Relax: The R22 Phaseout Doesn’t Have to be Painful

  • September 5, 2019
  • Len D'Amico


R-22 gas – also known as hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) – was first created in 1928 and became a standard refrigerant utilized in cooling systems for most of the twentieth century. But decades after its creation, scientists discovered that one of the components of HCFC refrigerants – chlorine – damaged the ozone layer.

And so in accordance with the Montreal Protocol of 1987, the federal government mandated that R-22 refrigerant be phased out over time for new air conditioners and heat pumps, until all production and use of the gas ceases in 2030.

Since R-22 was being used so extensively, it could not be phased out more quickly without inflicting sometimes harsh financial penalties to both businesses and homeowners. With over 40 years to prepare, HVAC manufacturers have had plenty of time to re-design their equipment and re-tool production to accommodate the change, and contractors have been trained on using the alternative refrigerants.

This post looks at the ramifications of the mandate and how to address the remaining R-22-based systems in commercial buildings.

Planning and Strategy

There is still a fairly large installed base of R-22 equipment, even though their manufacture was discontinued in 2010. After 2010, equipment based on R-410A – a chlorine-free refrigerant – became the only realistic choice for new construction and retrofits of existing systems. As a side note, R-410A may be phased down in the 2020s, if a new amendment to the Montreal Protocol is implemented. But that’s a topic for another article.

The building owner or facilities manager will primarily depend upon financial considerations of replacing or maintaining the systems, with the comfort of the occupants of the facility a secondary concern.

The facility manager at first must determine what refrigerant their equipment uses. Even though R-22-based equipment wasn’t manufactured after 2010, it was still possible they were installed using older inventories in 2011 and even into 2012. And R-410A-based systems were first available in the late 1990s So there was a long period of time when installations for the two overlapped.

Your HVAC service provider can determine the type of refrigerant being used. Both the indoor and/or outdoor units have a tag. The type of refrigerant is usually stamped on that tag. If it isn’t, the manufacturer’s name, and model and serial numbers can be used to identify it. Many times, the contractor can identify the type refrigerant a piece of equipment uses with a quick glance at the cabinet.

You should note that since certain HVAC systems (known as split systems) were comprised of an indoor and outdoor unit similar to the system you have at home. Manufacturers were still allowed to make R22-based outdoor units until 2018. This was a compromise negotiated due to the cost – in the event of a catastrophic failure of older equipment – of replacing the indoor and outdoor units simultaneously. Replacing just the outdoor unit was possible if that was the component that failed and it made sense to buy a new condenser instead of repairing it.

Second, you will have to decide the type of refrigerant to use – recycled or virgin R-22 or any of the replacement options available. In order to support the operation of already-installed equipment that uses R-22, the production of virgin (new) R-22 refrigerant is currently allowed, with yearly mandatory production reductions until its obsolescence in 2020. Some contractors are stockpiling virgin R-22, so it will still be available for a year or so after that. This is not illegal as long as it is stored and handled properly and in accordance with EPA regulations.

On the other hand, recycled R-22 will be available indefinitely. How long is not yet known since it depends on how much is reclaimed from condemned, non-operational systems. There is debate as to the efficacy of using recycled refrigerant; it is our opinion there is no appreciable difference from virgin R-22.

At the same time the government ordered drastic production cuts of virgin R-22, it also overestimated how much recycled R-22 would be available. As an inevitable result, demand outstripped supply and the cost increased dramatically. It is unclear when recycled R-22 will no longer be available – perhaps when the cost becomes greater than replacement refrigerants (see below). So even if your company has a contractor that has access to virgin or recycled R-22, the cost of repairs could be prohibitive.
So what should you do if your commercial HVAC system uses R-22 and it needs to be charged with refrigerant – most likely due to a refrigerant leak?

Request a proposal to repair the system using either virgin or recycled R-22, and/or one of the options for an alternative refrigerant. Repairing a leak is usually expensive. Unless the leak is in an obvious and easily accessible place, perhaps the copper fittings where the refrigerant lines meet the coil, the cost for the repair will be well over $1,000 with no guarantee that even if the leak is found, it’s repairable.

If you have a split system and the leak cannot be found, the cost to repair could approach replacement cost. Even packaged units (known as RTUs) can present a challenge when finding and fixing a leak – if it’s on the coil, it may be difficult or next to impossible to access and repair the leak with a torch (required for brazing copper components).

Refrigerant Choices

There are many alternatives to R-22 systems:

  • R-407C

ntended/manufactured as a replacement for R-22. It cannot be added to refrigerant circuits that already contain R-22. (Refrigerants should never be mixed, period.) The R-22 has to be reclaimed – using reclamation equipment specifically designed for the purpose – and flushed with R-11, a required step that cannot be skipped. Be absolutely certain your service provider is licensed and well-acquainted with the proper procedures. Not only is the gas removed, but as much of the oil as well.

If a compressor has to be replaced, the new compressor already has POE oil and would be more compatible (safer) than using the reclaimed R-22. Depending on demand, the R-22 can be sold to one of the many companies that specialize in recycling refrigerants.

R-407C is less expensive than most other alternative refrigerants and has the least loss of capacity.

  • R-438A (aka MO99)

Less expensive than R-22, and is useful for older systems that used mineral oil, which is less viscous than POE oil.

  • R-421A and R422D

Generally not good choices except in narrow circumstances and will not be considered in this paper. Your HVAC service provider will propose these solutions if they are the best fit.

Two aspects of alternative refrigerants:

  • They’re hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – more environmentally friendly than R-22 because they don’t deplete the ozone layer.
  • They void manufacturer warranties, thus better suited for out-of-warranty equipment such as heat pumps and condensers.

Final Considerations

The youngest R-22 systems to roll off the assembly line are about to celebrate their 10th birthday. Since most commercial HVAC equipment has a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years – depending in large part to an organization’s maintenance program – you may not be able to justify repairing them. Your organization’s depreciation schedules also have impact on this decision. Your finance department’s and service provider’s input and expertise may make this decision an easy one.

Replacing equipment can be prohibitively expensive, depending on the location of the equipment, the rigging required to get the old unit out and the new one in, etc. Again, your service provider can provide an accurate estimate to allow you and your team to make an informed decision.

One last factor to consider is the availability and lead-time of parts and components for R22 equipment. This can be a hit or miss proposition, depending on the distribution chain, the manufacturer’s equipment road map, and the realities inherent today in carrying inventory.

In the final analysis, you should consult your HVAC service provider to provide guidance and the issues to consider when making an informed and cost-effective decision for your company.

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