One of my most visited articles this year was on the topic of the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed phase down and eventual phase out of the HFC R-134a. This article is a few years old now and it was referencing the EPA’s SNAP Rule 20 and 21. These rules, which were issued in 2015, stated that R-134a would no longer be acceptable for use in new 2021 model year vehicles.
When I wrote that article everyone was under the impression that this phase out would come to fruition and auto-makers would be forced to switch away from R-134a just as they had done in the 90’s with R-12. There was very little debate on it, it was just the next logical step. However, the winds of politics changed a few years after the EPA announced their new regulations.
In the summer of 2017 a federal court overturned the EPA’s regulations stating that they had overstepped their authority. The argument was that the EPA was using authority granted to them by the Clean Air Act and the Montreal Protocol. Both of these refer to Ozone damage done by products that contain chlorine. Since HFCs contain no chlorine and do not harm the Ozone the EPA does not have authority to phase them out. HFCs do harm the environment, just not in the specific way that these documents lay out. It may have been a loophole, but the law is the law.
This was a surprise to a lot of folks and it caught many companies off guard. I know that courts are supposed to be impartial when it comes to politics but I find it an odd coincidence that a short while after Trump is elected we see this significant overturn in government policy. The court’s ruling voided the EPA’s SNAP Rule 20 and 21 regulations including the one on R-134a. So, as of 2017 there is NOT a scheduled phase out date for R-134a. When I initially heard about this ruling I had assumed automakers would take the easy route and continue the status quo with R-134a.
I was wrong. Over the years more and more makes and models are switching their new vehicles away from R-134a and over to the HFO 1234yf. Earlier this year I wrote an article that attempted to gather a listing of ALL manufactured cars and what refrigerant they are using for their 2020 models. This article took quite a bit of time as I had to dig through instruction manuals for each of these vehicles in an effort to determine the refrigerant they used.
The results were rather astounding. If you look at the top fifty selling cars within the United States there are only fifteen using R-134a. That is a seventy percent market share and those numbers are growing with each passing year. Over the next few years there is a prediction that up to ninety percent of cars will be using 1234yf. There are a few reasons for this but in my opinion one of the biggest is that the European Union and other countries have already begun phasing out R-134a. The EU is using R-1234yf and R-744 in their newer vehicles. Perhaps, in an effort of engineering simplification these auto-makers have decided to bite the bullet and switch to 1234yf.
The other major reason for this is pressure from state and environmental groups. While the Federal Government doesn’t have a phase out plan for R-134a there are many states that do. These states makeup what’s known as the Climate Alliance. While not all of these states have announced an HFC phase out plan a good portion of them have. Some of the largest are California, New York, and Washington State. These states can have enormous sway with auto-makers. Just imagine if Ford could no longer sell their trucks in California or New York. That would be a huge impact. Why not make ALL of their vehicles compatible and just use 1234yf?
So, instead of the phase out that occurred with R-12 we have seen a phase out occur due to attrition. Over time the amount of cars using R-134a is going to shrink and shrink. Yes, it may take another ten years or so to get most of the R-134a vehicles off the streets but, in essence, the phase out has already begun. With all of the twists and turns the R-134a phase out has had it is somewhat ironic that we may hit the ninety percent 1234yf usage by the year 2021. While we may have not met the EPA’s goal entirely we are going to be darn close.
Before I close this article I did want to bring up one additional point. This is a question that I’ve had in the back of my mind when it comes to 1234yf. You see, I work in the heavy duty trucking industry. Think over-the-road trucks, dump trucks, water trucks, etc. Through all of this talk on phasing out R-134a for automotive vehicles I have seen very little, or in some cases nothing, when it comes to R-134a usage in truck classes six, seven, and eight.
I have seen the amount of R-134a a single truck dealership can go through in a year. The numbers can be staggering. The question I have is when will these truck OEMs begin to seriously look at 1234yf? Has Kenworth or Freightliner already begun looking? The only news stories I could find on it are three or more years old and reference the original EPA rule as gospel. If we’re going to phase out R-134a in automotive we have to phase it out in heavy-duty as well.
I wonder, when will these OEM behemoths make the move?