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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Use air conditioning? Grab your wallet

Depletion of the ozone layer is serious, especially for red-haired and fair-skinned people to whom UV is the enemy. The Montreal Protocol was established in 1987 to control halogenated hydrocarbons that disrupt ozone. Unfortunately, halogenated hydrocarbons include most refrigerant gases used in homes. R-12, or common "freon", fell under the crosshairs first. Now it's R-22.

This week the Montreal Protocol arrived at my front door when my heat pump needed four pounds of R-22. Due to restrictions on import and manufacture, the wholesale price of R-22 has risen above $10 per pound. Apply the typical 5-7X retail markup for delivery and installation, and R-22 is getting expensive!

It's true that R-22, which is now being salvaged from old air conditioners, will be available for at least the next several years. The question is what price will R-22 reach, as manufacturing restrictions are tightened further. Essentially, the Montreal Protocol is coercing us to drop R-22 without prohibiting it immediately. The wealthier you are, the longer you can wait.

EPA does not allow a consumer to buy R-22, so I cannot hoard it at home. As far as I know, no one is running an R-22 "bank" where a consumer can prepurchase R-22 to be held in a dealer's inventory for future use. Perhaps the EPA would not permit that, either.

Keep the heat pump but replace R-22 with another refrigerant? Difficult, risky, and probably expensive. Most new heat pumps use R-410, which does not threaten the ozone layer; but R-410 won't work in a system designed for R-22. Some online sources say that R-407 can be used to retrofit R-22 heat pumps, but a complete purge and interior cleaning is required -- possibly a new compressor, too. I can't find any HVAC company in Raleigh that advertises experience in R-407 retrofits. And why should they? It's easier, more profitable, and less risky for dealers to sell new R-410 heat pumps.

My heat pump is only five years old. I suppose I'll throw R-22 at it until I can't afford to -- and that might be only 12 more months.