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Air Conditioners Part II: older refrigerant can be costly

Price of R22 will continue to climb as it becomes rarer

Last time the headline for this column read “oversized fuses can be costly.” That meant oversized fuses for an air conditioner could allow expensive damage. This is easy to correct with a couple fuses that cost a couple dollars.

This time we’re talking about the refrigerant gas, aka “Freon.” Air conditioners used R22 refrigerant for decades, until Uncle Sam decided it was attacking the atmosphere or attracting aliens or something. So after January 1, 2020, companies will not be allowed to produce or import R22 to the US. The new refrigerant is called R410a. Any air conditioner manufactured after January 1, 2015, will be required to use R410a. Most air conditioners manufactured after 2010 use R410a, but not all of them.

So why am I boring you with R22 vs R410? Because the average life of a central air conditioner compressor in our area is about 20 years. And most R22 air conditioners cannot be updated to use R410. And we live in a free marketplace society, despite the strong efforts of city, state and national governments. Which means less (and limited) supply will result in higher prices. Which means as R-22 becomes harder to find, it will become more expensive. And after 2020 it will likely be extremely expensive. And 2020 is not that far away.

There are air conditioner contractor websites (not from Prescott) that say R22 will continue to be available, even after 2020. Some R22 refrigerant can be reclaimed from older air conditioners that are being replaced with R410a systems. But many contractors, including local ones I spoke with, feel that R22 has already become so expensive it’s becoming less cost-effective to recharge an old system. They didn’t want to state the actual cost of R22, because it fluctuates and no one can predict how high it will go after 2020. A local contractor told me he’s paying four times more for R-22 than just five years ago.

A quick search on eBay shows 30 pounds of R-22 for about $700, about $23 per pound. I found a 2015 ad for just over $300 for 30 pounds. So in two years the price more than doubled. And likely will again as we get close to 2020.

I found 25 pounds of R410a for a little over $200, or a little over $8 per pound. I imagine contractors get better prices, especially on R410a. But everyone I talk to, including manufacturers and contractors, feel that R22 prices will rise substantially.

So should you scrap your Disney vacation plans or sell your new BMW to pay for a new air conditioner? Not really. Newer air conditioners are much more efficient. I’ve always said it is usually cost-effective to replace a 20-year-old compressor rather than making any major cost repair. But if your compressor was manufactured in 2009, it could have many useful years left. It may be more cost-effective to replace the R22, if it’s still available.

I have always advised having your air conditioner serviced yearly to make sure the system is operating efficiently and to get the maximum life from it. Now there’s another reason — catching a small refrigerant leak before it all leaks out. If the cost of R22 keeps rising the way it has, it could cost many hundreds of dollars to recharge an older system (including the labor, service call, etc.).

You can usually tell what refrigerant your system has by looking at the data label on your air conditioner. There is always a label on the compressor (in the yard) or on a package unit (furnace and air conditioner in one cabinet, often on the roof). There is usually a label on the evaporator located next to the furnace too. The label should state R22 or R410a. And on the compressor it usually states how many pounds the outside unit needs. My compressor (built in 1999) states R22 and 98 ounces needed in the outdoor unit. That’s just over 6 pounds, but the entire system will need more. Larger and/or newer (more efficient) systems may take considerably more.