The most basic and striking point made in the study was that “less than 5 percent of (R-22) refrigerant is reclaimed.” That number really needs to be at around 50 percent to ensure adequate supplies of R-22 starting as early as 2010, according to the study.
Let’s break that down. Take a look at all the R-22 equipment you are responsible for keeping up and running for your customers. Figure how much of that equipment is expected to run well beyond 2010, then ask yourself: “If I need more R-22 to do service work on that equipment, where am I going to get it?” (Of course, based on what happened to prices for virgin R-22 during 2007, you might also ask, at what cost?)
Reclamation involves the recovery of refrigerant and then bringing that refrigerant back to a wholesaler or a reclamation service for the refrigerant to be brought back to purity for its reuse.
I know the pipeline between contractors, wholesalers, and reclaimers isn’t exactly smooth running. But I also know there are those in the industry trying to help smooth it out, especially with the idea of greater financial incentives for contractors to use the pipeline.
If reclamation is not being done to any great extent, the question then becomes, where is the R-22 going?
One possibility is that contractors are recovering refrigerant on site, safely storing it there until service work is done, then putting it back into the system. In many cases, this works fine. But if there is any question as to the purity of the refrigerant, then reclamation is the best option - but one that apparently is not being used as much as it should.
Some in the industry believe R-22 is still being vented into the atmosphere, just as it was before the Montreal Protocol and the Environmental Protection Agency’s ban on such practices first went into effect more than 20 years ago.
Another possible reason for the lack of refrigerant coming back for reclamation is stockpiling of R-22 by contractors, to such an extent as to last the lifespan of any R-22 equipment a contractor might be responsible for.
Whatever is happening with R-22 in terms of how it is being used and where it is going, there still is an industry-wide consensus that not enough is being done to ensure that existing supplies of R-22 are being preserved to offset the decline in the production of virgin R-22 for all the R-22 equipment currently operating.
It used to be thought that the main reason to recover, recycle, and reclaim was to avoid EPA-imposed fines for failing to do so. But that “fear of God” scenario never really had all that much impact. Fines have been few and far between, and the EPA’s reliance on whistle-blowers within the industry hasn’t resulted in enough such folks to make much of a difference.
But now, virtually everything I am hearing in the industry points to a far more fearful motivation: having enough R-22 to keep your customers happy. Here is the question every contractor needs to ask: “If the supplies of R-22 - whether reclaimed or virgin - are not meeting demand as early as 2010, what am I going to tell my customers?”