Image Credit: Energy Vanguard Dry-ship R-22 air conditioners and heat pumps have become the dirty little secret in the HVAC industry and represent a huge failure of the EPA to act.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard Data showing depletion of ozone in the ozone hole that develops over Antarctica each spring.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons Bailes Brothers measuring cup, from my grandfather's Frigidaire dealership in the 1940s.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard The nameplate on the condensing unit of your air conditioner or heat pump tells you which refrigerant it uses. This one uses R-22.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard The nameplate on the condensing unit of your air conditioner or heat pump tells you which refrigerant it uses. This one uses R-410A.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard
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 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.