In an earlier article I had written urging contractors and supply-house managers to anticipate shortages of R22 starting this year. The information that I had been given on the subject at the time indicated that these shortages were imminent because the refrigerant's production was being capped by the phase-out provisions of the Clean Air Act, but demand for the refrigerant would grow. However, not only have we not seen the anticipated shortages and rising prices, the price of the refrigerant has actually dropped during the first part of this year. What happened?

Well, I got my answer while serving as a panel member on a discussion of R22 phase outs at the Northeastern conference of the HARDI association, which was held near Atlantic City last May. After I handled my part where I ranted and raved to the crowd about the poor legislation, which resulted in the phasing-out of this benign and beneficial refrigerant, as well as about the inept EPA rulings, which are resulting in massive dumping of this refrigerant into the atmosphere, a speaker from a refrigerant manufacturing company (Honeywell) gave us the explanation for the current plentiful supply of R22. It seems that the anticipated growth in demand never materialized. In addition, an HCFC, which is used in foam blowing, was discontinued early, and this resulted in effectively raising the production cap on R22. So instead of seeing shortages, there is - and will be for some time in the future - more than enough of this refrigerant to go around.

So, when will we start seeing tight supplies of R22? Nobody knows. But the manufacturer assured us that this might not happen for the next 10 years or so, despite a continuously lowering cap on production. Why is that? The fact that manufacturers are starting to produce air-conditioning equipment that uses R410a is lowering the pressure on R22 supplies. And he predicted that in 2008, when manufacturers will be forced by law to raise the minimum efficiency on residential cooling equipment to 12-SEER, most of them will make the switch to R410a across their product lines, leaving the rest of R22 production for use in servicing existing equipment.

So why has the price of R22 dropped? In a nutshell: Mainland China has started supplying R22 to our market. They can produce refrigerants at a much lower cost because they are one of the world's leading producers of fluorspar, the raw mineral that fluorine is derived from. And since fluorine is the principal ingredient in almost all the new and existing refrigerants, the Chinese are going to affect the price we pay for refrigerants for many years to come. Will that eventually lead to lower prices on HFC refrigerants? Probably so. But there just isn't enough market for these products yet to justify any mass production.

It is interesting that a compressor manufacturer, Copeland, was also represented at this HARDI panel discussion. And what he said covered another couple of issues that I was concerned about. First, he pointed out that all HVAC manufacturers in North America have likely settled on using just one new refrigerant, R410a. So, supply houses and contractors may not have to stock several different types, as I had earlier feared. Also, it looks like Copeland is ready, willing, and able to produce all the thick-shell compressors necessary to meet any market needs for the high-pressure refrigerant systems.

Does this mean that I feel better about phasing out R22? No! And apparently, many supply house and contracting firm owners and managers feel the same way. The man from Copeland indicated that there is a lot of (justified) concern among them over the new lubricants that must be used in systems employing HFC refrigerants. I like to think that I had a hand in that.

Did we discuss some of the so-called “drop-in” replacement refrigerants that are designed to take the place of R22? Yes. Although I wrote an article in this magazine last year extolling the virtues of one of these refrigerants, I have since received several letters making the point that the Copeland representative covered: The two drawbacks to these refrigerants include poor oil return and lower cooling output. He said that tests showed the new HFC/propane blend did not reliably return the lubricant, and that suction accumulators virtually don't allow any to return to the compressor at all (so much for heat pumps). So it looks like such drop-ins will only have limited application, and there may be no substitutions available at all for many existing R22 jobs. <<