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HVAC: Keeping a Cool Head in Times of Uncertainty

June 2016

Who isn’t comforted by the soft murmur of the air conditioning as summer’s heat and humidity descends?

Who isn’t horrified when that whisper turns to a shout, or, even worse, goes dead silent?

This time of year, air-conditioners (AC) get a real workout—especially in the hottest and most humid of climates. And speaking of humidity, is there any better way to add mold and mildew to an apartment than an improperly functioning ac unit?

Where it concerns the repair/replace decision that was previously based on a simple “yes” or “no” flowchart, that chart now has many more question marks on it than it did even a year or so ago.

Currently there is a large amount of uncertainty with regard to AC repairs. What began as a moratorium on refrigerants that are shown to destroy the ozone layer (Montreal Protocol; Title VI, Federal Clean Air Act-Section 608) is morphing into new federal rules regarding climate change. (For details, see EPA Proposal 40 CFR Part 82 - 10/15/2015). Because of these rules and the amount of uncertainty in future viability of Original Equipment Manufactured (OEM) refrigerants, owners and management companies can struggle to identify a “for sure” solution that covers all situations.

Add to that a stereotypically undertrained maintenance staff at the property level and stress levels rise. In a recent study commissioned by CA Utility companies (“A Utility Perspective: HVAC Workforce Education and Training; Anne Marie Blankenship, Southern California Edison”) there was a huge percentage of residential systems (68 percent) with the incorrect amount of refrigerant. Changing refrigerants on a property can only make the problem worse.

Let’s take a look at the situation, and discuss possible solutions.

Under current law, ozone-depleting refrigerants will not be manufactured after 2020. The most common of these refrigerants used by many apartment systems is R-22. This means that while the price today is approximately $400 per 30-pound jug, it is expected to rise considerably by year-end. There are more cost-effective ways of keeping existing equipment maintained and operating.

Less-expensive alternatives are commonly called “retrofit” refrigerants. The name refers to the ability of a second refrigerant to be installed in place of the existing R-22 refrigerant that the system was designed to use. (Many of these refrigerants sold under various numbers such as: R-407C, MO-99, R-422D, R-421.) The nice thing about them is that they all cost less than R-22 and will operate in the existing equipment. Here are things to know about using these retrofits:

  • While they are marketed as “Drop-Ins,” the technician MUST remove the existing refrigerant and replace it with the retrofit. It is unsafe to mix refrigerants.
  • Many manufacturers do not honor any remaining warranty on the system or components if a non-OEM refrigerant is used in their systems.
  • Each refrigerant has its own pressuretemperature (P-T) relationship. This means that a technician using gauges that are set up for R-22 must research and use a separate P-T chart to determine proper levels.
  • Follow the retrofit refrigerant manufacturer’s instructions to install it correctly. In some cases, the technician must perform an oil change and/or flush out existing oil from the line-set (copper pipes that connect the outside unit to the inside air handler).
  • Be aware of non-SNAP-approved refrigerants. SNAP (Significant New Alternative Program) is the EPA’s official list of approved refrigerant alternatives. If the refrigerant is not SNAP approved, it’s not acceptable by the EPA to do the job.

If the current system is not worth repairing, communities no longer have an opportunity to purchase a new condensing unit that uses R-22, a commonly used option in the past.

Because of changes in efficiency requirements enacted by the Department of Energy in 2015 that mandate Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) rating minimums, manufacturers are no longer producing equipment that use it. Pair this knowledge with the increased cost of energy and as a community we must change to a more efficient refrigerant. The new OEM refrigerant is not without problems.

If condenser replacement is required, a community must replace more than just a component. Replacing all of the components including the condenser, compressor, lineset, evaporator and possibly the air handler itself, may be required. Using R-410A in these components may not be workable due to its higher operating pressure. (Please refer to the Manufacturer’s rules for applicability of components.)

Owners and managers in this situation are faced with even more uncertainty. At the end of March, the EPA increased the pressure for manufacturers to discover a refrigerant that meets the new Climate Change standards by restating President Obama’s Climate change initiative. This policy is designed to decrease dependency on substances that have an adverse effect on climate change. These substances that have a high amount of CCP (Climate Change Potential) include all hydrocarbons. All current refrigerants commonly used in comfort cooling fall into this category, including R-410A. The result leaves equipment owners not knowing what the future holds.

R-410A was selected as the R-22 replacement because of its efficiency, and that it has no ill effect on the ozone layer. With government’s current focus on refrigerants that have low or no effect on climate change, R-410A’s useful lifespan is brought into question.

What a Community Can Do

Residents expect air conditioning in their apartment homes, and communities are responsible to provide and maintain it. Current equipment, no matter how old it is, will eventually break. There are things that minimize catastrophic failure at the property level in hopes of keeping current systems operating until there is a more proven option.

  • Perform preventive maintenance as required by manufacturer documents. This begins with changing the air filter regularly (minimum of every three months/four times per year) and continues with regular cleaning of the coils, both outside and inside. The frequency of cleaning depends on variables such as area of the country and the number of pets living in the apartment.
  • Ensure enough air flow through the system by not closing one or more vents.
  • Maintenance should be aware of the need for air to be able to leave a room, even when the door is closed. This makes it possible for the resident to have privacy, while allowing proper air movement in the system.
  • Use the correct method to ensure proper refrigerant levels in the system. Depending on system design, a technician should be using either the manufacturer’s stated weight, required superheat or system sub-cooling as the method to make any adjustments.
  • Prevent refrigerant leaks by maintaining caps and seals on service valves.
  • Before installing any refrigerant, remove moisture by performing a proper vacuum. For R-22 systems, this requires an evacuation down to 500 microns. R-410A requires a 250-micron vacuum. To verify, using a vacuum gauge is required.
  • Take advantage of training opportunities at local apartment associations and from supplier partners when possible.
  • Utilize social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn to research solutions or alternatives. Don’t hesitate to reach out to manufacturers of refrigerants or equipment for further details.

Doing this can prevent panic reactions.