“A New Zealand technician got fire balled in the face,” a member of the HVAC-talk.com forum stated bluntly. He was referring to a case in New Zealand where an HVAC tech got burned when he thought he was working on a system with R-22 refregerant, which is not flammable, but which instead was filled with propane, which is flammable.
The latest turn in the story on the phase-out of R-22 air conditioner refrigerant is the use of unapproved substitutes for R-22. You can go online and find a lot of them. They have different labels—R-22a, 22-A, HC-22a, CARE 40, and more. The advantage they have that’s given them some traction in the marketplace is that they’re cheaper than R-22, which has become really expensive because it’s being phased out.
Propane in your air conditioner?
Yes, some HVAC companies are putting propane, isobutane, and various other mixtures in air conditioners. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using hydrocarbons as refrigerants. They’re actually approved for use in some refrigeration systems. One of their benefits is having a low global warming potential, especially compared to the standard refrigerants (HCFCs and HFCs).
In fact, the Treehugger website had an article praising the US Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to allow them in refrigerators a couple of years ago. One advantage is higher heat capacities, which allows for smaller compressors and coils, less refrigerant, and higher efficiency. According to that article, “Hydrocarbon refrigerants also take less energy to make and have no toxic inputs during manufacture, are dirt cheap (pennies instead of dollars per pound) and do not require expensive and tricky recovery operations at end of product life.”
The problems with R-22 substitutes
Despite the benefits of hydrocarbon refrigerants, they’re being used in ways that just aren’t smart. The two main problems are: (1) Air conditioners designed for R-22 and retrofitted with hydrocarbon refrigerants are dangerous to service technicians who aren’t aware of the substitution; and (2) air conditioners designed for R-22 often can’t handle hydrocarbon refrigerants.
The EPA this month issued a news release about the dangers of unapproved refrigerants. “EPA is aware of incidents that have occurred both overseas and in the U.S. where individuals have been injured as a result of the use of propane and other unapproved refrigerants in air conditioning systems.”
The incident in New Zealand may be one of those. Anyone who puts hydrocarbon refrigerants in an R-22 system is putting others at risk. Even if they label it, the chances are still too high that some tech will come in later, see what looks like an R-22 system, miss the new labeling, and get the surprise of their life when they discover they’re working with flammable refrigerant.
As if the threat of injury weren’t enough, propane and other R-22 subsititutes have equipment problems when used in systems designed for R-22. The Lennox page on alternative refrigerants lists these additional pitfalls for their equipment:
- Alternate refrigerants are NOT compatible with mineral oil. All Lennox and Aire-Flo nitrogen-charged “dry” units contain mineral oil lubricant. Using alternative refrigerants to service R-22 mineral oil units can have detrimental effects on the operation of the unit.
- The use of alternate refrigerant in systems containing mineral oil as their lubricant voids the manufacturer and compressor warranty.
- The use of alternate refrigerants in other R-22 systems containing polyester oil (POE) can lead to performance loss (capacity and energy efficiency), temperature glide variations, and some combinations will be more detrimental to the environment than R-22.
When I was searching for info on the subsitutes, I came across sellers of R-22A who promote their products by saying you don’t need a license to buy and use it. The last thing the HVAC industry needs is more unlicensed activity.
The Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) also came out with an article about R-22 substitutes and the EPA news release. “Hydrocarbon refrigerants pose a special hazard for HVAC contractors unaware of their presence in a system.”
How low will we stoop?
R-22 is being phased out because of damage to the ozone layer in the stratosphere. It was the first replacement for the earlier freons, which were really destructive and banned by the Montreal Protocol in 1987. (Read about the science here.) The phase-out of R-22 has been planned since the ’90s.
The first wave of skirting the phase-out of R-22 refrigerant was using a loophole that allowed manufacturers to deliver what came to be known as “dry-ship R-22 units.” I wrote about this last year, shortly after I became aware of it.
Now, the use of flammable R-22 substitutes like R-22a, claimed to be outside any licensing requirements, takes things to a new low. Not only are HVAC companies that do this skirting the law by using unapproved refrigerants, they’re also creating the potential for greater cost to their customers and causing injury or death to HVAC techs who work on those systems later. As I said above, though, it’s not the refrigerants themselves; it’s the “cowboy” mentality of some contractors.
Maybe we’ll have air conditioners designed for hydrocarbon refrigerants some day. Currently we do not. In the interim, do you really want to take a chance with unapproved refrigerants?
Get building science and energy efficiency advice, plus special offers, in your inbox.