Angie's List: Be prepared to pay a lot more to recharge your AC, or replace with new equipment

R22 is going away. What options are there?

TAMPA - As we approach the dog days of summer, you might be thinking about recharging your air conditioner to keep it cooling efficiently. But be warned. The price of traditional R-22 freon is climbing faster than the temperatures and the bill for a service call is likely to make your blood boil.

"The regulations have changed when it comes to air conditioners," said Angie Hicks, founder of the consumer group Angie's List. "The older models use a Freon that is not going to be available in a few years and because of that production of that Freon has reduced causing the price to go up. So if you have to replace the Freon in an older model you are likely going to pay more this year."

A lot more. Larry Howald, an HVAC contractor, said a two pound "top-off" used to cost a couple hundred dollars. "And with today's prices of R-22, it may be $500 to $600."

Federal regulations have turned what was a commonly available air conditioning system refrigerant into a scarce resource. The reason for the cost increase can actually be traced back to action taken by the federal government 25 years ago. In 1987, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the phasing out of certain ozone-depleting refrigerants as part of the Montreal Protocol. The act calls for 90 percent of R-22 coolant, commonly called "Freon," to be phased out by 2015 and to be virtually obsolete by 2020.

Most air conditioners manufactured before 2010 use the old R-22 coolant. The new EPA-approved coolant, known as R-410A, does not work with the R-22 equipment.

Howald said refrigerant leaks are a common problem with air conditioners. Over a couple of years, most units will lose a pound or two of the eight pounds of coolant typically needed to keep the machine pumping chilled air throughout your home. "There's really not a lot a homeowner can do to prevent a leak. With an air conditioning system that sits outside in the wintertime when it gets extremely cold and then in the summertime it gets warm... the unit operating with some vibration, maybe it gets hit by the lawnmower guy using a weed eater or whatever, all those things – just the expansion and contraction can create a leak and it's pretty tough for a homeowner to do anything about it."

Hicks added, "If you are faced with a leaking air conditioner you might really want to consider if you should just go ahead and replace it. What many people don't realize that your heating and cooling expensive represent about 50% of you energy bills so if your air conditioner is getting a little on the old side maybe it's 7, 8, 9 years old and you've got a repair you want to make sure repairing it is the best move."))

Angie's List Tips: Options for homeowners

  • The rate increase is sure to pose issues for homeowners with older, leaky equipment. Many are faced with the prospect of continuing to invest in higher repair costs for older equipment, or taking the plunge and replacing the equipment with a newer, more efficient system that uses the new coolant.
  • Having a conversation about your options with a licensed and qualified heating and cooling company can help homeowners determine if they should repair existing equipment or replace it. Any technician who handles refrigerant must be certified by the EPA to work with the coolant.
  • Homeowner opting for repair should be prepared to also pay additional costs to cover service, labor and any other parts necessary.
  • For homeowners who don't want to invest in an entirely new system but also don't want to keep investing in repairs, some manufacturers have circumvented the EPA guidelines, which called for an end to production of A/C units "charged", or filled, with R-22, by producing units that use the old coolant but don't come charged with it. These are often called "dry" units. Though these units generally cost less than a whole new system, consumers will still have to fill them with the old refrigerant, which is only likely to only get more expensive in the years to come.
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