The refrigerant R-22's price is increasing because it has become so popular, yet new production facilities aren't planned to meet the growing need.

At a recent industry meeting a representative of National Refrigerants, an HCFC importer, startled the crowd by predicting that R-22 would be in short supply about four years from now. The reason for this, according to the report I read, is because after the phaseout of CFC-12, HCFC-22 became the refrigerant of choice in the commercial refrigeration field for use in refrigerant blends, and in the plastics manufacturing business.

Now, that's OK, except that manufacturers of the product, such as DuPont, ICI, AlliedSignal and the rest, have decided not to expand production facilities to meet the growing needs since R-22 is scheduled to begin its phaseout in 15 years or less. This refrigerant, which is the primary one used in the light commercial and residential air-conditioning business, isn't supposed to come into short supply due to government regulations, but because demand will outstrip production.

Carrier Corp. has mentioned the imminent shortage of R-22 in recent advertising for its Puron systems, which use an HFC blend designated R-410a. Of course, Carrier has reason to do so because it wants to promote its non-HCFC systems while it has an exclusive position in the market. However, as its advertising also truthfully points out, the wholesale price of R-22 has already risen about 30% in the past year. So there's some indication as to the truthfulness of the prediction of shortages looming on the horizon.

While I suspect that there will be shortages - and a rise in prices - I doubt that the increases will mean that R-22 will become more expensive than R-410a any time in the near future. After all, the new refrigerant is four to five times more costly right now.

However, that hasn't prevented manufacturers or contractors from trying to frighten the public into switching to the new coolant by exploiting the rising prices of R-22. That shouldn't be necessary, since it's stretching the truth. The real story has enough appeal to stand on its own.

All this R-22 phaseout hoopla really bothers me. The laws to ban production and use of HCFCs were passed as part of the Clean Air Act, which also brought about the phaseout of CFCs, such as R-11 and R-12. At the time the bill was enacted, there wasn't much data on the real effect of HCFCs on earth's protective ozone layer, either good or bad. Lawmakers just knew that HCFC is a chlorine-based chemical closely associated with R-12 - which probably does damage the ozone layer - thus allowing dangerous ultraviolet radiation to reach the earth's surface. Congress was also being pushed to ban HCFCs by other governments, cool Northern European countries that don't use R-22 and view air conditioning as a uniquely American vice.

The interesting thing is that at the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency put on a program at a national meeting that showed modeling of what it thought would happen if each refrigerant wasn't phased out. One HCFC (R-123), which is used as a replacement for the banned R-11, was shown not to pose any hazard to the ozone layer, but it was included in the phaseout anyhow.

I have quite a few qualms with the refrigerants (HFCs) that are proposed as replacements for R-22. For instance, in the past I have mentioned the problems with the new lubricants HFCs require. They absorb moisture very readily, causing them to break down easily. Then recently a contractor I know called me and pointed out that a warning label on 25-lb. drums of R-410a says it shouldn't be stored in temperatures above 125°F. How hot can your warehouse and delivery trucks get? This contractor says his trucks reach 160°F in the northern climate of Indianapolis.

But all that aside, there will soon be requests from all your customers to supply them with non-HCFC air-conditioning systems, and other manufacturers will surely offer them after the first of the year. It should be an interesting ASHRAE show in January, assuming equipment manufacturers will choose to be there. And commercial-equipment manufacturers must also pay close attention to this trend. I've already had customers ask about package cooling systems using R-410a, although none are available yet.

So things are changing, not necessarily for the better. R-22 is planned for phaseout when it likely doesn't need to be. Its price is rising because it has become so popular. Yet new production facilities aren't planned to meet the growing need. In turn, manufacturers are scrambling to convert their systems to a new refrigerant that we don't know if we can store in our trucks or warehouses and which will likely not prove to be reliable, given our industry's current lack of contractor professionalism. But there's a lot of money to be made in the meantime, which is all that some worry about.