Talk to reclaimers, wholesalers and, in fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and they will tell you contractors need to do a better job of bringing in HCFC-22 for reclamation to avoid a shortfall of the refrigerant by as early as 2010.
Talk to many contractors and they will tell you the incentives to submit their refrigerant for reclaim just aren’t there yet - and they just prefer to recover and recycle onsite what they have and keep reusing it for as long as they can.
Two less clear issues are whether that refrigerant is truly being recovered or if it is actually being vented; and whether refrigerant of questionable purity is being submitted for reclaim or if contractors are just assuming it is pure enough to continue using without reclaim verification.
These were some of the findings based on comments solicited byThe NEWSover the past month in response to an announcement earlier in the year that the industry could experience a 20 percent shortfall of virgin R-22 as early as 2010.
That tightening of the spigot is because “based on an assessment of credible current scientific information, a more stringent schedule may be necessary to protect human health,” said the EPA in its proposed rule (Protection of Stratospheric Ozone: Adjustments to the Allowance System for Controlling HCFC Production, Import, and Export) published Dec. 23 with the potential of becoming a final rule this summer.
It is the EPA contention “that a more stringent schedule is practicable, taking into account technological achievability, safety, and other relevant factors.”
One of those factors is reclaim. “EPA is proposing to allocate HCFC-22 and HCFC-142b allowances based on the projected servicing needs for those compounds, taking into account the amount of those needs that can be met through recycling and reclamation,” according to wording in the proposed rule.
IF YOU BUILD IT, WILL THEY COME?It is the expectation by the EPA that any potential shortfall of virgin R-22 can be offset by better reclamation efforts within the HVACR industry that has steered so much attention to the availability of the reclaim option - even if contractors are not yet willing to wholly embrace it.
“Today, there are numerous reclamation sites and reclaim services available to refrigerant users. However, the total amount of refrigerant being returned for reclaim is dismal,” said Marc Richburg of ICOR International/Refri-Claim.
“So where is the problem? From a total disregard of leak rate and venting regulations to accidental releases, there are no doubt a number of additional factors contributing to poor recovery rates,” said Richburg. “So can it be improved? The answer is yes. It can be improved and it must be improved if we are to close the R-22 supply gap.”
At least the link between reclaimers and wholesalers is showing improvement, said Jodi Crawford of Airgas. “We do see an uptick in wholesale suppliers offering reclaim services to contractors. Refrigerant return programs are becoming increasingly competitive with reclaimers offering higher prices on refrigerants (primarily R-22), lowering or eliminating fees, and widening the specification for gas purity.”
She did admit, “We find that wholesale supply houses find administering a reclamation program tedious. Tracking cylinder deposits and swap-outs, returned gas credits, and other business process functions are a challenge - particularly for stores that are not experienced in managing a gas return program.
“However, we believe offering gas return to a wide array of contractors in a program that accepts smaller volumes is the best way to increase the total volume of reclaimed refrigerant. Taking this one step further, we believe that a financial incentive will help grow the number of contractors that make the extra effort to collect and return refrigerant for reclamation.”
Like many reclaimers, Chuck Harkins of Hudson Technologies has seen an uptick in business. “There is activity and quite a bit more awareness than in past years. Many companies in the industry, including manufacturers and wholesalers, feel it necessary to actively offer and promote refrigerant reclamation, much more so than in the past.
“With 2010 at our doorstep, the sense of awareness has been heightened regarding the need for a refrigerant reclamation program offering.”
Getting the word out is also a work in progress, said Jimmy Trout of Allcool. “We promote our services through wholesale distributors, direct mailing, Website, and cold calling. However, most business is generated from word-of-mouth and the EPA Website where there is a list of EPA-certified refrigerant reclaimers.
“Contractors who choose not to recover refrigerant usually do not understand how simple the reclaim sector makes it for them. Instead they look at recovery as a hassle and not worth the effort, regardless of the money wasted or environmental impact. Some residential contractors who choose not to recover are simply not educated on recovery techniques and options available for the used product. Others just don’t care. Nevertheless, it is a stumbling block reclaimers have to deal with on a regular basis.”
Said James Sweetman of Consolidated Refrigerant Solutions, “Credits for R-22 are essential; equally, if reclaimers can simplify the process and eliminate the fees … that is another very important aspect to the contractor. The credits, buybacks, and banking are just extras.
“Contractors are not in the business of selling dirty gas. If they can better focus on their business with less headaches … that’s what matters and that’s where we deliver.”
THE WHOLESALERS SIDEFrom the wholesalers’ perspective, reclaim is a market with growth potential. Frank Meier of Meier Supply said, “Activity in the used refrigerant/reclaim sector has been at 8 to 10 percent growth in the last couple of years. However, we expect this to increase in double digits this year.”
He said it would come in two directions. One is increased promotion. To his fellow wholesalers, he said, “Have a plan in place and be relentless in communicating this with customers.” The second factor, he said, relates to cost. “As the cost of new R-22 continues to rise, used R-22 will become more valuable. This will promote more R-22 going through reclaim.”
Those comments are echoed by Talbot Gee of the Heating, Air-Conditioning, Refrigerating Distributors International that has launched a Website (www.yourpartnersinprofit.org) providing a directory of refrigerant recovery locations.
“The amount of refrigerant being recovered by wholesalers is not increasing considerably, but HARDI’s wholesale members’ capacity for collecting recovered refrigerant is predominant in virtually every market and steadily growing,” Gee said.
“The combination of the cost of technicians’ time and the lack of enforcement creates a significant barrier to increased reclamation. The next issue is the lack of public awareness or demand for proper reclamation. End customers are not demanding proper refrigerant recovery or even know that it is the law which disadvantages good contractors who need to charge recovery fees to cover their costs to do the job the right way.”
At the same time, he said, “Wholesalers make the process about as easy as possible for contractors already by facilitating cylinder swaps and managing cylinder cleaning and compliance. Many distributors also provide much of the record keeping for their customers in case they are ever audited.”
COST AND CONVENIENCEDespite all the talk from reclaimers and wholesalers, when you talk to contractors, the current stumbling blocks still are cost and convenience.
Said John Richardson of Richardson’s Heating and Air Conditioning of Chapin, S.C., “We are a medium size residential and a small commercial HVAC contractor. Last year I got very serious about recovering and recycling R-22. I got little or no help from distributors in terms of establishing a cost effective way of dealing with R-22, so I did my homework. Most local distributors have no program available to contractors. One that does charges $80 for you to drop off a 50-pound tank of recovered refrigerant and they will swap you another certified 50-pound tank. As far as the other distributors we buy from, that was it. In the past, some had programs but none of them worked effectively so they went away.”
Said Jim Bartelt, who contactedThe NEWSby e-mail, “I’m a small contractor. Currently, I’m just holding recovered R-22 because I’ve not yet found a wholesaler in my area that has a reclaim program that would pay me anything for the refrigerant or has a banking program. I’ve called one reclaimer, and they have a 500-pound minimum to pick up. So, I’ll just continue to hold until I can find a better alternative.”
Contractor Larry Bourdeau of Comfort by Premier in Apex, N.C., said cost is the big issue. “Why are prices so high? I am on my own. Refrigerant costs me $220 a jug. To return R-22 to my supply house is another $1.50 per pound.”
One contractor who is using the reclaim option with some success is Steve Russell of Shoemaker Air Conditioning in Tulsa, Okla. “We are currently using a reclaim company. They provide a drum with capacity of 750 pounds of refrigerant. When it gets full, we send it back to them; they pay for the refrigerant, and send us another tank.”
But that doesn’t answer all questions, said Russell. “Another issue we all deal with is what to do with the small amounts of unreturnable refrigerants that we have. For example, I have several canisters of mixed or non-R-22 refrigerants here. I cannot return them to any of the local supply houses because the quantity is too small or they are mixed.”
Chuck Munson of Independent Air of Eustis, Fla., said, “As a good contractor, I reclaim all of the old R-22. I have done so since I opened the doors in 1994.
“How is it working out? It isn’t. I started out turning in 50-pound jugs at no cost to me. Quite a few years ago the cost went to over $250, not counting a deposit charge for a 125-pound cylinder. Only one wholesaler in the area will even pick up my full cylinders now. About three plus months back I e-mailed one company about a pick up. Gave them my location and contact info. Still haven’t heard back from them.
“How is the system working? It is broken. Heaven help us in the next several years as we need R-22.”
All the varying comments and perspectives indicate that reclaimers, wholesalers, and contractors are not yet all on the same page regarding the problem and possible solutions. So there is still much to do to deal with possible refrigerant supply issues in 2010 and beyond.
Sidebar: To Vent or NotThe industry’s dirty little secret is still being talked about in whispered tones. Venting is still going on and until a better handle is gotten on that issue, refrigerant shortfalls could still be a problem, regardless of recovery, recycling, and reclaim efforts.
“Assuming the government would provide adequate funding for enforcement activities, conducting random compliance audits of refrigerant users and equipment owners - similar to the audits the EPA conducted during the early ’90s to ensure recovery system compliance - would surely stimulate the reclaim market,” said ICOR/Refri-Claim’s March Richburg.
Steve Russell of Shoemaker Air Conditioning in Tulsa, Okla. added, “What amazed me is that my technicians have all said they never returned used refrigerants before they started work for our company. It makes me wonder just how much or how little refrigerant is actually being reclaimed. Until we determine a method of economically handling this, many companies will continue to have leakers (venters).”
But don’t expect whistle blowers within the industry to help the EPA in such enforcement, according to contractor Larry Bourdeau of Comfort by Premier, Apex, N.C. It’s too dangerous for them, he said.
“The government has spent all kinds of time and money to recognize a problem and a solution. They are so busy patting themselves on the back for the wonderful job they have done, that they do not see that nothing has changed. The problem and cause is still there. And it would be so easy to see who is not following the rules, if they would just look. (But) waiting for a whistle blower? We all know what happens to them. Financial and career ruin as they become the bad guy.”