Over the past few months I have seen a rash of articles from all over the web stating that the price of Freon is going through the roof in anticipation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s planned phase out that hits January 1st, 2020. The frustrating part about all of these articles is that nearly all of them have it wrong. Or, if they don’t have it wrong, they are misstating the facts. In this article I aim to educate you, the homeowner, on what exactly is happening on January 1st, 2020 and if you should worry.
Before we dive too deep into this article I first want to explain the term Freon. When you hear Freon you most likely think of any refrigerant that is found in refrigerators, cars, home air conditioners, etc. Here’s the thing though, Freon is actually a very rare find nowadays. You see Freon is a brand name of refrigerant. It is just like how Coca-Cola is a brand name of soda. If you want a soda you don’t say you want a Coke, instead you say you’d like a soda. The same thing can be said with Freon. When you hear the term Freon nowadays it really only applies to one type of refrigerant known as HCFC R-22.
R-22 dates all the way back to the 1930s and falls under the HCFC classification of refrigerants. HCFCs along with their sister refrigerant class CFCs actively damage the Ozone Layer. Way back int he 1980’s there was an international treaty passed called the Montreal Protocol. This treaty aimed at phasing out all of the Ozone damaging refrigerants. Freon was included in this. Over the years there have been various Ozone damaging refrigerants phased out.
The last refrigerant on this thirty year phase out list was R-22 Freon. This product’s phase out began in 2010 and has had a staggered approach every few years. The final end date of the R-22 phase out is January 1st, 2020. After this date no new imports or manufacturing of R-22 will be allowed into the United States. The only way to purchase R-22 refrigerant from then on will be from distributors who stock piled it or through refrigerant reclaimers. (Think of refrigerant reclaimers as companies who recycle and clean used refrigerant.)
Do You Have a Freon R-22 System?
Here’s the good new folks. In most cases homes will be using a Puron refrigerant system. This is also known as R-410A. Puron systems started to become popular in the late 2000’s and once the initial phase down of R-22 hit in 2010 Puron as the go to alternative for new air conditioners. So, if your air conditioner is from 2010 or newer then chances are you have a R-410A Puron system.
However, if your air conditioner predates 2010 then you should check to see exactly what refrigerant your system takes. It is most likely R-22 but it is always good to physically check. You can do this by locating your outside air conditioning unit and looking at the sides for a white labeled sticker. In some cases there are a few stickers so be sure to look them both over carefully. The text may be small but you should see either a ‘R-22’ or a ‘R-410A’ marking on the system. This alerts you to what kind of system you have.
If you find a R-410A marking on your air conditioner then you have nothing to worry about. Remember, the only refrigerant being phased out in 2020 is R-22. Your HFC R-410A is perfectly safe and will be around for a quite a while longer. If you find that you do have an R-22 unit then be prepared for potentially expensive repairs.
Obviously, with the impending phase out we would all expect the price on R-22 to go up and up. Well, it did… sort of. You see when the phase out started in 2010 we had a jump in price. It was about three-hundred and fifty to four-hundred dollars per thirty pound cylinder. Then as the years went by the price stabilized and maintained the price point we mentioned earlier. It was then in 2015 that a tightening of the EPA’s phase out took hold and the market’s supply was constricted.
This caused the price to start to climb again. It was in 2017 though that we saw the dangers of price speculation. At one point in 2017 the price for a thirty pound cylinder climbed all the way up to over seven-hundred dollars. Everyone thought that the price was only going to go higher so they all bought up as much as they could. This was it. Every year after 2017 was going to be worse and worse.
Well folks, that just wasn’t the case. After the extreme prices of 2017 the price on R-22 began a downward trend. With each passing season the price kept moving downward. Now, as I write this article in August of 2019 the price is now under three-hundred dollars a cylinder. That is an amazingly low price and we are only a few months away from total phase out of the product.
At this point it is anyone’s guess as to what will happen to R-22 pricing as we get closer to that impending January 1st, 2020 date. We could see prices remain flat at around three-hundred dollars or we could see it climb again and soar over five-hundred dollars a cylinder.
Even before you have a contractor come to your home and look at your air conditioner you should be aware that air conditioners are what’s known as closed systems. What that means is that the refrigerant in your air conditioner moves back and forth between different cycles and it, in theory, never runs out or needs refrigerant refilled.
If you find that your unit is low on refrigerant or is completely out do NOT just refill your machine with a new refrigerant. I repeat do NOT do this. Your system does not need a top off. It does not need just a little bit more refrigerant to get by. No. If you are running out of refrigerant that means that somewhere in the refrigerant cycle there is a leak. Your unit is leaking refrigerant and will continue to leak refrigerant until a repair is made. If you dump more refrigerant into it without fixing the leak you are literally throwing money down the drain. Potentially a lot of money too if yours is an R-22 unit.
I like to think of it as a above ground pool. If you get a puncture in the pool lining water will leak out. Sure you can always add more water but it’s not fixing the problem. Adding more refrigerant doesn’t fix the problem either. It’s just prolong the inevitable and wasting money.
Repair or Replace?
Alright, so let’s say you have an R-22 unit at your home and it breaks down over the summer… or the fall. What do you do? There are a few things to weigh here before making a decision. First, call out a contractor and determine exactly what has gone wrong and how expensive the actual repair will be. In most cases if a major component broke on your air conditioner then you will need a refrigerant recharge after the system has been repaired. These refrigerant recharges are where things can get expensive on R-22 units.
The typical rule of thumb is between two to four pounds of refrigerant per ton of your air conditioner. (You should always check the exact specifications of your machine, but most of the time the two to four pound guideline will be sufficient.) Most home air conditioners are between one ton and five tons. (Anything over five tons is considered a commercial grade unit.) So, as an example let’s say you have a four ton R-22 system that needs recharged. Let’s do some math here to determine exactly how much you’d pay for a refrigerant recharge.
3 pounds of refrigerant * 4 tons = 12 pounds of refrigerant.
$400 per 30 pound cylinder of refrigerant = $13.33 per pound of R-22
$13.33 * 12 pounds of refrigerant = $160 for a recharge.
Now that we have figured out an R-22 recharge let’s take a look at the new counterpart refrigerant known as R-410A. 410A typically costs about ninety dollars per twenty-five pound cylinder. So, let’s do the same scenario above but this time substitute the $13.33 R-22 per pound with the $3.60 per pound of R-410A.
$3.60 * 12 pounds of refrigerant = $43.20 for a recharge.
While the amounts mentioned above may not seem that bad, keep in mind that you also have to pay for the actual repair as well. The repair could be a couple hundred as well. You also need to consider what the price per pound on R-22 would be if the price went up significantly when the 2020 deadline hit. Let’s say it rose to six-hundred dollars a cylinder. That one-hundred and sixty recharge bill now just jumped to two-hundred and forty dollars.
The decision to repair or replace is going to have to be a judgement call. If this is the first repair for your R-22 unit then it may make sense to throw four or five-hundred dollars at it. But, if you are having to repair the unit multiple times a season then your best choice would be to scrap it and purchase an entirely new R-410A system instead.