No Falling Sky Fears This Time, Yet, a Lot of Work to Be Done

February 9, 2009
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The sky is falling? Maybe that was the fear in the past. But, not this time when it comes to the transition from HCFC-22 to HFC-410A.

In the past, about the only source that cried “The sky is falling” more often than Chicken Little was the HVACR industry. When the Environmental Protection Agency first moved to ban CFCs in the 1980s, the industry collectively moaned that it couldn’t be done - then the industry went out and did it. When mandates three years ago required moving rapidly from 10 SEER to 13 SEER, the industry just as rapidly proclaimed that the sky would again fall - then quickly brought quality 13 SEER equipment to the market.
Though those rapid changes did present challenges and the SEER efficiency change has created some residual effects among buyers, the industry did rise to the challenge.

Now the industry is facing yet another dramatic change - a final farewell to the most familiar and popular refrigerant in history, R-22. It will no longer be charged into new equipment as of Jan. 1, 2010. Its replacement in most new air conditioning applications is R-410A.

So throughout 2009, The NEWS will be devoting six special sections - of which this is the first - as well as many pages of the magazine itself, to the “Countdown to 2010.” The remaining days of 2009 will be the most active yet in the transition with a rapid reduction in the number of R-22 units coming off assembly lines and a step up in R-410A equipment production.

But interestingly, the transition is coming without the hysteria or predictions of disaster that accompanied the CFC and 10 SEER phaseouts. Still, there is another side of the sword. There are two major behavioral changes that contracting companies must be prepared for, which include customer perceptions and the acceptance among their own employees.

One reason for the somewhat more accepted transition is that the industry has had a long time, 13 years in fact, to prepare for the changeover. It was in 1996 that the baseline year for production of R-22 was established, with the subsequent phaseouts marked from that year. It was also the year that R-410A was first introduced as an alternative.

So the fact that the industry had the R-410A alternative in place at the same time that the R-22 phaseout process started helped keep the sky firmly in place. And during the intervening years, the industry has been able to address installation, servicing, and sales issues revolving around the transition.

However, flipping to the other side of that coin, some companies will no doubt wait until the waning weeks of 2009 before preparing customer service reps, dispatchers, service managers, technicians, and installers about the nuances of working with higher-pressure refrigerants.

Aside from working through the technical kinks, equally important is being prepared to discuss the changes in refrigerants and products with customers who haven’t a clue about the ramifications. Currently, Emerson (a big manufacturer of compressors and a big user of refrigerant) suggests in a recent study that less than 40 percent of contractors have begun the changeover to replacements for R-22.

In the coming months, The NEWS will cover every aspect of the changeover that you will want to explore in your company: from the installation to the service, from the training to the marketing, and from the business management to the selling.



INSTALLATION CHANGES

The percentage of air conditioning contractors installing R-410A equipment has continually increased over the past decade, and the percentage of R-410A installations each contractor does is on the increase. A number of contractors today have virtually phased out working with new R-22 equipment and only recommend R-410A units for their customers.

It should be noted that virtually no one is totally willing to abandon a profitable R-22 installation if the customer wants such equipment. And legally, contractors can continue to put in such equipment after Jan. 1, 2010. The ban is only on the production of R-22 equipment pre-charged at the factory. While manufacturers are expected to no longer produce R-22 equipment as of 2010, contractors can draw on existing inventories either at supply houses or their own shops.

But eventually that supply will dry up and R-410A will be the primary R-22 alternative in new air conditioning installations. The countdown year of 2009 will certainly see an upsweep in R-410A installations.



Charging a cooling system with the correct amount of R-410A refrigerant is just as important as with previous generations of refrigerants. (Courtesy Ritchie Engineering Company, Inc. - YELLOW JACKET Products Div.)

SERVICE CHANGES

There were two issues that initially haunted the debut of R-410A back in 1996. One concerned higher pressures and the other the ability of the refrigerant to attract unwanted moisture. Those issues were eventually dispelled, with manufacturers and industry trade associations providing literature and seminars on the proper handling of the refrigerant, as well as with technicians repeatedly working on equipment charged with R-410A. Familiarity breeds acceptance.

Today, such Chicken Little Jr. panics are rarely brought up. In fact, talk to technicians who have gone through the training offered by the industry, and you will find the comfort level improving significantly from the time the registration badge is picked up at the start of a seminar to the answering of the final question at the end of the day.

Then add to that the most often stated rules in the industry: Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and use proper servicing techniques. That applies to more forgivable refrigerants like R-22 and even more so to the less forgivable R-410A. Technicians who do so brush aside the concerns over pressures and moisture.



SELLING NEW REFRIGERANT

R-410A won an initial battle of what refrigerant is best to replace R-22 in air conditioning because, according to refrigerant producers and equipment manufacturers, it worked - and it cost less to produce than other alternatives that were considered. Both factors were equally important.

That means that the R-410A units being installed today are the best and most cost-effective means of providing cooling in a world without virgin R-22.

From there, manufacturers have developed the sales and marketing strategies to help contractors convince customers and end users that R-410A is the way to go.

Still, residential consumers, building facility managers, and owners are generally much further behind the curve than even the most ignorant HVAC employee. Most don’t really care too much about what refrigerant is being used, but they will care if told that their current a/c system or commercial packaged unit needs any type of overhaul at some point in the future.

What might precipitate such an overhaul? When (not if) the price of R-22 reaches a level of diminishing returns, a customer might want to consider a unit that works with the newer refrigerants. That could include new products that aren’t even on the market today, but products that may offer greater operating efficiencies as soon as even a year or two down the road.

When (not if) the environmental concerns of using ozone-depleting refrigerants becomes a reality for customers, they will want to know what else is available and how that product will affect the environment. When customers ask questions about recovering, reclaiming, or recycling refrigerants, contractors will be expected to have the answers.



SUNNY SKIES

No, the sky is not falling. But the world of HVAC is changing. New refrigerants. New products. New training. New questions from customers. New ways to sell. New ways to install. New ways to service.

The industry is now geared to a final major push to make R-410A the single most important refrigerant being used in the HVACR industry. The year 2009 is the single most important year in which that will happen. Much has been done, much more needs to be done. The “Countdown to 2010” articles that will appear in The NEWS throughout 2009 will keep you apprised of everything you need to know to make this a profitable transition.

Publication Date: 02/09/2009

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