP or GWP.

It is now 2020 and all production and importation of R-22 has ceased. So, what happens now?

EPA Statement

Here is what the EPA says about R-22 on its website.

“HCFC-22, commonly referred to as R22 or Freon, is used as a refrigerant in many applications, including residential AC systems. Starting on January 1, 2020, U.S. production and import of HCFC-22 will end. The EPA does not require the premature retirement of equipment and there is no ban on the continued use of existing HCFC-22 systems. You may continue to use recovered and reclaimed (e.g., recycled to required purity standards) or stockpiled HCFC-22 in your existing system for as long as needed. Many non-ozone-depleting alternatives to HCFC-22 are also available if retrofitting an existing appliance, provided that the equipment is designed for use of alternatives. For a list of alternatives, visit www.epa.gov/snap”

CFCs or HCFCs can be used for servicing a system that uses the refrigerant after the phaseout. CFCs or HCFCs can not be used in new equipment.

Because of the phaseout prices of R-22 will continue to rise because there is no more being made. But for now, there is a large stockpile of unused, recovered, reclaimed, and recycled R-22 that can be used to repair existing units.

As the prices continue to rise in the future if a system charged with R-22 needs repaired it may be more cost-effective to replace or retrofit the system. However, if it does not need repaired now you may continue to use it until the eventual breakdown of the unit, which may be many years from now.

The main point I want to get across to all of you is that you may want to replace the unit now, and that is fine, but you are not required to by any law or rule.

So, basically, a homeowner with an air conditioner or heat pump charged with R-22 has three options:
1) Do nothing now and replace it later when it breaks down
2) Retrofit the system to use a new refrigerant
3) Replace the unit proactively/prematurely

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