If you’ve had trouble with an older refrigerator, HVAC system, or even the air conditioning system in an older vehicle, you may be familiar with some of the problems associated with refrigerants. Refrigerants are substances that boil at negative temperatures and that are then sent through coils at high pressure to cool a machine or a given space. Also known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), or by the trade name Freon, refrigerants are incredibly toxic and harmful to the environment.

The Problem with Refrigerants

CFCs and HCFCs are refrigerant types that are associated with ozone depletion and environmental toxicity once they enter the atmosphere. They are also thought to be a cause of global warming. Refrigeration technology has been in use since the nineteenth century, but the early and mid-twentieth century saw tremendous growth in the development of the synthetic refrigerants that are so problematic. In 1987, the United Nations passed the Montreal Protocol to start the process of curbing the production and use of ozone-depleting chemicals. Read on for additional facts about refrigerants and their effect on the environment.

1. Alternatives Are Being Developed

As a result of the gradual phasing out of CFCs and HCFCs, alternative chemicals have been developed. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are newer refrigerant compounds made up of hydrogen, fluorine, and carbon. HFCs are considered to be safer because they do not contain the chemicals that harm the ozone layer, but some of them do have a relatively high global warming potential. HFCs are not perfect, but they are the best alternative that we have right now.

2. There Are Actions You Can Take

Educating yourself about what types of refrigerants are in your appliances is one of the first steps to take. Most air conditioning units and refrigerators have small information plates attached to them that specify the type of refrigerant used—the plate is usually located on the back of the appliance. If you don’t see that information, check the owner’s manual or do a quick online search to see if you can find it. If the unit contains R-22 or a blend containing R-22, you’ll know that you’re dealing with an HCFC. Don’t panic or immediately start looking for replacement equipment, but keep in mind that when the unit needs more refrigerant in the future, you will either have to seek out recycled R-22 or purchase new equipment. The details of the Montreal Protocol dictated that R-22 would no longer be produced for new machines beginning in 2010, so over the last five years, it has become very difficult to find—and expensive because of the limited supply.

If you know that an appliance in your home contains R-22 or a similar refrigerant, the best thing you can do is keep that machine properly maintained by a professional. Make sure that the person servicing the unit is certified by the EPA to handle equipment that contains HCFCs. Because any intentional venting or release of refrigerant is now illegal, technicians are required to use a special refrigerant recovery system when they service a piece of equipment containing HCFCs. When you do arrange service, the EPA recommends that you specifically ask the technician not to “top off” the refrigerant; rather, ask him or her to locate and repair any leaks in the refrigerant system. This will prevent any accidental release of chemicals into the air.

3. How to Move Forward with Refrigerants

Aside from the cost and hassle of procuring R-22, it’s important to also consider the efficiency and operating cost of your old air conditioner or refrigerator. The nationwide push for more efficient energy consumption has resulted in household appliances that are more energy efficient and that cost less to run than ever before. If your old machines are still working, the prospect of purchasing a new air conditioner or refrigerator may not be appealing right now, but giving yourself time to plan for the purchase may take away some of the sting. New, energy-efficient household appliances will typically lower your power bill by a noticeable amount, and some may even entitle you to a tax break.

When you do purchase a new refrigerant-containing appliance, you will need to dispose of the old one. If the store you purchased the new appliance from offers to haul away the old unit, verify that they will follow proper disposal procedures. If you plan to dispose of the old appliance yourself, the EPA reminds homeowners that in some areas, you may have to pay a nominal fee for the proper recovery and disposal of harmful refrigerants. Do not cut refrigerant lines or remove compressors in an attempt to avoid having the appliance turned away at the disposal site or paying the fee. Remember that refrigerants are toxic chemicals, so trying to skirt legal disposal procedures puts you, your family, and the environment in harm’s way. If you’re unsure of what to do, contact your local EPA office or county hazardous waste disposal office.  

The EPA and the provisions of the Montreal Protocol have removed a lot of the potential guesswork on the consumer’s part when it comes to refrigerants. If you buy a new air conditioner or refrigerator today, it will not contain R-22. Instead, it will probably contain an HFC known as R-410A. Although R-410A is not an ozone-depleting chemical, it is still important to have the new appliance properly and professionally maintained to avoid any issues in the future.

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Sources: EPA; United Nations Environment Programme.

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