Why Are Air Conditioning Repair Costs Rising?
The cost of having service work performed on our air conditioner unit is never cheap. Many homeowners today are using a central air conditioning system that runs using a refrigerant called R-22. This is fine until you find out you have a leak in your system and see the bill for the refrigerant that they had to put into the system. Perhaps that's what has you reading this right now, trying to find an answer as to why you feel you were just held up by your HVAC technician.
Is R-22 Being Phased Out?
I can't speak for the call charges or labor costs, but as for R-22, it's not his fault and you are not alone. This trend is going to get worse in time, and eventually, you will be purchasing a 410a system to replace it. This is no accident, and with the money you'd spend on keeping the R-22 unit, there would be no sense in stretching out the inevitable.
Let's take a look at the "what, when, why, and how much" of the phasing out of the R-22 system and why this trend is making your A/C repair costs skyrocket.
What Is R-22?
As I mentioned, R-22 (a.k.a. Freon) is a refrigerant that is used in air conditioning. Refrigerants are special because of their extremely low boiling points when under certain pressures. Sparing the science, this is needed to make air conditioning possible among other uses for CFC's. (propellants, aerosols, etc...)
However, there is a problem with CFC's.
Why Is R-22 Harmful and Being Phased Out?
R-22 is a CFC. (chlorofluorocarbon = chlorine + fluorine + carbon) The issue with this is that when CFCs reach the atmosphere they begin to destroy ozone (O3) by robbing from its molecular structure. Seeing that ozone is the sort of protective atmospheric layer that shields us from much of the sun's UV light, that is not a good thing.
On the other hand, 410a is an HFC. (hydrofluorocarbon = hydrogen + fluorine + carbon). The molecular structure of an HFC does not react with ozone as does the CFC. There is no "robbing" going on between the 2 because HFCs are less stable and tend to "break apart" before reaching the ozone layer.
Of course, as we all know, when something starts becoming rare, it becomes costly. With the phasing out of R-22, if your A/C is using it, expect your air conditioning repair costs to become more and more unreasonable.
410a: The New Refrigerant for A/C
410a systems (HFC refrigerant replacement for R-22) have been around for a while now, but the cost is much more affordable than it used to be. With a safer refrigerant, much higher efficiency rating, and . . . oh yea, EPA approval, the 410a systems are the "new cool".
Note: A/C efficiency is rated by SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating). The lowest SEER rating on the market today is 13 with 20 being the highest as of now. A rating of 15 or higher qualifies you for a tax break.
Why Does R-22 Cost So Much?
As with many other products, when the supply goes down and the demand goes up, the cost goes up as well. In this case, the cost of R-22 has skyrocketed over the last few years due to the phasing out of R-22 production. A 30-gallon jug of R-22 that was approximately $100 a few years ago is now going at the rate of nearly $350. ($12 per/lb)
The Montreal Protocol is the international agreement that lays out the plan to phase out CFCs and HCFCs. In the U.S., this is upheld by the EPA via the Clean Air Act. As of today, the phase-out schedule looks like this:
January 1, 2010 (implemented)
No more R-22 using equipment is to be manufactured.
January 1, 2015
Ban on sale and use of R-22 except for servicing existing equipment.
January 1, 2020
Ban on production and import of R-22.
What Will R-22 Cost in the Future?
It is being speculated that the cost of R-22 will increase by approximately 5% per year until it is phased out altogether. I would say this is a safe estimate based on what I've seen so far and on what had happened to the cost of R-12 when it was banned.
In the past few years, the cost of R-22 has increased well over a 100% and in my personal, non-governmental, non-professional opinion, I will not be shocked if a 30-gallon jug of refrigerant is at $500 within the next couple of years.
Update: Since this article was written, R-22 has now reached nearly $500 per jug as projected. Wow!
So, What Does All This Mean?
Well, to those of you who have 410An operating systems already...not really anything. For those of us with R-22 systems, it means begin saving for your new 410A system. The service fees you will incur adding refrigerant to an R-22 unit over the next few years could be extreme and you will still be stuck with the same old unit. Not to mention you'll have to spend money on repairing the leak so that you don't have to keep adding R-22 every year.
Don't Get Taken Advantage Of
If you are being told you need to top off your system yearly, you are being swindled unless you are told of the leak and agree not to repair it (which is not acceptable by EPA standards in residential central air conditioning and licensing).
An A/C is a sealed system and refrigerant doesn't go bad. You should only need to add refrigerant if you have a leak and if you have a leak, it should be repaired. Also, if there is no problem with your A/C, don't let the technician hook up gauges unnecessarily. Every time those gauges go on your system, they rob small amounts of refrigerant from it.
Now You Know . . .
So whether this article has given you an idea for a future investment (which you would have to be licensed to even do) or has just prepared you for what is to come in the HVAC world, I hope it has been useful and helped you understand what is going on with the cost of A/C repairs.
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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
wayseeker from Colorado on June 14, 2012:
Well, you've got me wondering what kind of AC I have. The house is a little over eight years old now, and the AC was put in new when we bought it. I expect, however, I've got the old R-22. We have no problems at the moment, but at least this helps me know what to expect when the time comes.
I love how your hubs help me to be able to speak intelligently about these things when they come up. I've found I have a lot better success with repair and sales people when I have at least a vague notion of what I'm talking about.
Wonderfully useful, as always!
Dan Reed (author) on June 13, 2012:
Thank you Marcy. There are some new(er) things on the market and I am glad they at least made the attempt to do something about it. It's unfortunately how often leaks are left alone for the residual business.
Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on June 12, 2012:
Wow - this is interesting news. I just had a service call & they added R-22 (I remember it had a number - guess that was it) and then he put something in the system to fix the leak. But I'm not sure I'd call that 'repairing' the leak. It sounded like it would just slow it or plug it up. I'm due for a new system, but I'm hoping to get it through my warranty program. Which also has issues . . .
Great hub, as usual!