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AC Coolant: Avoiding the F-Gases


GreenChillSpringtime is right around the corner and you’re getting ready to call for service on your AC system. Be prepared, if you have an older unit, for a rather painful conversation with your HVAC guy.

One source of pain is the fact that older units are considerably less efficient, so your HVAC contractor will probably tell you would be better off if you invest in a newer model. The other reason for financial discomfort is ac coolant.

Many older systems still use a coolant known as R-22, which was banned a few years ago. (Existing systems are grandfathered; they can still be charged with recycled R-22.) For a long time, major industry in the United States resisted changing coolants. When it was demonstrated that the coolant we know as Freon was damaging the ozone layer, a new generation of air conditioners came out, using a different coolant called R-410A. Then 410A was found to be 1500 times more potent than carbon dioxide in causing global warming.

Together, these chemicals are known as fluorinated greenhouse gases, or F-gases. With air-conditioning becoming more vital in a warming world, with people in China and India expecting the same comforts Americans enjoy, a solution is badly needed.

Some scientists say that so-called natural refrigerants could relieve the situation. (http://www.beyondhfcs.org/pages/natural-refrigerants.php). Natural refrigerants include CO2, water, air, ammonia and hydrocarbons such as propane, butane and cyclopentane. (Yes, we know CO2 is one of the bad guys, but according to Greenpeace, only 300 grams of CO2 would be emitted from a CO2-charged, closed-cycle refrigerator during its 10-year lifetime, while the average car emits five tons of CO2 per year.) 

Resistance to change, of course, is imbedded in the system. We’ve already plunked down mega-bucks for the AC systems that use F-gases. Plus the industry has a major stake in selling the technology already at hand.

Cherry Garcia

One breakthrough came from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (now owned by Unilever). The makers of such flavors as Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey decided they needed a more environmentally friendly type of refrigerant in their freezers. They invested in natural refrigerants for their factories and 21 stores across the East Coast.

GE followed, tentatively, asking for EPA approval of its new line of refrigerators cooled by isobutane.

Carrier’s commercial division announced last fall that its European company celebrated 1,000 installations of a system that uses CO2, « to improve system operating efficiency while reducing the carbon footprint. » (http://www.utc.com/News/BIS/Pages/COOLtec-Natural-Refrigerant-System-Surpasses-1-000-Installations.aspx).

Very quietly, it’s happening– the next generation of AC coolant is emerging. Not here, not yet, not for residential usage . . . . but there’s a small, flickering light at the end of the tunnel— if you can see it through the F-gases.

And oh yes, back to that aging AC: You might well get by with a smaller system that costs less to run. So maybe it is time to upgrade to a high-efficiency system?


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