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The Loophole and the Ozone Hole

How the EPA has let us (and the planet) down with its air conditioner regulations

Posted on Sep 5 2012 by Allison A. Bailes III, PhD, GBA Advisor

Holes are generally bad things. Those of us who teach building science spend a lot of time showing people how to measure the effects of holes, how to seal them up, and why they’re bad in the first place. That’s not universally true, of course. Some holes we do want, but we also want to be able to control what happens in those holes, as with a door or window.

The story I’m about to relay to you involves two holes. One of them was discovered decades ago. The other just appeared in the past two years. These two holes are connected. The fate of the older hole, which we’d like to see get smaller, is now bound up to a degree with the presence of the newer hole, which the EPA could close up completely but hasn’t.

This is a dirty little secret of the EPA and the HVAC(Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). Collectively, the mechanical systems that heat, ventilate, and cool a building. industry. It involves the environment, the costs that homeowners pay to buy and maintain air conditioners and heat pumps, and a legal loophole that's starting to look as big as the ozone hole. It’s the story of what’s come to be called the “dry-ship R-22 unit.” If you’re hearing about this for the first time, you’re not alone. I just found out about it myself.

Can air conditioning make you go blind?

My connection to the world of heating and air conditioning contractors goes way back. My grandfather (Allison Sr., whom I called Pappaw) had a heating, AC, plumbing, and electrical business (Bailes Electric) in Leesville, Louisiana, and I used to spend my teenage summers going out on calls with him and my uncle. (The photo of the measuring cup below, which sits on my desk, is from an earlier business he had with his brother, Russell.)

One of the things we often did on calls was put the gauges on air conditioners to check the refrigerant charge. Often, Pappaw or my uncle would prepare to fix a hole in the system by emptying all of the refrigerant first. Back in the '70s, there were no refrigerant capture systems or regulations, so we sprayed a lot of refrigerant out of the hole at the end of the hose on the gauges. The refrigerants of choice at the time were the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which usually went by their trade name, Freon.

Remember that stuff? I did a science fair project on CFCs and their effect on our atmosphere in 1978. It turns out that the stuff migrated up to the stratosphere, where it has a tremendous appetite for the three-atom form of oxygen, called ozone. That's bad. Ozone in the stratosphere has a tremendous appetite for ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. That's good. UV radiation, you're probably aware, has a tremendous appetite for skin cells, causing cancer when we get too much of it. That's bad.

The bottom line: CFCs destroy ozone, which leads to more UV radiation, which leads to more cancer.

The amount of ozone in the lower stratosphere has decreased about 4% per decade since we discovered this effect in 1974. In addition, a huge ‘hole’ in the ozone layer develops in the polar regions every spring, and scientists have documented the changes in the ozone hole since discovering it in the 1980s. The ozone levels in the hole are running about half what they were 1980. (See graph below.)

You also may have heard reports of sheep going blind in Chile because of the extra UV. It turned out to be a local infection rather than the additional UV radiation coming in through the ozone hole. Still, CFCs destroy ozone, which leads to more cancer and other problems. The science is pretty solid here.

In 1987, the Montreal Protocol began the phase-out of CFCs with a plan to move to less harmful refrigerants. In the early '90s, CFCs were phased out and replaced with the HCFC R-22 in air conditioning systems. Its use was to be temporary, as the 1993 decision to move to more ozone-friendly refrigerants would end the use of new R-22 HVACR systems (the R is for refrigeration) at the end of 2009. The more benign HFC R-410A became the replacement, and it was set to become the only game in town for new systems manufactured starting in 2010.

A loophole the size of the ozone hole

The US EPA gave manufacturers and contractors some wiggle room, naturally. They couldn't just tell the manufacturers they had to destroy all their unsold units in 2010. They also couldn't just strand all the people out there who already had R-22 in their air conditioners. As a result, manufacturers could sell their stock of R-22 units until depleted, continue to make parts to maintain the existing systems, and keep making R-22 refrigerant until 2020.

If you go to the EPA's website to read about the phase-out of R-22, you'll find this statement: “[H]eating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system manufacturers may not produce new air conditioners and heat pumps containing R-22.”

Do you see the loophole? As long as they ship the units “dry,” manufacturers concluded, they could continue to make and sell air conditioners and heat pumps designed to use R-22. Hence the term “dry-ship R-22 unit.” Rather than charging them with R-22 at the factory, they fill them with nitrogen and let the contractors add the R-22.

Clearly, this violates the intent of the regulation phasing out R-22 when these dry-ship R-22 units are used as new installs. There’s your loophole the size of the ozone hole.

Yeah, but how many are really doing it?

As it turns out, a surprisingly high percentage of new systems are in the “dry-ship R-22” category. Recently I was speaking with an HVAC supply house executive who told me that these loophole escapees make up about 30% of the units they sell. The author of an article on dry ship R-22 units on the Contracting Business website interviewed his local suppliers and found the following: “One supplier told me it was about even. Several more said they sell slightly more dry units than R-410a systems. One supplier told me they sell four to five times as many dry units as complete systems.”

Yes, some of these might actually be used as they're intended — as replacement components in existing systems — but I think most people in the industry know that the majority of these dry-ship R-22 units are new installs.

Who's to blame?

From what I hear, it was a manufacturer of low-end equipment that first walked through the loophole and starting making dry-ship R-22 units. When the EPA didn't step in to close the loophole, the race was on. Both the EPA and the HVAC industry share the blame.

The makers of higher-end equipment don't want to give up market share to those on the lower end who can exploit a bigger price difference. The dealers and the contractors, likewise, have to compete, and the EPA has forced their hand by allowing this situation to continue.

Both sides are to blame, but one is more to blame than the other. Yes, the HVAC industry is exploiting the loophole, but the EPA has the power to close it and has not. The EPA could have shut this down as soon as it became apparent.

Carrier has even petitioned the EPA to close the loophole. John Mandyke of Carrier, in an interview with ContractingBusiness.com, explained it this way: “As an industry, we were prepared for the R-22 transition — manufacturers had invested in the new technology and contractors had invested in technician training, as well as in helping consumers prepare for this transition. The loophole threw all that up in the air.”

As long as the manufacturers keep making the dry-ship R-22 units, though, the downstream companies — dealers and contractors — feel the pressure to play the game, too. Not all of them, however. I know of one contracting company that, out of the more than 2,000 condensers they've installed since this came up, only about 10 have been dry-ship R-22 units.

Why you should ask for R-410A

If you're a builder or contractor installing new HVAC systems or a homeowner in the market for a new air conditioner or heat pump, you really should make sure that you don't get a new system that has what should be an illegal refrigerant. Here's why dry-ship R-22 units are a problem:

  • R-22 destroys more ozone than R-410A.
  • R-22 will get more and more expensive as we approach the end of its production in 2020.
  • Once production of R-22 ends, homeowners may end up having to by a new air conditioner sooner than if they’d bought the R-410A system.
  • The presence of so many dry-ship R-22 units has stalled the full-scale adoption of R-410A systems.

Even if you don’t believe or care about the ozone hole and skin cancer, this loophole is going to cost people more money when they’re being promised savings. Consider this: A contractor installs a dry-ship R-22 air conditioner for a customer this year. In 2020, manufacturers will stop making R-22. In 2021, it may be more cost-effective to replace the customer’s air conditioner than fix it because of the exorbitant cost of R-22. The customer gets 9 years of use from an air conditioner that should last 15.

This whole dry-ship R-22 unit game has been a dirty little secret of the EPA and the HVAC industry with plenty of folks in the industry and government willing to justify jumping through the loophole. Yes, there are some folks with admirable ethics and good motivations, but those of us who are buyers need to be aware of this issue. A contractor may make a compelling case to you about why the loophole is a good thing. Don't follow them through that hole; the footing isn't all that steady on the other side.

Allison Bailes of Decatur, Georgia, is a RESNET-accredited energy consultant, trainer, and the author of the Energy Vanguard blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @EnergyVanguard.


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Image Credits:

  1. Energy Vanguard
  2. Wikimedia Commons

1.
Sat, 09/08/2012 - 06:13

Edited Sat, 09/08/2012 - 06:15.

This is an important topic
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Allison,
Thanks for reporting this important story. It deserves attention.

Here's a related story from today's New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/08/science/earth/smugglers-sell-coolant-t...


2.
Sat, 09/08/2012 - 09:21

Related, but they missed this...
by Allison A. Bailes III, PhD, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Thanks, Martin. Four people so far today have pointed out that New York Times story to me. I just read it and saw that they seem oblivious to what I reported on here. I tried to find a way to send an email to the authors, but the best I could do was to send an email to their general green blogs email.

Here are a couple of indicators that they're unaware of dry-ship R-22 units:

"Under an international treaty, the gas, HCFC-22, has been phased out of new equipment in the industrialized world..."

A few paragraphs later, they say:

"Although it has been illegal to sell new air-conditioners containing HCFC-22 in the United States since 2010..."

In my email, I alerted them to this topic and hope they'll pick up this story.


3.
Sat, 09/08/2012 - 10:36

Response to Allison Bailes
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Allison,
The NY Times authors came close to the topic of your blog -- but didn't quite get there -- when they wrote, "Many air-conditioning manufacturers have even figured out how to sidestep the 2010 ban on selling new machines containing HCFC-22, by offering unfilled air-conditioning compressors that service workers swap into existing units and then fill with the gas, creating refurbished machines that are as good as new."


4.
Sat, 09/08/2012 - 11:36

I missed that part.
by Allison A. Bailes III, PhD, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Thanks, Martin. I read the whole NYT article but somehow missed that part. Yes, they did get close but not all the way there. It's not just the compressor, it's the whole condensing unit that gets swapped out. And the systems aren't really "as good as new" after the replacement because they still have the same air handler and evaporator coil, unless they change out those parts, too. And if they do change out everything, they're clearly skirting the intent of the Montreal Protocol.


5.
Sun, 09/09/2012 - 21:30

I, for one, refuse the dry
by Curt Kinder

Helpful? 0

I, for one, refuse the dry ship algorithm.

If its new, it isn't R22.


6.
Fri, 11/23/2012 - 06:40

Edited Fri, 11/23/2012 - 06:46.

Another New York Times article
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

The New York Times is once again focusing on this issue in a new article, "Effort to Curb Dangerous Coolant Falters."

The article notes, "The E.P.A. publicized that it would allow owners of older systems to replace any and all parts so long as the new parts did not contain the coolant. Unfortunately ... that created a loophole that subverted the mandate: Manufacturers could sell condenser units — the major component of every air-conditioning system — that were empty of coolant gas."


7.
Mon, 02/25/2013 - 20:34

A hole in your theory
by Igor Mastovitch

Helpful? 0

You state as if it's fact the theory that "The bottom line: CFCs destroy ozone, which leads to more UV radiation, which leads to more cancer.". I've heard the bit about CFC's attack 3 atom oxygen (ozone) and break it apart to become .....oh, you leave that out - oxygen. Then, because that ozone is "gone", it lets more UV light in, causing cancer. The HUGE problem with that idea is that UV radiation, acting on OXYGEN, produces....wait for it....OZONE!!! Therefore the idea that there can be a "hole in the ozone" is rubbish. The UV would produce ozone as fast as CFC's supposedly destroy it. That can be proven by visiting a hot tub dealer, who will gladly show you an ozone generator, which simply is a uv light source in a tube full of room air, which generates ozone.

Lastly, the ban on manufacture of R-22 doesn't apply in Mexico, for example (http://www.epa.gov/ozone/title6/phaseout/22phaseout.html) - and one of the most lucrative smuggled items into the US is cans of R-12 from there. Obviously R-22 will follow - and already has (http://www.eenews.net/public/Greenwire/2011/11/09/1) Kind of seems frivolous to ban something in one (affluent) country, but make it legal in an adjacent country. Whether it gets smuggled or not, the net effect is no reduction in the amount of R-12 unleashed on the world - just WHERE it's done. So punish the bad affluent countries, and let the poor ones pollute.


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