Change Is in the Air as the 80s Unfold

April 25, 2001
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Lee M. Thomas, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, signs the Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer. Twenty-four nations, including the U.S., signed the treaty in Montreal, Canada, in 1987.


Domestic use of air conditioners steadily increased throughout the 1980s. According to the Air-Conditioning & Refrigeration Institute (ARI), 43% of American homes were without any kind of air conditioning in 1980. By 1990, the number was down to 30%.

As air conditioning use increased in the decade, the use of refrigerants steadily went up as well. But while more and more people were buying air conditioners, the hvac industry was beginning to deal with one large problem that overshadowed everything else.

Scientists stated that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) had a negative effect on the earth’s atmosphere and caused depletion of the ozone layer. CFCs were used as the refrigerant for most air conditioners and most refrigeration systems in the U.S.

The news of the harmful effects of CFCs not only caused the industry to scramble to find a new type of refrigerant to replace them, but to develop new products to accommodate that refrigerant as well.



A session was held in Montreal, Canada, a week after the signing of the Montreal Protocol. The session enabled representatives to share views on the final act of the protocol.

The Coming Storm

The phaseout of CFCs could be seen on the horizon. As early as the 1970s, contractors and manufacturers were preparing themselves for the worst.

It was during the decade of the 70s when scientists started to hypothesize that the destruction of the ozone layer may be due to the release of CFCs. Without any positive proof, most contractors were skeptical and waited for compelling factual evidence.

By the end of that decade, some companies and businesses either voluntarily stopped production of products using CFCs or were ordered by the government to stop. According to Ed Dooley of ARI, it was suspected that 50% of all CFCs at the time were coming not from air conditioning units and refrigerators, but from aerosol cans. This included all kinds of spray cans, such as spray paint and hair spray canisters, which released CFCs into the atmosphere each time they were used. As the use of CFCs in aerosol cans was curbed, governmental agencies and businesses began to feel that the issue would die down and public pressure would subside.

This ban did seem to satisfy a great deal of the public, and the issue of using CFCs went away for a while. It reemerged in the 80s.

In 1985, the Vienna Conven-tion for the Protection of the Ozone Layer took place. The convention was the first of several national gatherings to discuss environmental hazards. During the Vienna Convention, no specific laws or measures were set in motion, but 20 nations signed an agreement to monitor and encourage research to limit possible negative environmental effects.

The Vienna Convention was revolutionary in that nations made a promise to curb the use of CFCs and other possibly harmful substances before any concrete proof was established as to the effects.

But proof of negative effects in the ozone layer became indisputable in the same year as the Vienna Convention. In 1985, scientists reported finding a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. This hole was estimated to be anywhere from seven to 18 miles long.

Scientists stated that they could prove without a doubt that ozone depletion was due, in fact, to CFCs. These findings stirred up the CFC debate again, and, in 1987, several nations gathered in Montreal, PQ, Canada, to discuss the measures that would need to be taken to stop the use of CFCs.

According to early coverage by The News, the U.S. was responsible for producing a third of the world’s CFCs. In Montreal, the U.S. was one of 24 nations that signed the Montreal Protocol, which stated that the nations would curb and then eventually eliminate the use of CFCs.

After signing the Montreal Protocol, the measure was passed through the U.S. Congress and amendments were made to the Clean Air Act.

Under the agreement, there were certain provisions to the phaseout and a timetable to accomplish the elimination of CFCs. The Montreal Protocol stated that consumption of R-11, R-12, R-113, R-114, and R-115 would be frozen at 1986 consumption levels by July 1, 1989. By July 1, 1993, these same refrigerants and its CFC compounds would need to be reduced to 80% of the 1986 consumption level.



The crew of Quality Air Conditioning (Las Vegas, NV) performs a rooftop installation of an a/c unit, circa 1980.

An Enormous Undertaking

The deadline to accomplish the goals set forth by the Montreal Protocol and subsequent protocols was not until the late 1990s. But if CFCs were to be a thing of the past, action needed to be taken as soon as possible.

“What marked the 80s is that we were getting out of CFCs,” said Dooley. “The 80s was a transition period.”

The industry geared up for the phaseout of CFCs before and after the Montreal Protocol. According to Dooley, although some in the industry were still doubtful as to the cause of ozone depletion, the majority knew they had to prepare for the possibility that the phaseout would become a reality.

The steps that needed to be taken to reduce and eventually eliminate CFCs would become an enormous undertaking.

“It was an incredible task,” said Dooley. “It cost billions.”

The biggest challenge was to develop new refrigerants that did not release CFCs. The next step would be to retrofit existing units and create new units that would run on the new refrigerants.

In the meantime, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made it illegal to vent refrigeration and release it in to the atmosphere.

One way of avoiding refrigeration leaks was to start a refrigeration reclaim and recycling program. ARI was one of the first organizations to start and promote this activity.

“ARI began a recycling program to reclaim the refrigerant from every refrigerator,” said Dooley. He also says that he and others in the industry made it a priority to speak with building owners and contractors about the measures that would need to be taken if CFCs were to be eliminated.

When the Montreal Protocol eventually went through, new refrigerants and new systems were inevitable. The research and activity continued in the 1990s, but the industry was thrown a curve ball when the date for eliminating CFCs was pushed forward.

No longer did the industry have until the year 2000, but CFCs had to be phased out by 1995. This caused manufacturers to rush new, CFC-safe products into the market.

“By the time the 90s rolled around, they started bringing out new units,” said Dooley. These new units were compatible with new and safer refrigerants. These refrigerants were HCFC-123 and R-134a.

As for older units, work had to be done to make sure they could use the new refrigerants. According to Dooley, millions of dollars were spent in trying to retrofit existing units.

“It wasn’t easy to do this, but there was a positive result,” said Dooley. “The silver lining is that we were able to install more efficient equipment.”

Dooley said that phasing out just 40% of CFCs from chillers saved approximately seven billion dollars in kilowatt-hours of electricity for one year.

“We are saving huge amounts of electricity for our customers,” Dooley said. “It wasn’t easy to do this, but there was a positive result. It’s a tribute to our industry to achieve so much in such a small amount of time.”



Sidebar: A/C Use Rises in the 80s

The number of domestic unitary air conditioners and air-source heat pumps gradually increased throughout the 1980s. The decade started with close to 2.2 million units shipped in 1980 and concluded with more than 4.3 million units shipped in 1989.

Year/Domestic Units

  • 1980/2,166,714
  • 1981/2,367,483
  • 1982/1,861,243
  • 1983/2,668,321
  • 1984/3,308,428
  • 1985/3,290,510
  • 1986/3,555,630
  • 1987/3,955,064
  • 1988/4,049,212
  • 1989/4,324,437
  • Source: Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI).

    Sidebar: The Great Computer Trend Begins

    A world without computers seems almost impossible today. The hvacr industry has embraced computer technology and relies on it more and more all the time. But go back only 20 years and you’ll see a very different industry.

    Elite Software Development, Inc. develops computer software for the hvac, plumbing, and electrical industries. It started back in 1979. In 1980, the company offered its first hvac load calculation software.

    At the time Elite Software released the load calculation program, not many contractors were using computers in their business. But the software and the technology did catch on in the beginning of the decade with hvac engineers. This software allowed engineers to do duct design and load calculations right from the computer.

    According to Bill Smith, president of Elite Software, only the large hvac companies and manufacturers used computers in the early 1980s. At this time, the only kind of computer available was the mainframe, which was very expensive and very large. These computers were also very difficult to use with most kinds of software.

    Smith says that things began to change when IBM introduced its personal computer back in 1982. The PC, or microcomputer as it was then called, was easier to use and more affordable.

    In the latter half of the decade, a large surge in computer use began. Contractors started to buy into computers, but, according to Smith, the first use was with business software. Contractors could now keep all their paperwork, service orders, customer information, and warranties all on the computer.

    After getting a grasp on the business software, Smith says that contractors started moving on to other technical software.

    “Early adopters of these programs were risk-takers. Computers were expensive back then and you had to put a lot more money into hardware. You had to make a big commitment and believe in the future,” said Smith.

    For those risk-takers, there were several benefits. For those who were using load calculation software or design software, selling could be done faster and easier.

    Smith says that by using software, contractors could compare units to see which is more efficient and get actual, precise calculations. This information can be passed along to customers and the contractor can sell a more efficient, high-end unit.

    “They could sell a better product with software and show to the customer how much money they would be able to save,” said Smith.

    The software could also help in the actual installation process.

    “For so many contractors, they sized the unit off the top of their head,” said Smith. But with installation software, a contractor could get an exact measurement, which saved a great deal of time.

    Computers and software helped contractors get ahead with their businesses by also providing better customer service. Computer programs started to allow contractors to keep better records of each service call for a customer. These records could be more easily referred to when using the computer, instead of writing everything on paper and filing it.

    “If you were using a computer back then, you had more of an edge than you do now,” said Smith.

    Contractors who started using computers late in the game were only trying to keep up with competitors. The same is true today. Computer technology is no longer a luxury as it was in the 1980s, but a necessity in a competitive market.

    Publication date: 04/30/2001

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