Refrigerant is a vital part of your air conditioning system. It is the part that helps with the heat exchange and allows the unit to blow cold air as required. If your air conditioning unit has a leak and runs low on refrigerant, then you will find that your system starts to blow warm air. You might get ice forming on parts of the system, and eventually, the compressor could break.
Most old units will be made to use R-22 refrigerant. This is a high performance and, until recently, relatively low cost refrigerant, which is why it became so ubiquitous. The problem with R-22 is that it is highly damaging to the ozone layer, and because of this it has been phased out. As of 2010, no new units could be made that rely on R-22, and as of January 2020, there will be a ban on the import and production of the refrigerant. If your air conditioning unit uses it, then you will need to either get it topped up with gas that has already been stockpiled or use gas that is reclaimed from another unit that is decommissioned.
Do You Need to Replace Your Whole Air Conditioning Unit?
Some unscrupulous companies are using the phase-out of R-22 to scare their clients into paying for an expensive new installation even if it isn’t necessary. The fact is that it is not illegal to use an air conditioning unit that relies on R-22. It is not even necessarily harmful to the environment – as long as the unit is not leaking. If you are proactive about maintaining your air conditioning unit, and the unit does not develop any issues, then it is safe enough to keep the unit in operation with R-22.
It is a good idea to start thinking about alternatives, though. There are some replacements for R-22 that will run in the same unit that you have now, although some of the more energy-efficient options may require you to replace the compressor. Even so, replacing the compressor is a better option than replacing the entire unit if you are struggling to find the funds for a new unit up-front. There are some drop-in replacements that will work even on older units that use R-22 and mineral oil. These replacement refrigerants are good enough for use in mild to moderate temperatures but you will see a drop in efficiency at higher temperatures and that is a part of the problem with drop-in alternatives. There are others that require a new compressor and better oils, but that offer either identical performance, or a less than five percent decrease in efficiency even at higher temperatures. If you live in an area where high temperatures are the norm then you would naturally lean to one of those more energy efficient options.
Short Term Options
If, in the short term, you opt to keep your existing air conditioning unit and simply get it recharged with Freon / R-22 as required, then you should make an effort to keep your air conditioning in as good a condition as possible. Have the unit inspected twice a year (ideally at times when you don’t need to be running it too much – fix those problems before the summer hits!), and make sure that you are able to get the unit taken care of. Fix leaks and get filters cleaned preemptively, and have your unit recharged if it requires it.
Be aware that it’s not normal for a unit to be steadily losing pressure. If that happens, then there’s a high chance that you have a leak and you should be looking at getting the leak fixed before the unit is recharged. If your technician discovers a leak then they are legally obliged to make sure that the leak gets fixed before they top up the gas in the unit. Knowingly topping up a unit that is still leaking is against the law.
Expect Freon to Increase in Price
The price of R-22 has been increasing steadily. The phase-out of Freon is not new. The EPA called for the gas to be phased out around 25 years ago and manufacturers and companies have had a long time to prepare. When production of freon-using air conditioning units ceasd in 2010, the production of the refrigerant itself was reduced by around 75 percent. In 2015, production had dropped by 90 percent, and in 2020 no new R-22 will be produced at all. Right now, prices range from as low as $35 per pound (plus labor charges) to as high as $175 per pound (including labor charges) to recharge a unit. We can expect to see that price increase steadily, and after the January 1st 2020 cut off the price is going to increase massively.
The cost of alternatives, such as R-410A, is far less, and those replacements are going to become increasingly appealing and popular as the squeeze on supplies of R-22 becomes more apparent. It is worth researching alternatives. For example, RS-44 is a drop-in replacement for R-22 that is compatible with mineral oils as well as POE oils and alkyl benzene. This means that it could be a cost-effective option for systems that have a capillary as well as an expansion device.
There are numerous alternatives to R-22, so talk to a friendly air conditioning technician to get some advice and learn the features of refrigerants. They will be able to explain the options that you have, and give you some advice as to what is the most cost-effective option for your particular system. Whatever you choose, note that you cannot mix refrigerant. If you are changing from R-22 then you will need a complete replacement of your refrigerant, and will need to ensure that you get your system totally charged with whatever new substance you choose. Mixing refrigerants will damage your air conditioning unit.
In the long term, getting an entire new, ENERGY STAR compliant unit makes sense, and could save you as much as 40% on your utility bills. It will pay for itself over the lifespan.