The term or name Freon is commonly used all over the country to describe what is inside your home or vehicle’s air conditioner. While we have all heard of this term before many of us do not really know what Freon is, where it comes from, or how it works. First, let me explain that the term Freon refers to the refrigerant that is inside your air conditioner. Freon and refrigerant though are not inter-changeable. In fact, the name Freon is a brand of refrigerant.
Confused yet? Well, let’s put it this way. When you want a soda you may either say, ‘I want a soda,’ or you may say, ‘I want a Coke.’ There are two distinct differences here. The term soda is a generic name for various types of cola. The name Coke is referring to a specific brand of soda called Coca-Cola. The same logic can be applied to the term Freon and refrigerant.
The reason the Freon brand is so commonly used and referred to in today’s world is that the Freon brand was the first mainstream refrigerant that was used across the world. The Freon refrigerant was invented all the way back in the 1930’s through a partnership with the DuPont company and General Motors. Together the companies synthesized the first CFC and HCFC refrigerants known as R-12 and R-22. These new classes of refrigerants were trademarked by DuPont under the brand name Freon.
The moment these new refrigerants were invented they began to take off in popularity. That was because they checked all of the boxes of what the world was looking for in a refrigerant. Past refrigerants such as Ammonia, Carbon Dioxide, and Hydrocarbons all had their own problems associated with them. They were either dangerous to operate due to their toxicity, they operated at too high of pressures and caused constant failures, or the refrigerant was just too expensive to use in mass. The Freon branded refrigerants changed all of this and put refrigeration and air conditioning within reach of the common man.
The Fall of Freon
Fast forwarding nearly fifty years into the future into the 1980’s and Freon appliances can be found all across the globe. Air conditioning is found in all of the newest homes and refrigerators/freezers are everywhere. It was around this same time that a team of scientists discovered that there was a hole forming in what’s known as the Ozone layer. This Ozone layer protects us from ultraviolet radiation, without it skin damage and cancers would begin to skyrocket. After some research it was discovered that the primary cause of this hole was the releasing or venting of gases into the atmosphere that contain Chlorine.
Freon refrigerants such as R-12 and R-22 were under the CFC and HCFC classifications. Each of these classifications contained Chlorine. So, with the rise and popularity of refrigeration and air conditioning growing so did the problem with the Ozone layer. In an effort to fix the damage and prevent any further destruction form occurring a group of countries gathered together in Montreal and signed a treaty known as the Montreal Protocol. This treaty aimed at phasing down CFC and HCFC refrigerants and replacing them with either HFC refrigerants, Hydrocarbon refrigerants, or Natural Refrigerants. The Chlorine refrigerants had to go.
The first to be removed was the CFC R-12. R-12 was found in various applications but the most impactful was the vehicle air conditioning sector. After 1992 all vehicles had to switch away from R-12 and over to the new HFC refrigerant known as R-134a. This was the first real test of phasing down refrigerants. As the years rolled by more and more CFCs and eventually HCFC refrigerants were phased down and eventually phased out entirely. Some of these include R-11, R-502, and R-22. That last one, R-22 is a big one as well. R-22 was found in nearly every home and commercial air conditioning unit in the world. Here in America the phase down began in 2010 and will finish in 2020. Like with most phase downs it is a gradual staggered approach.
While the term Freon is still used all over the place today the fact of the matter is that actual Freon using systems are nearly gone. Sure, there are still some antiques out there and there are still some older R-22 machines still chugging along but as each year passes these machines age and age. After a certain amount of time they will have to be retired and then the world will have no more Freon containing systems.
But, don’t worry folks, I’m sure the name Freon will still be around for decades to come. It is one of those brand names that has just stuck in everyone’s head. However, if you are talking to an HVAC technician and you wanted to be correct in your refrigerant name then you should check your air conditioner. If it says that your unit takes R-22 refrigerant then you can get away with calling it Freon. If you find that your system is using the HFC R-410A refrigerant then the brand name for this product is actually Puron.
Either way, if you say Freon most people are going to know what you’re talking about even if it isn’t one-hundred percent correct.