If you are lucky, your air conditioning system is not something you spend much time thinking about. When all goes according to plan, you simply set the thermostat to whatever level you desire and go about your day. Unfortunately, air conditioning systems are complex units which, while reliable, are still liable to fail. Whether your air conditioning system recently failed or you are simply looking to upgrade to a more efficient and modern system, it is important to know which variety of refrigerant your old unit contains.
What Is Refrigerant, And What Are The Different Types?
Refrigerant, often referred to as Freon, is the substance that allows most air conditioning systems to function. In their neutral state, the types of refrigerants utilized by common air conditioning systems will generally be a liquid. However, by compressing or expanding this substance it will undergo a phase change and thereby expand or contract, getting colder or hotter in the process. It is this manipulation of pressure and temperature that allows an air conditioner to chill the air in your home or business.
While there are innumerable variants of refrigerant, there are four primary varieties that have been used in commercially available air conditioning systems: R-22, R-290(also known as propane), R32, and R-410A. Of these, R-22 is the oldest system. While effective in cooling, other factors have led to the phasing out of R-22 as a refrigerant. Because of this, it is important to know whether or not your air conditioning system uses this substance, and what to do if it does.
The Difficulties With R-22
As previously mentioned, R-22 is an effective refrigerant in terms of sheer cooling capacity. However, because it is a hydrochlorofluorocarbon (or HCFC), it has been linked to the depletion of the ozone layer. Due to these effects, the system has been gradually phased out and will soon be banned completely. Since 2015 it has been illegal in the United States to install a new air conditioning system that utilized R-22. Further, starting January 1, 2020, the production or importation of R-22 will be banned. Thus, only pre-existing or recaptured R-22 will be available for servicing legacy air conditioning systems.
Because of the extremely limited supply of R-22, the price will continue to rise as less and less existing refrigerant is available. As of the time of this writing, a consumer can expect to pay roughly $750 to recharge a typical home A/C unit with R-22. Within the next several years, this number could easily double or triple, and thus eclipse the cost of a complete air conditioning system replacement.
How to Know If Your Air Conditioning System Uses R-22
It is quickly becoming fully apparent that in addition to the environmental impacts of R-22, the cost to maintain older systems that use the substance will simply be unsustainable. Thus, even if your air conditioning is currently working properly, it is a prudent idea to see whether or not your’s is an R-22 system.
If your house or business was built prior to 2015 and is still using the original climate control system, or if the system was updated sometime prior to 2015, there is a high likelihood that you are dealing with an R-22 system. To be sure, locate the outside compressor unit for your air conditioner. On the side, there will be a label or sticker that has various manufacturer information and specifications. While the labels are not standardized, they will include the refrigerant type somewhere within the information. If the label mentions R-22 or HCFC-22, it is the older style system. If it instead says R-410A or one of the other refrigerants mentioned above, you have a newer system and should be fine for the foreseeable future.
What to Do if You Have an R-22 System
R-22 systems are still very common in everyday use. Thus, it is quite likely that you will find your air conditioner to be one of these older systems. Here is what to do if you have an R-22 based air conditioner.
If you determine that the system in your home or business is R-22 based, and you wish to put off the expense of air conditioning replacement as long as possible, the first thing to do is to call an HVAC maintenance expert and have your system inspected and serviced. It is very possible that an R-22 based system will continue to provide years of affordable and effective service provided it is properly maintained. Your technician will want to focus specifically on leaks. When hoses and fittings get old, they can slowly allow the pressurized components of the air conditioner to discharge and release the refrigerant. Is this occurs, the cost to repair the system involves not only finding and repairing the leak but recharging the system with the increasingly expensive and hard to find R-22.
Analyze Replacing R22 in Your Air Conditioner Versus Replacing The Entire System
When your R-22 system stops working, it is always necessary to replace the entire system. Replacing R22 in your air conditioner is a possible solution. There is a new refrigerant, R-438A, which is specifically designed as a replacement refrigerant for use in older R-22 systems. This can be large cost savings but is not without its caveats. Generally, retrofitting a system with R-428A involved recapturing any remaining R-22, replacing several valves and seals on the compressor and associated components, and recharging with the new refrigerant.
While this can provide an economical solution in some instances, it is not necessarily a perfect solution. R-438A is not as efficient in transferring heat when it undergoes phases changes. Thus, its use reduces the efficiency of an air-conditioning system as a whole. Not only does this reduce the cooling capacity of the system, but it can require the system to consume more power while putting more wear and tear on the existing components. If your system is relatively new and needs little more than more refrigerant in order to be fully functional, this may be a good solution to discuss with your technician. However, if you are dealing with an older system whose other components may be prone to failure, the use of R-438A may be a stop-gap not worth utilizing.
Look Into Ways to Reduce Replacement Cost
The cost of an air conditioning replacement can certainly be daunting, but there are ways to mitigate this expense. Once you have determined that your best option is a replacement instead of maintenance or retrofitting, begin researching methods to lower the cost of replacement. Thankfully, many components of the older system can often be reused, such as the ducting and thermostats. Thus, the cost will not be that of an entire HVAC replacement, rather just the compressor and associated components.
Further, many locations offer tax incentives or credits to aid in the replacement of older A/C units with newer more efficient systems. Or, in the case of a commercial application, the update will almost certainly be considered a business expense and be tax-deductible. Either way, the finalized amount can be much lower than it initially seems.
Lastly, many modern air conditioning systems are much more efficient than their dated predecessors. So even if the expense is a short-term detriment, the newer system will very likely pay for itself over time by lowering energy costs, increasing cooling capacity, and reducing maintenance expenses.