Angie’s List: Will Federal Air Conditioner Coolant Regulations Make You Replace Your Cooling System This Year?

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Federal regulations have turned what was a commonly available air conditioning system refrigerant into a scarce resource. Angie's List has details on the issue and suggestions for those affected.

“Consumers with older, leaky and otherwise failing air conditioners may be paying a lot to keep cool,” says Angie Hicks, founder of Angie’s List.

Federal regulations have turned what was a commonly available air conditioning system refrigerant into a scarce resource. And that may make a lot of homeowners sweat this summer.

The U.S. EPA’s Montreal Protocol included a provision to phase out a refrigerant called R-22 because of its harmful effects on the ozone layer. That coolant is to be completely phased out by 2020 and replaced with a non ozone-depleting coolant, R-410A.

Manufacturers stopped making air conditioning systems that use the old, harmful fluid two years ago. Units made before the phase-out cannot properly operate with the new R-410A coolant, just as newer units cannot use the R-22 refrigerant. Ninety percent of the old refrigerant is expected to be out of use out by 2015.

“But there’s a lot of hot weather between now and then,” says Angie Hicks, founder of Angie’s List, which offers consumer reviews on local service companies. “And consumers with older, leaky and otherwise failing air conditioners may be paying a lot to keep cool.”

Because R-22 coolant is no longer being produced, prices for it have soared and HVAC specialists are harvesting remaining fluid when they replace older units. The leftover coolant can safely be re-used in the millions of units that need it.

Refrigerant leaks are a common problem with air conditioners. Over a couple of years, most units will lose a pound or two of the eight pounds of coolant typically needed to keep the machine pumping chilled air throughout your home.

“The scarcer R-22 becomes, the more expensive it will be,” Hicks said.

Highly rated HVAC companies tell Angie’s List that the cost for the R-22 coolant is now $175 for the first pound compared to $30 as recently as two years ago. Prices fall to $90 for each additional pound now compared to the older $10 charge. Homeowner opting for repair should be prepared to also pay additional costs to cover service, labor and any other parts necessary.

“Some homeowners will need to think seriously about replacing their units with newer ones that use the new coolant,” Hicks said. “This isn’t entirely bad news. The newer units are more environmentally friendly and more efficient. Heating and cooling accounts for 54 percent of your home’s yearly energy costs, so long-term savings can really add up.”

Hicks advises homeowners to talk to a reputable heating and cooling system expert before making any decisions about repair or replacement. Technicians who handle refrigerant are required to earn EPA certification before working with the fluid and should be happy to discuss specifics about the regulation changes.

“This is a conversation you could have if you’ve scheduled the annual inspection your unit needs anyway,” Hicks said. “A reputable technician can give you great advice on what option is best for you and will also point out available rebates and other cost saving options that might be available.”

Angie’s List collects consumer reviews on local contractors and doctors in more than 550 service categories. Currently, more than 1 million subscribers across the U.S. rely on Angie’s List to help them make the best hiring decisions. Members get unlimited access to local ratings via Internet or phone, exclusive discounts, the Angie’s List magazine, helpful online articles about home improvement projects, and help from the Angie’s List complaint resolution service. Take a quick tour of Angie’s List and view the latest Angie’s List news.

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Cheryl Reed
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