The R-22 Phase-Out Is Coming: Know What Your Options Are

For decades, air-conditioning and heat pump systems have relied on R-22 refrigerant (also known as Freon) to keep homes cool and comfortable. Thanks to a gradual phase-out in favor of more environmentally-friendly alternatives, the age of R-22 is quickly coming to an end.

Whether you plan on keeping your existing HVAC system around for a while longer or finally decide on purchasing a brand-new system, you should know what your refrigerant options are.

Why is the Phase-out Happening?

Back in the 1980s, scientists discovered that certain man-made chemicals were slowly eroding the earth's ozone layer—the protective shield that prevents harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation from reaching the earth's surface. To combat this problem, Canada and other countries around the globe became signatories of the Montreal Protocol, designed to gradually eliminate the consumption and production of ozone-depleting substances.

The protocol essentially places an incremental cap on the production of hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) refrigerants, with the goal of eliminating all HCFC production by 2030. These HFCF refrigerants also include R-22. Despite its effectiveness in home comfort, it's also a harmful product that's targeted for phase-out in the near future.

As supplies of R-22 dwindle, it'll become harder to find and even more expensive to purchase. This can make owning an older HVAC system reliant on R-22 rather expensive to maintain in the coming years. Fortunately, there are plenty of alternatives available that are not only effective, but also energy-efficient and cost-effective in the long run.

R-410A: The Latest Alternative for New Systems

R-410A is the latest in hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants, offering comparable performance to R-22-based systems with a much smaller impact on the ozone layer. R-410A is also designed to be as energy-efficient as possible with the appropriate equipment, resulting in reduced energy consumption and lower utility costs with little to no reduction in comfort.

The only caveat? R-410 only works in new HVAC systems specifically designed around the refrigerant. This is because R-410A works at much higher pressures than R-22. Introducing the latter into a system designed around the former and vice-versa could result in catastrophic damage.

Drop-in Replacements to Consider

If you're not quite ready to replace your old HVAC unit, a drop-in refrigerant replacement could help you squeeze a little more life out of your existing system. This works if you've just purchased an R-22-based HVAC system and want to get some years from your investment before a complete replacement.

The following is a list of popular drop-in replacements currently available:

  • R-407C is the closest HFC-based replacement for R-22, offering comparable performance to R-22 refrigerant. The only drawback is that it requires a change of lubricant in addition to possible minor modifications for the best performance possible.
  • R-438A and R-422D are considered excellent drop-in replacements due to their versatility in older systems. Unlike R-407C, R-438A and R-422D are compatible with R-22 lubricants. On the downside, these replacements aren't designed for use with semi-hermetic compressors or HVAC systems featuring mixed metering devices.
  • R-422B is another popular HFC-based refrigerant for older HVAC systems. However, R-422B does not offer the same superior performance that R-438A, R-422D and R-407C offer.

When switching from one refrigerant to another, you may want to replace all of your system's O-rings and seals to minimize the risk of leaks. The different refrigerant may cause these seals and rings to shrink, opening unexpected gaps in the system.

Not all of these replacements will work for all situations. If you're not sure about which strategy to pursue, it's a good idea to call on your heating and cooling contractor. After all, a little good advice can go a long way when it comes to home comfort.