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Shape up or ship out

With the US government pencilling in a complete phase-out of R22 by 2020, it’s time to prepare for a future without the refrigerant, says Jen Anesi

In October 2014, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalised its plan for phasing out hydrochlorofluorocarbon R-22, calling for a drastic cut in R-22 production and importation in 2015, followed by a linear phase-out between 2015 and 2020.

While the EPA allowed 51m pounds in 2014, it is only allowing 22m in 2015, 18m in 2016, 13m in 2017, 9m in 2018, and 4m in 2019.

After that, new or imported R-22 will be banned in the US due to its harmful effects on the environment.

Meanwhile, proactive HVAC contractors have been working to educate their employees and clients on the inevitable phaseout. And, with the price of R-252 already starting to rise in many areas, educated contractors are finding it easier to convince customers to replace ageing R-22 units with newer, more efficient models.

For many contractors, the phaseout schedule has already had an impact on business. Many have already begun training staff and educating customers as the supply of virgin R-22 to dwindle.

Steve Moon, owner, Moon Air, Maryland, says the phaseout is interruptive. “First, it is good for Mother Earth. Second, it has been forced on us, so we have to comply.

“So, let’s move forward as an industry and do the right thing by everyone. The biggest problem is our industry is full of guys who have been doing the same thing the same way for many years. We are creatures of habit. Change is painful.”

Jim Crews, service/sales, project manager, Environmental Conditioning Systems, Ohio, said the company stays current on the best new refrigerants and equipment because it is what’s best for business.

“Our techs are aware of new refrigerants and have been trained on the different new oils.

All the necessary instruments and tools are already on the trucks,” Mr Crews says.

“Business-wise, buying the dry-shipped equipment, connecting, and charging with R-22 is not good advice for the customer; this perpetuates old technology and exposes them to uncontrolled repair costs as the phaseout continues.”

Butch Welsch, owner, Welsch Heating and Cooling, St Louis, says his company is cautioning customers who wish to order dry-shipped R-22 equipment:“We have installed virtually no dry-charge units as of late because, in my opinion, they are against the spirit of the regulation, if not the word,” he says. “[The phase-out] was mandated, so it is our obligation to abide by it. That’s what we have done.”

Tim Paetz, general manager and co-owner, Bud Anderson Heating and Cooling, Arkansas, is glad the US is phasing out the production and importation of R-22. “We’ve been talking about it for more than 20 years, and we trained our technicians for years to educate customers about the phaseout,”

Mr Paetz says. “We leave all the old dinosaur equipment in the past and have to carry fewer parts. R-410A is higher efficiency, and, by now, we’ve worked out all the bugs.”

Rising prices?

The most immediate fallout from the phaseout in 2015 will be the rising cost of R-22 across much of the nation.

Greg Crumpton, president, Air- Tight Mechanical, North Carolina says: “My business is affected mostly due to the volatility of the actual gas pricing – not only from our supplier, which is predominately CC Dickson, but also from the OEM of the gases forcing the issue at the wholesale level.”

“Prices soared upon the release of the [phasedown] schedule, but, like most things, [it will come] back to an equilibrium that the market will support. The import gases, legal or not legal, affect what the market will tolerate, as well.”

“The pricing keeps rising,” says Ann Kahn, president, Kahn Mechanical Contractors.

Contractors in the commercial market may have a harder time adjusting to the phase-out due to the rising cost of R-22 and the prevalence of the refrigerant in commercial equipment.

“I believe commercial contractors are affected more only because there are a greater percentage of commercial clients still heavily invested in R-22 systems, and those systems generally use larger quantities of R-22,”

Mr Ring explains. “I would estimate that 60 per cent of our residential clients and 80-90 per cent of our commercial clients still have R-22 systems.”

Rising costs to charge and maintain R-22 equipment have provided forward-thinking contractors with plenty of ammunition to help convert customers to newer refrigerants and equipment.

“Upwards of 75 per cent of the equipment we service still runs on R-22,” Ms Kahn says. “Customers are always offered equipment with alternative refrigerants. If they refuse, which they often do, they are advised that virgin R-22 is scarce, and reclaimed refrigerant will soon be all that is available – at a very steep cost.”

“I would estimate that we service a fleet of equipment that is 85-90 per cent R-22-based,” Mr Crumpton says. “The phase-out plan makes us think ahead and discuss with the end user the benefit of repair or replacement. Many times, the severity of the issue will drive the decision. Small leaks or major component failures — each will require a different discussion.”

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