Recent actions by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding HCFCs have led to uncertainty about the availability of R-22 in the coming months and years. In response, contractors have noticed a ramp-up in the chatter about R-22 and price changes as some manufacturers and importers have amended their sales policies.
This situation is the culmination of several factors, including the continued implementation of the federal government’s policies regarding HCFCs, current market conditions, and delays in the regulatory process.
As most contractors know, the EPA controls the production of HCFCs, including the refrigerant known as R-22, through allowances that limit how much each gas manufacturer and importer can produce or import in a given year. Under the implementation of the Montreal Protocol, the production and use of R-22 is slowly being phased out.
In August 2011, the EPA proposed to adjust the allocations in place for the years 2012-2014. This adjustment was necessary because of a lawsuit filed by two HCFC producers who had completed a legal trade of allocations that EPA had failed to recognize in its allocations released in 2009.
EPA consulted with industry stakeholders before proposing to reduce the annual allocations. In gathering information used to develop the August 2011 allocation adjustment, EPA found that there was an oversupply of R-22 in the marketplace, partly evident by a lack of demand, increased reuse of R-22, and low wholesale prices. In fact, in 2010, producers of R-22 only utilized 86% of their allocations. A trade organization representing the manufacturers and importers of R-22 supported these claims, and advocated for a 20% reduction in allocations for 2012-2014.
By the end of 2011, EPA had yet to finalize its adjustment proposal for the 2012-2014 allocations. But EPA did release a subsequent version of the August 2011 adjustment proposal on December 30, 2011, one that proposed to reduce the allocations for 2012-2014 between 11-47%.
Without a finalized adjustment rule, the producers and importers of R-22 were stuck in a legal limbo – on January 1, 2012, they did not have the authority to manufacture or import R-22.
Recognizing this problem, on January 20, 2012, EPA sent “non-enforcement” letters to the producers and importers of R-22, alerting them that they could resume the manufacture and import of R-22 in the interim even though EPA had yet to set the new allocation amounts. The non-enforcement letter advised that production would be curtailed by 45% of their last allocation amount, the high end of the allocation adjustment proposal.
It is expected that the EPA adjustment proposal will take at least until the summer of 2012 to be completed. The end result could be a reduction in R-22 allocations somewhere between 11-47%, meaning it is likely the final adjustment proposal will be less than the interim 45% reduction and that more R-22 may be produced or imported.
ACCA has been following this issue to provide contractors with the most up-to-date and precise information available. We will continue to monitor the allocation adjustment rulemaking process and alert members of any progress or actions taken by EPA.
The EPA has the following advice for homeowners and customers:
“Alternatives to R-22 in Residential Air Conditioning
As R-22 is gradually phased out, non-ozone-depleting alternative refrigerants are being introduced. Under the Clean Air Act, EPA reviews alternatives to ozone-depleting substances to evaluate their effects on human health and the environment. EPA has reviewed several alternatives to R-22 for household and light commercial air conditioning and has compiled a list of substitutes that EPA has determined are acceptable. One of these substitutes is R-410A, a blend of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that does not contribute to depletion of the ozone layer, but, like R-22, contributes to global warming. R-410A is manufactured and sold under various trade names, including GENETRON AZ-20®, SUVA 410A®, Forane® 410A, and Puron®. An additional refrigerant on the list of acceptable substitutes for R-22 in residential air conditioners and other products is R-407C. Residential air conditioners and heat pumps using R-407C are not available in the U.S., but are commonly found in Europe. EPA will continue to review new non-ozone-depleting refrigerants as they are developed.
Servicing existing units
Existing units using R-22 can continue to be serviced with R-22. There is no EPA requirement to change or convert R-22 units for use with a non-ozone-depleting substitute refrigerant. Such changes, called “retrofits,” are allowed if the alternative has been found acceptable for that type of use. R-407C is allowed for retrofits but R-410A is not allowed in retrofits due to its higher working pressures. In addition, the new substitute refrigerants would not work well without making some changes to system components. As a result, service technicians who repair leaks to the system will most often continue to charge R-22 into the system as part of that repair.
Installing new units
The transition away from ozone-depleting R-22 to systems that rely on replacement refrigerants like R-410A has required redesign of heat pump and air conditioning systems. New systems incorporate compressors and other components specifically designed for use with specific replacement refrigerants. For instance, if a new outdoor unit (typically called a “condensing unit,” containing the condenser and compressor) is installed, it is likely that a new indoor unit (typically called an “evaporator”) will also be required. With these significant product and production process changes, testing and training must also change. Consumers should be aware that dealers of systems that use substitute refrigerants should be schooled in installation and service techniques required for use of that substitute refrigerant.”