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Do new EC laws mean scrapping your old air conditioners?
As of this year the EU has banned R-22 refrigerant, commonly used in domestic air conditioning systems, as an environmentally-harmful HCFC gas. This has led some to believe that any air-con system using R-22 must also must also be scrapped and replaced.
This is a misconception. The situation is not as severe as some – perhaps less than scrupulously – may have you believe. Nonetheless, the consequences of this EU directive will eventually affect many people who have air conditioning systems at home or at work.
What is R-22?
Air conditioning units work on the same principle as refrigerators. Both use a liquid refrigerant inside a sealed system, which in turn evaporates into a gas then condenses back to liquid form in order to produce cooling. This process takes place under pressure. A common cause of air-conditioning malfunction or inefficiency is when a slow leak occurs and the pressure drops, so the unit needs what is loosely termed 're-gassing'.
R-22 has been the most commonly-used refrigerant in residential air conditioning systems for almost half a century. Unfortunately, releases of R-22 from leaks contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. Furthermore R-22 is a 'greenhouse gas' and its manufacture creates a by-product (HFC-23) that contributes to global warming. As a result, as of 1st Jan 2010 the sale and use of virgin (new) R-22 was outlawed by EU legislation (EC2037). As it is gradually phased out, alternative ozone-friendly refrigerants are being introduced.
This ban poses serious problems for all kinds of industries and commercial sectors, as
R-22 is used in many cooling applications; but it is the subject of domestic air conditioning that we are focusing on here.
So what's the problem for air conditioning systems?
R-22 only performs under a specific pressure, and air-con equipment using it has tubing and components designed to work at this pressure. There are other permitted refrigerants available, but these only work under higher pressure – too high for many existing or old air-con units to function.
How does this affect me?
If your air conditioning uses R-22 and is working well, then you have no problem. There is absolutely no need to replace your system, which may continue to function satisfactorily for several years to come. However, if/when a unit fails or under-performs due to loss of R-22, it will become increasingly difficult - and costly - to replace or top it up. Re-cycled R-22 is permissible but already very hard to obtain and, as stocks quickly deplete, will become prohibitively expensive. By 2015 the sale and use of re-cycled R-22 will also be banned.
How do I know if my air conditioning units use R-22?
The type of refrigerant your system uses is stated on the manufacturer's label on the side of the unit (indoor and/or external units – see illustration). You may find that there's no need for concern, as the unit is already using an approved ozone-friendly refrigerant such as R-410A or R-407C.
What can I do if my air-con is leaking R-22?
There are four possibilities:
- Enquire if your service company has any re-cycled R-22 with which to re-gas the system. But be aware: it has already quadrupled in price due to low availability.
- Replace the R-22 with a substitute or 'drop-in' refrigerant. This may require changing some seals and valves. Industry tests indicate that the substitute does not perform as effectively as R-22; and it is several times more expensive. Nonetheless this remains the simplest option for systems in good working order, with more years of life left – but check the cost first.
- Upgrade and adapt your existing system to function with other (legal) refrigerants. This is expensive, time-consuming (obtaining spare parts in Portugal can be a nightmare) and cumbersome, necessitating not only new valves, seals and other components, but also the flushing of the entire system. It is essential to thoroughly purge and clean all tubing (including those within the walls, not just the units) as residual R-22 must not be mixed with other refrigerants – this can be damaging and is potentially hazardous.
- Replace your system with a new one that works with EU-compliant refrigerants. Whilst the costliest option, in the long run it is perhaps the most worthwhile. Beyond the R-22 issue, today's better air conditioners use up to 40% less energy to perform the same cooling or heating as equipment made as little as ten years ago. You can save significantly on electricity bills by investing in the latest, more efficient 'inverter'-type models.
As about one-third of air-con service calls involve low refrigerant levels, the new EU directive concerning R-22 will have increasing impact as equipment grows old. Eventually it will mean replacing all systems with newer ones which use approved, ozone-friendly refrigerants. Meanwhile, a standard annual maintenance is always advisable to ensure that your existing system continues to work efficiently for as long as possible.