On December 27, 2020, President Trump signed the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act of 2020 into law. This act instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to begin the phase down of refrigerants containing hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), a compound that has been found to contribute to global warming. The goal is to reduce production and consumption of HFC’s by 40% by 2024 and 85% by 2036. The most common refrigerant used in residential air conditioners, R-410A (Puron), is an HFC and is subject to the phasedown.
R-410A was first adopted by HVAC manufacturers in the late 1990’s to replace R-22 Freon, which research showed was damaging the Earth’s ozone layer. The ozone layer is like the sunscreen for the planet and its damage would have significant consequences to human health. This led to a global agreement, the Montreal Protocol, which was signed in 1987 and led to the phase-out of chlorine-containing refrigerants like R-22. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began limiting the production and import of R-22 in 2010, in with a complete ban on production and import effective January 1, 2020.
Now, twelve years after the phaseout began, the reduction of chlorine compounds in the atmosphere has allowed the ozone layer to begin to heal. From 2006 to 2016, there has been a 20% reduction in lost ozone, and in 2019 the hole over Antarctica was the smallest since 1982 (NASA). Scientists expect the ozone layer over Antarctica to be mostly recovered by the middle of the 21st Century.
Many of the research groups that identified the effect of chlorine on ozone depletion subsequently identified the impact of HFC refrigerants on global warming. As such, an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, the Kigali Amendment, was passed in 2016 by 130 counties and the European Union. The Kigali Amendment is a legally binding agreement to reduce the production and consumption of HFC’s (R-410A). The U.S. ratified the agreement on September 21, 2022.
HVAC manufacturers anticipated the phase-out of R-410A for over a decade by developing alternative refrigerants and funding research programs on refrigerant performance and safety. The industry has begun the transition, with many residential air conditioner test units currently in service throughout the U.S. It is anticipated that new residential cooling systems will begin to appear on the market beginning next year, as federal law will reduce the production of R-410A by 40% in 2024 and significantly pinch supplies and cost of R-410A.
As with any other technological change, however, there are some complications:
- There is no single low GWP alternative to R-410A that is considered optimal for residential air conditioners. Rather, there are multiple alternatives, all having global warming potential significantly lower than R-410A. For the consumer, this will be another point to compare when evaluating one brand vs another.
- All feasible replacements to R-410A are considered mildly-flammable, while R-410A is considered non-flammable. Mildy-flammable means the refrigerant is difficult to ignite and can barely hold a flame; it is much less combustible than propane or natural gas. Even so, all new systems will be equipped with controls to prevent leaked refrigerant from achieving a combustible concentration. For the consumer and installer, this will be an added complexity and cost. It also means that the new refrigerants cannot be used in a system operating with R-410A, nor can R-410A be used in a new low-GWP system.
- All R-410A replacement options have differing impacts on HVAC system size, performance, and durability. They also have different operating pressures and temperatures and will put the burden on the service technician to know which refrigerant is in the system. For the consumer, this makes it even more important to work with a reputable dealer whose technicians are certified to work with the new refrigerants.
As of this writing, Carrier, Bryant, Tempstar, Johnson Controls (York), Rheem and possibly Trane will use refrigerant R-454B, developed by Chemours and known as OpteonTM XL41 and Puron AdvanceTM. It has the lowest global warming potential of the refrigerants being seriously considered for residential use; 4-1/2 times lower than R-410A. Other manufacturers, such as Goodman, Daikin, and Lennox are expected to use R-32, which has a global warming potential that is only 3 times lower than R-410A.
Along with the change in refrigerants, air conditioner manufacturers are also faced with an increase in the minimum cooling efficiency by the U.S. Department of Energy. The new minimum efficiency takes effect on January 1, 2023. It not only increases the minimum cooling efficiency of residential air conditioners, but also introduces a new cooling efficiency metric, SEER2, which is intended to better reflect actual operating conditions than the prior standard. Manufacturers have developed new equipment to not only meet the new efficiency regulations, but to also ease the transition to low-GWP refrigerants.
What does this mean for the consumer? It means that residential air conditioners will be more expensive, and somewhat larger, because of:
1) The increased minimum efficiency standard that takes effect on 1/1/23,
2) R-410A is phased out of production and becomes more expensive and less readily available, and
3) The new low-GWP air conditioners become available in the 2023-2024 timeframe.
As manufacturers launch new equipment to meet the new efficiency and refrigerant standards, you can rest assured that American Heating will have the latest information on the new equipment to help you select the system that is best for you.