The past few weeks have been rather crazy on my side of the world. I started a new job a few weeks ago, put a contract down on a house, and the kids start school in just a month. Time is definitely flying by. I’m hoping here in a few months things will begin to calm down… but we will see.
Overall the news has been rather slow in the refrigerant industry the past few weeks. One story I did come across today though was that United Airlines has announced that they will be spending twenty million dollars to replace their aging air conditioners. These aren’t the air conditioners on the plane though. No, these are mobile units that are used while the plane is parked at the gateway to keep the plane nice and cool for when passengers leave or board the plane.
Truth be told, I didn’t even know these existed. I had assumed that the planes had their built in air conditioners running while on the tarmac through an auxiliary power unit. (Similar to what we do with heavy duty semi trucks.) Instead, airlines have these units called Air Conditioning Units for Aircraft (ACUs) and Pre-Conditioned Air Units (PCAs). They are a heating and cooling unit that can be moved to any plane on the tarmac. It makes perfect sense and is most likely more cost efficient then having APUs installed on each plane.
The ACUs and PCAS that United Airlines have are aging and use the HCFC R-22. As we all know, R-22 is completely phased out here in just a few months. (January 2020) While this is good news I will say that United Airlines isn’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts or to protect the climate. No, it is a business decision. These older units are not performing where they should be and in some cases are not able to fully cool the plane. Along with that they are also breaking down more and more frequently. This is not only costing in repairs but it is resulting in downtime for United Airlines. Downtime means money lost.
The plan is to invest twenty million dollars in replacing sixty-seven GPUs and eighty-five PCAs across their network. While that may seem like a large number, it is only a dent when compared to their total of five-hundred GPUs and four-hundred and sixty-four PCAs. Everyone has to start somewhere though. Along with replacing older R-22 units they will also be making the switch away from diesel/gasoline models and over to all electric. While electric models in the end cost more to operate United Airlines is seeking government grants to help offset the extra expense. So, I do have to give them credit here. They are making an effort at being green with these new units.
There doesn’t seem to be an end to the versatility of R-22. I swear, it’s everywhere. For most of us when we hear R-22 we picture a home or office building’s air conditioner. It’s the most popular and widely used R-22 application. But, since I’ve been doing this site I have seen R-22 ice rinks, R-22 fishing boats, R-22 shrimp boats, R-22 refrigerated transport, R-22 supermarket freezers/refrigerators, and now R-22 airline air conditioning.
The business owners who operate these machines are a whole other animal. These aren’t your residential customers who have an air conditioning unit that’s ten or fifteen years old that needs replaced. No, for the most part these business owners hold on to these R-22 air conditioners for as long as they can, sometimes longer then they should. This is all due to the investment needed to either retrofit their systems or to purchase a whole new HFC, HFO, or natural refrigerant system.
Sure, a homeowner may spend five or ten-thousand dollars on a new R-410A air conditioner. But, what about United Airline’s spending twenty million dollars on new portable air conditioners? That number is staggering and it is only about fifteen percent of their air conditioners. This is from a huge conglomerate like United Airlines. Now imagine a small town having to replace an R-22 ice rink. Or, a fishing company have to replace their refrigeration system on five or ten boats. The costs can be staggering and in some cases unaffordable. Many folks just kick the can down the road and hope their situation will improve a year or two later.
I don’t know if this constitutes as good news or not, but R-22 is at record low prices right now. This was unexpected in the market place and the assumption is that there is just a massive oversupply in the market place right now. Everyone has bought up and is holding onto what product they can. In some cases I have seen reports of small business owners buying pallets of R-22 just in case their aging system breaks.
The end is coming for these R-22 machines. We can bury our heads in the sand and ignore the problem, or we can come up with solutions. Is a retrofit possible? Is there an alternative refrigerant available for the application? Could the conversion be done in baby steps like what United Airlines is doing? Whatever way is decided, these R-22 systems need to be retired.