R22 is a refrigerant commonly used in air conditioner units. If you have an air conditioning system that was installed before 2010, chances are you have R22 as your refrigerant. While its use tapered off after that, some more recent equipment also includes it.
R22 has been banned by the federal government in the United States, both to manufacture and to import.
There are environmental and ethical reasons for this, but those issues don’t address the question on many homeowners’ minds: What does this mean for my air conditioner?
We’re here to demystify that question. We’re going to walk you through what the ban is, why it was implemented, and each of the implications for A/C systems that use R22 refrigerant.
If your air conditioner uses R22, you may not have to act immediately, but eventually, you’ll have to have a plan to deal with your system and transition to a new one that uses a different refrigerant.
Why Is R22 Banned?
Ozone-depleting substances (ODS) are categorized into Class I and Class II controlled substances by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Both either have been or are being phased out in the United States. Class II substances contain hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). The most common HCFC in use currently is HCFC-22, more commonly known as R22.
Phasing out means that no new materials of these types can be imported into the country or produced within it.
The ban on imports and production went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. This means that moving forward, the only R22 available in the United States is what’s already here.
The reason for the ban is simply the environmental concerns, which are significant when considering all uses of Class I and Class II substances. ODS products deplete the ozone, which in turn exposes the Earth to increased levels of ultraviolet (UV) light, which is harmful in many ways.
According to the EPA, phasing out ODSs is expected to prevent over 280 million cases of skin cancer, approximately 1.6 million skin cancer deaths, and over 45 million cases of cataracts in the United States alone. UV radiation can also harm plants and various ecosystems.
Is R22 Still Available?
The short answer is: Yes, but the cost is climbing rapidly as stores diminish.
The longer answer is that, while it’s still available from supply stores or HVAC contractors, everyone’s stores are being depleted and won’t be getting replaced. This does two things:
- It increases the chance that you won’t be able to find R22 easily.
- It will increase the cost of R22 from any vendor.
From the HVAC contractor side, no one is installing or manufacturing new units that use R22. The production of air conditioners or heat pumps that utilize it has similarly been banned. Availability of R22 refrigerant itself still exists, though.
The Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) have an optimistic view of the transition away from R22. ACCA cites the phaseout of R12 in the 1990s as evidence that a smooth transition away from R22 will be possible for homeowners.
For clarity, there are still R12 stores available today, so it’s almost a guarantee that R22 will be available for the life of your unit. However, that doesn’t mean it will be cost-effective compared to other alternatives.
Certainly, if prices climb high enough, it will move many homeowners to replace their existing system, so the final supplies of R22 may be around for a very long time. However, this doesn’t help someone looking to manage their HVAC budget. Prices are climbing, so it will remain a consideration for many.
What Does This Mean For Me?
At the moment, maybe nothing. If your A/C unit is still running efficiently, there’s no immediate action that needs to be taken.
What it does mean, though, is that it’s even more important to have a plan of attack for a new air conditioning system if your current air conditioner uses R22.
It also means you should be having an honest conversation with your HVAC maintenance provider. Does your system use R22? How low is their supply, and how has this affected pricing?
Some contractors may be willing to “top you up” on R22, for example, but if you need this, it’s because there’s a leak somewhere in your system. The leak may be fixable, but it’s at this point that the decline of your system will likely begin to cost more than it’s worth, especially relative to a new, more efficient system that doesn’t use R22.
The best way to avoid concerns over R22 is to have regularly scheduled maintenance and tune-ups of all of your HVAC equipment.
The difference between a well-maintained system and a neglected system is years off of the lifespan of your heating and cooling equipment. For you, it might mean the difference between getting 1-2 more years out of your R22 air conditioner, or 8-10 more years.
We speak to hundreds of homeowners with R22 A/C systems, and have heard almost as many questions regarding their use. Below we’ve listed a handful of common questions and their answers.
What does refrigerant do in my air conditioning system?
Refrigerant flows through coils in your air conditioning equipment. During the cooling process, it transforms between liquid and gaseous states.
Depending on its state, it can more easily absorb or emit heat. By making the journey from indoor to outdoor air conditioning units as the pressure changes, it traps heat and removes it, before cycling back. The air in the system is cooled in this way, and is moved throughout your house through a combination of HVAC equipment and ductwork in your home.
Different refrigerants require different pressures to operate efficiently, or at all. This, in turn, requires proper equipment to maintain the correct pressures at various points of the process.
Can an R22 air conditioner use a different refrigerant?
No, and it would be dangerous and inefficient to try. Refrigerants operate at different pressures, which necessitates specific parts and equipment to manage the pressure properly. An R22 system will not be calibrated for a different pressure.
This would also likely void any warranties you have on your existing system.
Other proposed stand-ins can be flammable, which an R22 system is not prepared to handle. The cost to attempt to retrofit your equipment would already approach the cost of a brand new system, and the potential dangers should further warn you away from anyone claiming otherwise.
Can I replace other parts in my R22 system that have nothing to do with the refrigerant?
Potentially, but since R22 itself is no longer being manufactured, manufacturers are slowing down production on associated parts as well. Some parts are easier to repair or replace than others, so it’s best to consult with a trusted HVAC partner to assess your options.
What happens to R22 that is removed? Is it simply leaked into the atmosphere?
It should never simply be released into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, this does happen.
The proper method of disposing of R22 is by an EPA-certified HVAC technician. We collect the refrigerant in sealed canisters and return it to processing centers that can safely dispose of it.
How is R22 different from Freon?
Freon is a trademarked name and includes several refrigerants. Your contractor may refer to your refrigerant as Freon, but for the R22 ban, whether or not it’s considered an ozone-depleting substance is the important factor.
How do I know if my system uses R22?
Sometimes this is listed on the unit itself. Other times, you’ll have to look up your brand and model type online. If that step also fails, your HVAC installer or maintenance partner can assist in identifying the refrigerant type.
What’s the best refrigerant to be using now?
The most common is R410A, which is more environmentally friendly than R22 and is actively in production in the United States. Other refrigerants do exist, some in experimental or testing stages, but R410A is what you’re most likely to see being used in modern units.
Replacing or Repairing an R22 System
Does this mean you have to replace your R22 system sometime soon? No, not necessarily. Depending on the age and state of operation of your air conditioner, you may still have several years of life left before problems arise.
However, that will change the moment your system springs a leak or another part needs to be replaced. Repair costs on older systems are often high enough that it’s prudent to consider replacing the system anyway. If a system has R22 and its refrigerant and/or parts are significantly more expensive to repair, this equation will quickly make replacement the right choice.
For the thousands of homeowners who are hoping to get a few extra years out of their air conditioning system, the time to consult with your HVAC partner is now. It may not mean an immediate decision, but a conversation about costs, availability, and options now could save you time, money, and effort at a later date and avoid the massive headache of replacing a fully broken system.
Ultimately, the environmental and ethical implications for continued R22 use mean that it’s a good thing that it’s being phased out. Modern HVAC technology is more efficient and environmentally friendly, making it a great combination of upgrades compared to older equipment.
The important part now is making sure that you are able to transition smoothly to a new air conditioner, whether that’s this year or in 10 years.
Whether you’re simply fact-finding in an effort to educate yourself on R22 and what it means for you, or if you are beginning the process to repair or replace your R22 system, this is a great time to evaluate each of the options listed above. If you’re in Columbus, Ohio or surrounding areas, we’d love to have one of our Fire & Ice certified professionals walk you through each of your options so that you’re prepared to make whatever decision is right for your home.
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