Las Vegas Sun

July 17, 2019

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What to know as a common HVAC refrigerant is phased out

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Photo illustration

In a desert city such as Las Vegas, homes, businesses, casinos and more are cooled by air conditioning for half the year. But since the world learned about the harmful environmental effects of ozone-depleting substances, some of which are released by air conditioners, HVAC-related producers and users have had to keep up with changing regulations.

Starting January 1, 2020, one of the most common refrigerants, HCFC-22, will no longer be produced in or imported into the United States. HCFC-22, better known as R-22, is used in most residential and commercial air conditioning equipment produced before 2010.

So what will the elimination of this common refrigerant mean for consumers and businesses in the Valley?

For the average person, not much. While it might sound overwhelming, the phaseout of R-22 is part of a decades-long effort to gradually eliminate ozone-depleting substances. The effort began in the 1980s, when scientists discovered a “hole” in the ozone layer, a portion of Earth’s stratosphere situated nine to 18 miles above sea level.

The ozone layer absorbs harmful ultraviolet radiation before it reaches Earth’s surface (ultraviolet radiation has been linked to human health problems such as skin cancer and cataracts, growth problems in plants and negative effects on marine ecosystems).

To address the ozone layer hole, the United Nations passed a historic treaty in 1987 called the Montreal Protocol, designed to protect the ozone layer by gradually banning production of ozone-depleting substances worldwide.

Some of the first substances to be outlawed were refrigerants that are now no longer in use. R-22, a less-harmful polluter than some of its predecessors, then became the new, temporary norm.

Because the Montreal Protocol and national regulations have been in effect for decades, producers of refrigerants, as well as HVAC professionals, have been preparing for the phaseout of R-22 as well, says Blake Ballard, president and general manager of Las Vegas-based Sahara Air Conditioning. In anticipation of the phaseout, Sahara Air Conditioning has been promoting alternative refrigerants, such as R-410A and R-407C, to customers for at least a decade.

“We knew this was coming,” Ballard said. “My company started switching most of our customers as soon as we possibly could to R-410A, back in 2005, 2006.”

In addition to becoming scarcer in recent years—it became illegal in 2010 to produce or import R-22 in the United States except for equipment manufactured before the first of that year—the cost of R-22 has been rising because of the dwindling supply.

Continuing into 2020, recycled R-22 will still be available for consumers, Ballard says, but it will get more expensive and difficult to find.

The good news is that most home air conditioning systems are compatible with R-22 replacements, Ballard noted.

“You don’t have to do anything as a homeowner,” Ballard said. “I’ve seen people in my business out there scaring people, saying, ‘Next year you have to replace your system.’ That’s absolutely false.”

For the vast majority of consumers, the only reason to replace an HVAC system is if it is leaking or beginning to fail, which typically happens after about 15 years of use.

Robert Julian, a co-owner and manager at the Las Vegas-based Air Supply Inc., concurred that there is no rush for consumers to stop using R-22. While it will soon be illegal to produce or import the product, most suppliers will still have recycled R-22 in stock, and there’s no illegality associated with using it.

Regardless, Julian said that homeowners should be thinking about replacing aging HVAC systems before the summer months arrive and demand for A/C units is higher. It’s not uncommon for residents to experience leaks or other problems with old systems during periods when they’re used the most.

“If you have health issues or kids, you want to be proactive,” Julian said.

Those looking to replace an HVAC system or just their refrigerant, Julian added, should check the rates and reviews of suppliers first. The lifespan, efficiency and effectiveness of an HVAC system will be based on how well it is installed, how well it is maintained and the quality of the brand.

“People have to do their research,” Julian said.

While the average homeowner has little reason to stress about R-22, the situation is more complicated for corporations that require a lot of cooling. MGM Resorts International, for example, anticipates that it will soon need to introduce replacement refrigerants, such as R-407C, into its older properties.

“It’s costly already, just in that R-22 has continued to rise in price because of the phaseout,” said Chris Magee, vice president of sustainable facilities for MGM Resorts.

At this point, MGM is handling the HVAC systems on its properties on a case-by-case basis: For older systems that still use R-22, the company will determine whether it is more cost-effective to recycle the substance and replace it with a different refrigerant, or install newer, more energy-efficient systems.

“If there’s an overwhelming cost analysis that says we should purchase the new equipment, then … we will,” Magee said.

However, Magee added that it is rare for the company’s cooling systems to reach a critical point where they fail or need immediate replacement.

“The equipment is maintained to very high standards at MGM,” Magee said. “We don’t have a lot of leaks and that kind of issue, so that helps give us time to absorb the phaseout over time.”

The moral of the story is that there’s no need for consumers to panic about R-22. Homeowners can determine the age of their system, as well as its weight and the type of refrigerant in it, by checking the main label, Ballard said, and from there they can determine their next best action.

Consumers interested in reducing their energy use should consider installing a new, more efficient system. Aside from that, there’s no need to replace a unit that is functioning properly, even when 2020 rolls around.

“The reason to replace the system is because it’s old, outdated or too expensive to upgrade—not because you have R-22,” Ballard said.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.