With an estimated 4 million air conditioners likely to fail this summer in the USA, deciding whether to spend the money on a new system is going to be a common predicament.
What isn't so well-known is that early next year, a government-required shift in what air-conditioning and heat pump systems use to regulate temperature will take effect.
For the past several decades, R-22, a gas refrigerant and HCFC (hydrochlorofluorocarbon) has been an air-conditioning standard. If it leaks, however, R-22 can contribute to ozone depletion, says Deb Berlin, an Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman. The ozone layer is responsible for absorbing most of the sun's high-frequency ultraviolet light, which can be harmful to life on Earth.
But as of Jan. 1, R-22 will no longer be on the market and will be replaced by a more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient alternative. The change was ordered in a 1992 amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty created to protect the ozone layer.
"There is a rapid ramp-down for the manufacturing of HCFCs," says John Schneider, business vice president for Emerson Climate Technologies, which advises manufacturers on energy-efficient technology. R-22's successor is R-410A, an HFC (hydrofluorocarbon) without chlorine, the chemical that contributes to ozone depletion. After the turn of the decade, R-410A will be the refrigerant placed into new air-conditioning systems, which will not be compatible with R-22. Conversely, current air-conditioning systems cannot use R-410A without a serious overhaul, because it is compressed at a much higher pressure and requires different equipment, Schneider says.
Older refrigerant will be harder to find
The phase-out of R-22 does not mean service and used parts will be unavailable for older air-conditioning models, Schneider says. The Montreal Protocol calls for a gradual elimination of all HCFC refrigerants in new equipment in developed countries by 2010. Service for older models could disappear by 2020.
The one drawback to purchasing a new ozone-conscious air conditioner is its price, which could stretch above the $10,000 mark. The cost all depends on how efficient homeowners decide to make their new system.
Air conditioners are graded on a scale known as SEER (seasonal energy efficiency rating). The more efficient a system is, the higher its rating and price tag.
SEER "is the best measure of energy savings for the homeowner throughout the year," Schneider says.
A 13 SEER system, the bare minimum efficiency now required of all new air conditioners, using R-410A costs $5,000 to $8,000 depending on the region and the specifics of the installation, Schneider says. Ramping it up to 16 SEER would cost $8,000 to $11,000. An R-410A unit would cost about 5% more than a new one using R-22, but the service costs with R-22 could be higher.
Rebates offered for high-efficiency units
To ease the pain of the initial cost, air-conditioner manufacturers and even utility companies offer rebates as a reward for purchasing a "green" piece of equipment. Also, if homeowners decide to ratchet up the efficiency to 16 SEER, they are eligible for $1,500 in stimulus bill tax credits from the government, Schneider says.
"It made the most sense to go a little bit more efficient," says Jan Bohrer of Fairfax, Va., who recently had a new R-410A air-conditioning system with a 17 SEER rating installed into her house. She also says that her whole house feels cooler when her thermostat is set at a higher temperature and that she is able to control humidity far more effectively, which translates to comfort. The new system is also much quieter, she says.
"My old system sounded like aircraft carriers taking off when it was on," Bohrer says.
Because these new air conditioners operate with much higher pressure, they consume less energy.
Schneider says the average annual energy consumption cost of a 13 SEER machine is $665, which would save about $200 (or 23%) vs. the average energy cost of a typical existing unit. There is no difference between R-22 and R-410A energy costs when both are used in a 13 SEER system, because they are equally efficient, Schneider says.
HFCs have received scrutiny from some participants of the Kyoto Protocol, an international environmental treaty dedicated to combating global warming, based on concern that molecules of R-410A in its gaseous state trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere more than carbon dioxide. HFCs also have been criticized by Allan Thornton, president of the Environmental Investigation Agency, who says certain HFCs will be a major global warming threat in the future.