Well ladies and gentlemen the reign of R-134a has finally come to an end here in the United States. Last week RIGHT before the July fourth holiday the Environmental Protection Agency thought it was the perfect time to announce that they will be phasing out R-134a across the country. I wrote an article summarizing the announcement as well.
The timing of this drives me crazy and just screams big government. I got an e-mail on my phone while I was driving home Thursday night with the news. It caught me off guard, not because I wasn’t expecting 134a to go away but because it was literally right before the holiday weekend and mandatory phase outs of HFC refrigerants was the furthest thing from my mind. I had a barbecue to plan and fireworks to watch, and I can just picture the guys in the EPA office hitting the ‘send’ button and walking out of the office for four days off.
Ok, enough of that little rant, let’s get down to business.
When Will R-134a Be Phased Out?
According to the EPA’s announcement the chosen date for mandatory R-134a phase out is the year 2020. The goal is for all vehicles with the model year of 2021 to use an alternative refrigerant in place of 134a. They did make an exception for vehicles that are specifically manufactured for export out of the country. Vehicle exports have a cut off of 2024 or 2025 model year. So, we are looking at less than five years until 134a is phased out nationally. Five years seems like a long time but it will come in a flash and I can only hope that the vehicle manufacturers are ready for the new systems.
An excerpt from their actual ruling is below.
“EPA is listing HFC-134a as unacceptable for newly manufactured light-duty motor vehicles beginning in Model Year (MY) 2021 except as allowed under a narrowed use limit for use in newly manufactured light-duty vehicles destined for use in countries that do not have infrastructure in place for servicing with other acceptable refrigerants. This narrowed use limit will be in place through MY 2025. Beginning in MY 2026, HFC-134a will be unacceptable for use in all newly manufactured light-duty vehicles.”
The Reign of R-134a
R-134a came about as a replacement refrigerant for the R-12 Refrigerant that was being phased out due to the Chlorine that it contained. R-12 was the standard refrigerant for vehicles for many years but as air conditioning became more and more popular the amount of R-12 Refrigerant that was released into the atmosphere grew and grew. It was found that the Chlorine contained in R-12 was actively damaging the Earth’s O-Zone layer which was leading to increased ultra violet radiation and overall warming of the planet.
R-134a was picked as a replacement due to it not containing Chlorine and thus not affecting the O-Zone layer. R-134a first began to see widespread usage in 1992 and took over the automotive market entirely in 1994. If you have a vehicle from 1994 or newer your air conditioning unit takes R-134a. It has been the standard automotive refrigerant for over twenty years.
While the intention was great R-134a was found to have an extremely high Global Warming Potential, or GWP. GWP is a measurement of how much heat a greenhouse gas will trap in the atmosphere. The GWP scale uses Carbon Dioxide as a baseline control number. CO2 has a GWP of 1 while R-134a has a GWP of 1,320. 134a was directly contributing to Global Warming and the call to phase out had begun.
The European Union was the first group of nations to begin phase out of R-134a. All new vehicles manufactured in 2011 or newer could no longer be made to use R-134a. Manufacturers had to find an alternative refrigerant that was under the Global Warming Potential requirement of 150. It was all but predicted that the United States would be next to phase out 134a but it was just a matter of when. We now have that date, 2020.
134a reigned supreme for twenty-one years already and will continue to be used widely through out the country for another five years. Almost a thirty year reign. Not bad if I say so myself.
What is the Replacement?
There is one mainstream refrigerant that will be replacing 134a and that is the new 1234YF. 1234YF is a hydroflurooolefin refrigerant and has a Global Warming Potential of four and it does not damage the O-Zone layer. Oh, and did I mention that 1234YF decomposes into the atmosphere after only eleven days?
1234YF was developed by a joint venture of DuPont and Honeywell in response to the European Union’s phase out plan of 134a back in 2006. At this point in time there are two main brand names, the Honeywell version called Solstice and DuPont’s/Chemour’s version called Opteon YF. In 2014 three million cars were taking 1234YF and at the end of 2015 that number is expected to double. As the phase-out of 134a approaches expect to see more and more manufacturers switching over to 1234YF in the United States and abroad.
Pros of 1234YF
- 1234YF runs at similar pressures and is practically a drop in replacement for 134a. This will help keep costs down when switching over a system.
- 1234YF does not contribute to Global Warming.
- 1234YF does not harm the O-Zone layer and actually decomposes into the atmosphere after only eleven days.
- 1234YF allows for lighter and more compact air conditioning units which benefits your vehicle’s fuel economy.
- You will not need to be EPA certified to purchase 1234YF.
Cons of 1234YF
- Price. I hope you are not used to the one-hundred dollar price for a thirty pound jug of 134a. That’ll be going away fast. Expect to pay around $700-$800 for a ten pound cylinder of 1234YF in 2015. The good news is 1234YF systems do not use as much refrigerant as the older 134a systems.
- Flammability – Most OE’s will state that yes, 1234YF does have higher flammability… but it is of no risk to the consumer or technicians. However, if you have that same conversation with someone in Germany you may get an entirely different story. Hint, check with Daimler!
- New Equipment will have to be purchased in order for you shop to handle 1234YF refrigerant. Yes, that means a whole new recovery machine, potentially even new identification equipment as well.
Even though 1234YF is set to be the dominant player in the automotive industry there is still another alternative that is slowly picking up some traction.
The other alternative refrigerant is the Natural Refrigerant Carbon Dioxide. Most companies have stayed away from using Carbon Dioxide as CO2 systems would require a much larger and heavier air conditioning system than what is used in automobiles today and there is not currently a supply line setup for mass manufacturing of carbon dioxide refrigerant parts.
Despite those two drawbacks of CO2 there are automobile manufacturers who are moving forward with CO2 instead of 1234YF. In the early days of 1234YF the German company Mercedes Benz did numerous tests on the new refrigerant and found that the refrigerant is extremely flammable and can even cause the refrigerant to ignite during a frontal collision. One such test caused the engine to erupt in flames. Mercedes Benz and other Germany manufacturers were alarmed by this discovery and vowed that they would not be using 1234YF as standard replacement refrigerant.
Stefan Geyer, a senior Daimler engineer who ran the tests, stated “We were frozen in shock, I am not going to deny it. We needed a day to comprehend what we had just seen.” This is just one Daimler Engineer’s reaction to their testing of 1234YF.
Germany authorized it’s automobile manufacturers to continue using 134a until a suitable replacement refrigerant is chosen. The European Union was obviously not happy with this as Germany was now in violation of the new law banning 134a. The EU threatened Germany with law suits and sanctions, but so far nothing has come of it. After years of research German companies decided on the R-744 or Carbon Dioxide refrigerant instead of the 1234YF.
Pros of Carbon Dioxide
- Carbon Dioxide has a Global Warming Potential of 0. It’s rival, 1234YF, has a GWP of 4. Not a huge difference here, but 1234YF is still contributing to Global Warming.
- Carbon Dioxide does not contribute to Global Warming, O-Zone depletion, or any other environmental concern. It is a natural refrigerant.
- Carbon Dioxide systems are some of the most energy efficient products on the market today.
- Many collisions tests have been done with CO2 systems and none have resulted in a fire hazard. (Unlike 1234YF)
- You are not forced to recover, recycle, or even reclaim R-744/CO2 refrigerant as it has no ill effects on the environment.
Cons of Carbon Dioxide
- Carbon Dioxide systems are much bulkier and heavier than their 1234YF and 134a counter parts. This extra weight can create a drag in fuel economy.
- Carbon Dioxide works at an extremely high pressure. This high pressure means that automotive air conditioning systems will have to be completely redesigned in order for them to use R-744. This is a big detriment as 1234YF is being marketed as a drop in replacement for 134a.
- Again, due to the high pressure that CO2 operates new components are having to be specifically designed in order for them to work properly with CO2 and to last. When CO2 was used in the early twentieth century it resulted in many part failures due to the constant high operating pressure.
I predict in the next ten to fifteen years that Carbon Dioxide will be the main refrigerant for automobiles. 1234YF seems to be temporary, just as 134a was. We’ll most likely go through this whole change over throughout the next few years only to change everything over again to the ‘new’ Carbon Dioxide refrigerant.
What Will Happen to Pricing on R-134a?
The pricing on R-134a is anything but certain. It is difficult to say what will happen to the price over the next few months and even the next few years. Let’s look at the facts:
- R-134a will be phased out in five years across the country.
- On top of the phase out of 134a the ‘American Hydrocarbon Commission,’ just filed an anti-dumping suit with the United States Department of Commerce against Chinese refrigerants.
With these two things in mind I expect the price of R-134a to slowly creep up over the rest of this summer and winter. I do not foresee a sudden jump but more of a slow rise. In the spring of 2016 I predict R-134a will be at around $115.00 for a thirty pound cylinder. (It’s at about $75-$80 a cylinder today.) As more time passes the more this price will rise until we get to 2020 and then we may even see the price get to R-22 levels of around $300-$350 a cylinder.
R-134a had a good run and most people saw the end coming, we just didn’t think it would be this soon. The only thing we can do now is watch and wait. Vehicle manufacturers will begin the slow process of switching newer models over to 1234YF and as the years pass you will see more and more vehicles coming in with 1234YF systems. It’s a brave new world… until we decide to phase out 1234YF. Then who knows.