An AC refrigerant gives your air conditioner the power to cool your home. It absorbs heat from the environment and then uses that hot air to produce the cool air. But many homeowners treat them as an afterthought when shopping for a new AC unit. After all, it’s easy to overlook the type of fluid pumping through your AC. This is especially true when compared to factors like energy efficiency that have a clear price attached.
However, as environmental regulations phase out older refrigerants and lead to newer, more efficient ones, the type you choose can have a serious effect on your bills. Learning about them now can save you thousands of dollars down the road and valuable time in maintenance.
How to Tell What Type of Home AC Refrigerant My Unit Takes
Most manufacturers identify which refrigerant your AC unit uses on a large sticker or plate located either on its compressor or evaporator. It may read “R-410A,” “R22,” Puron, Freon, or similar combinations of letters and numbers depending on the cooling agent. Due to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, cooling agents known as hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) will soon be a thing of the past. Instead, we have newer types called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HCFCs contain chlorine and each molecule is much more destructive to ozone than those of HFCs.
You’ll need to know which type of refrigerant your AC system uses before replacing it, as they are not interchangeable. ACs that use HFCs need to operate at pressures which can be 60% greater than ACs that use HCFCs. This means they can be smaller on average. But they will also typically generate more noise and can be more prone to breakdowns. Units that use HFCs must also use synthetic oil in the compressor, which is much more soluble than the mineral oil typically used with HCFCs.
Given these differences, you could damage or destroy your air conditioning unit if you use a cooling agent that is incompatible with it. Warm air coming out of your AC can mean your refrigerant is low or using the wrong refrigerant overall. Check you pressure gauge to see if there’s enough or too little. You’ll want to work with an experienced technician before replacing your refrigerant or before converting an older HCFC-based AC to HFC refrigerants.
Coolants can be dangerous if mishandled and are usually only available for purchase by licensed technicians. Safely dispose of any older HCFC refrigerants to limit the environmental damage they may cause once removed from your AC.
Types of Refrigerant Used in AC Nowadays
Most new ACs use HFCs, which have greater cooling properties than HCFCs and are also much less environmentally destructive.
R-410A is a type of HFC refrigerant that is widely used in newer AC units, replacing older HCFC coolants. This refrigerant is a mixture of two other HFC refrigerants, R-125 and R-32. It offers greater cooling properties than older HCFC refrigerants when subjected to higher pressures.
It also does not harm the ozone layer, which has helped it reach widespread adoption among manufacturers. A 25-pound canister costs about $150, but prices can fluctuate according to demand.
Types of Refrigerant That Are Being Phased Out
HCFCs are being phased out. But most older AC units use them, along with new “dry-charge” units that avoid the Montreal Protocol restrictions. That’s because the refrigerants are added by the buyer.
Freon™ 22, also known commercially as R22 or HCFC-22, is very popular. And most older AC units use it. R-22 is non-flammable and non-toxic, with a fairly low heat transfer coefficient that makes it an ideal refrigerant for home AC use. But it won’t be an option pretty soon. While it has many benefits, it causes significant destruction of the ozone layer due to the presence of chlorine. While prices spiked to $600 per 30-pound canister in 2017, prices have since declined by half or more in 2018.
What to Do If Your Refrigerant Type Is Banned
If they ban your type of refrigerant, you may still be able to purchase it. But you’re probably better off upgrading your AC instead. As per the Montreal Protocol and the EPA’s phaseout schedule, the restrictions on the production and importation of R-22 tightened in 2010. And it ceased entirely in the US in 2020.
Refrigerant prices have declined over the past year. But you’ll still have to rely on dwindling stocks to replace yours in the future. And this will eventually run out. So continue regular maintenance to avoid things like a refrigerant leak while stocks are limited. It may be tempting to wait and see if you can hold out. But there’s no easy way to predict prices for HCFCs in the years to come.
On the other hand, if you decide to replace your AC entirely, you won’t have to worry about running out of refrigerant in the future. You can also benefit from the greater energy efficiency and reliability of a newer unit. In addition, you can also take advantage of the greater cooling power of HFCs relative to HCFCs, which could save you money in the long-run. When it comes to cooling your home, making the right choice for the environment can also be the right choice for your finances.