Freon (also known as R-22) is a refrigerant that has been in use for many decades but, since the “Clean Air Act of 1990” became law, the federal government has mandated its gradual demise. As of January 1, 2020, the production and import of Freon will be completely banned in the U.S. Most homeowners have no idea that this is happening and, therefore, most of them are not prepared for the future potential high costs associated with maintaining older air conditioning and heat pump units.
Prior to Freon, other types of refrigerants, such as ammonia, were engineered for use in refrigerators; however, many of these early refrigerants were found to be toxic and flammable. Freon was invented by DuPont around 1930. Starting around 2003, most new A/C and heat pump systems started using Puron (R-410A) as their refrigerant instead of Freon. Puron complies with federal laws. As of January 2010, Freon (R-22) was banned from use in newly manufactured A/C and heat pump equipment. Equipment that uses Freon cannot be converted to Puron as these systems are engineered differently, so a simple swap-out of refrigerants is not an option. Many older chest and upright freezers and dehumidifiers also use Freon (R-22).
When inspecting homes with older (R-22) based equipment installed, I always educate my clients on the Freon and Puron scenario in an attempt to prepare them. As of January 1, 2020, if Freon-based equipment needs to be recharged (due to a problem like a refrigerant leak), only Freon recycled from old equipment will be available. This means Freon will be in short supply and may easily be $500 to $1,000 per pound. Most residential A/C and heat pump systems use between 3-8 pounds of Freon. If you go outside and look at your A/C or heat pump unit’s manufacturer tag (see photos below of examples), it will include information about the type of refrigerant is uses (either R-22 or R-410A). Sometimes Freon will be listed as “HCFC 22”. Also, Freon should only be worked with and properly disposed of by a qualified, licensed contractor.
Refrigerants allow the movement of heat energy using a refrigeration cycle that allows the refrigerant to change states from liquid to gas and vice-versa. By compressing or decompressing (allowing it to expand) a refrigerant can become hot or cold. Using this basic principle is how air conditioners, heat pumps, dehumidifiers, refrigerators/freezers, etc. work. They don’t create “cold”, instead they move heat.
I advise my clients that Freon-based equipment will still work after January 2020. However, if there is an issue with how the equipment functions — like it no longer properly cools your home — and the technician determines that the unit needs a recharge (more Freon), the cost associated with adding Freon may easily be a third or even half the price of a new A/C or heat pump system. Of course, newer A/C and heat pump systems are much more efficient than older systems due to technology improvements. Even with a perfectly functional Freon-based A/C or heat pump system, it is wise to start budgeting now to replace older Freon units with new Puron equipment.
Matthew Steger, ACI, WIN Home Inspection
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