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AC Refrigerant Challenges Are a Hot Topic in August

AC Refrigerant Challenges

By Paul Rhodes, CAMT

Community managers must weigh a number of factors when deciding how to deal with refrigerants.

As temperatures reach their annual peaks in many parts of the country this month, the number of air-conditioning systems that need repairs increase. A quick look at any supplier partner’s catalog or website shows myriad repair options. If you add the challenge of finding knowledgeable resources to guide the average maintenance staff person and a community is left with a troubling—and potentially expensive—situation.
 
When it is time to repair an HVAC system, refrigerants provide a unique challenge. All refrigerants are to be treated as controlled substances. Beginning January 2018, this includes hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), organic compounds that contain fluorine and hydrogen atoms. For information, the Environmental Protection Agency has produced a fact sheet that can be found at epa.gov.
 
The price of R-22 refrigerant continues to rise because of its decrease in availability. This cost is driving owners and management companies to seek other options. Two options communities can consider are to put off the cost of replacement for a couple more summers and keep their R-22 equipment operating as long as possible or to replace the system with one that uses R-410A.

Option 1: Keep the Existing Equipment

R-22 currently is priced at more than $800 a 30-pound jug this month. With a cost that high, it is cheaper to replace a condensing unit ($600 to $700) than it is to buy the refrigerant with which the system was designed to work. To keep the existing equipment—and to spend less than the current price of R-22—there are several ways of doing so.

  • Recycle existing R-22. This option is the least expensive. It can require extra service time because of the time and administration of tanks and to ensure that the cleanest of refrigerants is used. A technician can recycle refrigerant by testing it for acid before removing it (recovery) from the system. If acid is discovered, the refrigerant must be recovered to a “dead” tank, meaning that it will not ever be reused and be turned in for reclamation. For best results, the technician will need to recover the good, used refrigerant through an inline filter dryer to help remove moisture. This refrigerant then may be used in that repaired system or any other system elsewhere at the same community.
  • Retrofit the system to an HFC replacement. (Note: This option is not recommended by HVAC equipment manufacturers and will void any accompanying applicable warranties.) There are several refrigerants sold as being a “drop-in” replacement for an R-22 system at a much lower price. (DO NOT MIX ANY REFRIGERANT.) Any of these retrofit refrigerant manufacturers state that their product will operate in existing systems with correct installation. There are a couple of warnings for this option.
    • Every retrofit refrigerant is less efficient than R-22. In some situations, a retrofit may not maintain the temperature that the thermostat demands during high-demand days. That is not good.
    • Every retrofit is different than R-22. Each option will have its own pressure temperature chart that must be referenced for correct charging. That is not on your gauges.
    • If your community decides to change to a retrofit refrigerant, a good recommendation is to choose ONE of the options. Each different refrigerant added to a community increases the potential to mix refrigerants. When that happens, a technician is introducing further problems to a community. That is not smart.

Option 2: Replace the System

This option can be summed up in a simple statement: “Out with the old, in with the new.” Currently, the only residential split-system air conditioners use R-410A refrigerant. This is the most common system used in apartments. While it may be possible to use these with part of the existing infrastructure, each instance should be evaluated separately. There are many variables that may determine if any of the current equipment can be effectively repurposed.

These potential challenges to the new equipment can include:

  • Lineset age, diameter, and length
  • Indoor equipment age/manufacture
  • Metering device size/type
  • Air-flow demand
  • Recent upgrades (insulation, windows, etc…)

 

Paul Rhodes, CAMT, is National Maintenance and Safety Instructor for NAA.