What's Taking So Long to Convert to R-410A?

April 20, 2009
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Higher costs and contractor acceptance of R-410A may have been primary reasons for any perceived delay with the transition. (Photo courtesy of Rheem.)

In just over eight months, the widely used refrigerant R-22 will no longer be available in new cooling systems. This mandate harkens back to the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, so the HVAC world has had plenty of time to get ready for the change. Though drop-in alternatives exist for service and repair, the next industry standard for new equipment installations has essentially turned toward R-410A.

What’s remarkable is that even though HVAC professionals have known about the transition for years, a recent study by Emerson Climate Technologies showed that some contractors and distributors will be pushing their conversions closer to the 2010 deadline. According to the survey, 57 percent of participating contractors said they are ready, trained, and quoting R-410A products, and 14 percent reported that they are exclusively quoting R-410A.

However, the November 2007 study showed that almost one-fourth of those residential contractors and distributors who initially planned to convert by 2008 pushed their transition out to 2009. Commercial contractors and distributors have pushed their conversions out even further to 2010.

So why are many delaying the inevitable? There may not be one simple answer to that question, but manufacturers say there are certainly several possibilities, including the higher cost of R-410A, the poor economy, and a fear of change.



MANY REASONS FOR DELAY

Many manufacturers have had R-410A equipment available for years, so unlike the 13 SEER mandate, lack of product has not been a problem in the transition. Right now the biggest problem may be the poor economy, said Doug Jones, vice president marketing and sales, Nordyne.

“Converting to R-410A is an expensive process for dealers. They have to buy new gauges and recovery equipment for every truck, plus take the time to train people on a new refrigerant, and they just may not have the financial cushion to do that. Home- owners are also hindering the transition. With the bad economy, many are trying to spend the bare minimum and choosing R-22 units because they can get by without replacing the indoor coil and line set,” he said. Currently Nordyne’s sales of R-410A outdoor units are about 45 to 50 percent of its total sales.

Fear of change and the higher cost of R-410A have also been concerns for many dealers, said Andy Armstrong, director of marketing, Johnson Controls.

“We find many contractors who are comfortable with the R-22 product and have seen no advantage to changing. We anticipate that as public awareness grows, homeowners will expedite the transition to R-410A in 2009, forcing dealers to quote green product. As the volume transition begins, the cost for R-410A refrigerant and components will decrease and make them more attractive.”

Mark King, product manager, residential cooling, Rheem, agrees that cost and contractor acceptance of R-410A have been the primary reasons for any perceived delay with the transition.

“The higher cost was initially with the compressor and refrigerant. However, as demand has increased, the costs of R-22 and R-410A have reached parity. Concerns expressed by contractors regarding the higher pressures, increased sensitivity to moisture, and added cost for system replacement are being addressed by intense and comprehensive training efforts conducted by the training department of Rheem.” Over one-third of Rheem’s units shipped in 2008 were with an HFC refrigerant.

Even given these reasons, the transition from R-22 to R-410A will begin to accelerate during the second and third quarters of 2009, noted Nathan Walker, product manager, Goodman Global Inc. He added that Goodman’s sales of R-410A equipment are increasing rapidly.

“As HVAC dealers begin to shift the bulk of their business to the replacement of older equipment using R-22 with new R-410A equipment, the market will be well positioned for the 2010 target date for new equipment conversion,” said Walker. “When new advances or improved technology are introduced in the HVAC marketplace, some dealers are early adopters and others are late adopters, and this is evidenced in the refrigerant transition.”



Converting to R-410A can be an expensive process for contractors, as they need to buy new equipment, such as manifold gauges. This manifold gauge set can handle both R-410A and R-22 refrigerants, although if a “dual refrigerant” manifold gauge set is used, many suggest it should be used for only one refrigerant. (Photo courtesy of Unitary Products Division, Johnson Controls Inc.)

CHALLENGES AND REWARDS

Manufacturers have had their share of challenges in recent years. First, there was the surprise mandate for 13 SEER equipment when 12 SEER was expected, and now there’s the transition to R-410A. As Armstrong noted, any initiative that requires engineering time slows the deployment of a new refrigerant. “There are a finite number of engineering hours, and converting refrigerant requires those hours. The 13 SEER requirements allowed us to start maximizing performance for R-410A, but engineering and testing with R-22 was still a requirement for most products.”

There have been challenges in converting to R-410A, and they have all been mechanical, stated Jones. These challenges included higher working pressures, different lubricants, and a greater emphasis on filtration and moisture removal.

Another challenge for most manufacturers has been changing plant operations to run both R-22 and R-410A products on the same production lines, said Armstrong. “Managing process systems that require minimal atmospheric ex- posure to POE oil is a challenge.”

Even given those challenges, most manufacturers say that R-410A is a solid refrigerant that has many advantages. As Walker stated, it does not contain chlorine, so it’s more environmentally friendly compared to R-22. In addition, the higher efficiency of R-410A means coil sizes and overall footprints can be reduced. For example, Goodman has been able to design and apply for a patent on its 5-mm condensing coil, which is much smaller than the typical 3/8-inch copper tubing.

“We believe the smaller copper tubing optimizes the heat transfer qualities of R-410A and improves the performance of the unit,” said Walker. “Because of the smaller copper tubing, we are able to reduce the size of the unit’s footprint, too.”

Reduced coil sizes are a great advantage to contractors who have to move units into tight spaces, said Jones. “The mandate for all equipment to use R-410A is a very positive step forward for the industry. We’ve had two refrigerant choices for a long time now, and moving to just one refrigerant will consolidate equipment made by manufacturers, reduce inventory for the entire channel, and make the replacement decision less confusing for homeowners.”

According to Armstrong, the combination of microchannel technology and R-410A have allowed Johnson Controls to reduce the total refrigerant charge by up to 50 percent for all air conditioning systems. “R-410A will be positive for the industry; however, there are collateral improvements that can support the culture change for new refrigerants, i.e., oil with lower affinity to moisture, improved service equipment, and solid training programs.”

And contractors should get used to R-410A because manufacturers believe it will be the refrigerant of choice for years to come. As Jones noted, R-410A is a better refrigerant than R-22, but it’s not perfect.

“While we expect it to be the industry standard for quite some time, we are always investigating other options. Nordyne got its start 90 years ago when it produced oil-burning furnaces as a cleaner alternative to coal. We’ve come a long way since then, but there is still room for improvement in terms of energy efficiency and environmental responsibility.”



The bad economy has resulted in many homeowners choosing less expensive R-22 units, so they can get by without replacing the indoor coil and line set. (Photo courtesy of Nordyne.)

Sidebar: Last Call for R-22 Units

With the 13 SEER mandate, manufacturers were able to produce 10 SEER units right up to the deadline because the equipment could be sold and installed after Jan. 1, 2006. It was thought the same scenario would occur with the transition to R-410A; that is, while equipment containing R-22 couldn’t be manufactured after Jan. 1, 2010, it could be sold and installed. That may all change thanks to a new ruling under consideration by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

On Dec. 23, 2008, the EPA published two notices of proposed rulemaking dealing with the global phaseout of HCFCs. These included unexpected language, including a ban on the sale of R-22 equipment after Jan. 1, 2010, which means that all R-22 inventory would have to be sold before the end of 2009. Though the EPA appears to have acquiesced to industry pleas to lessen such an inventory restriction, (the final ruling is due this summer) this may influence when manufacturers stop producing R-22 equipment.

At Johnson Controls, standard procedures will be employed to stop production of R-22 products with a wide range of last calls, depending on the product efficiency, feature set, and customer demand. According to Andy Armstrong, “We have communicated our R-22 phaseout plans to our customers, and we are starting to see the volume shift to R-410A products in residential applications. Commercial demand is a bit slower and will be more driven by demand than the residential product.”

Doug Jones noted that Nordyne’s entry-level products will continue to have R-22 products available throughout 2009, with the last date for orders being Sept. 1, 2009. “Our flagship brands - Maytag, Frigidaire, NuTone, Tappan, and Westinghouse - are already 100 percent converted to R-410A.”

The plan at Goodman is to meet the demands of its customers. “It’s not our job to dictate market opportunities to our customers. We will follow the manufacturing guidelines as presented for the phase-in of R-410A refrigerant,” said Nathan Walker. “Currently the Amana brand offers a 100 percent R-410A product line. The Goodman brand currently offers both R-22 and R-410A refrigerant products.”

Stay tuned because EPA just made the whole transition to R-410A a little more interesting.

Publication date: 04/20/2009

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