We may not have R22 for future servicing needs.

While attending this year’s AHR Expo in Orlando, FL (January 25-27), I talked to an amazing lady - Star Baccari, manager of product development and communications for Airgas Refrigerants - who shares my deep concern over the current refrigerant recovery dilemma. And since her company deals with the recovery side of the business, she was able to enlighten me when it comes to the problems experienced from her side of the industry.

Why do I call the current state of refrigerant recovery and reclaim a dilemma? Because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency projects that we will have enough R22 to handle HVACR servicing needs though 2016, but only if 20% of the total comes from recovery and reclaim! However, according to a DuPont rep that I spoke with at the Expo, our current recovery/reclaim rate is hovering at around 7% (up from the recent 4%), so we are currently not about to meet that critical goal.  

The financial incentives simply aren’t there, and telling contractors to recover HCFCs “for the sake of the environment” doesn’t impress them, since most (like me) don’t believe that they are a hazard to the environment.

Nevertheless, we still have to face the fact that the phase-outs are required by law, and there won’t be enough R22 to service the units that are still being sold today, many of which will still be under warranty until the year 2020!

What is the problem from the reclaim side of the business? According to Ms. Baccari, they can’t just immediately pay supply houses for returned refrigerant (so supply houses can’t immediately pay contractors), until they know exactly what is being returned and in what volumes. She says that some tanks are returned with water and oil, which greatly inflates the weight, and some are returned with mixed refrigerants that can only be sent for waste disposal, at a cost of about $4.00/lb to them. Then this cost must in turn be charged back to the supply houses, and on back to the contractors.

Is there any bright side here? Yes, she says that the quality of refrigerant being returned is improving. But the paperwork involved is a headache for everyone, especially for you. From your customers’ viewpoints, the natural place to return their recovered refrigerant is to your store, which more or less obligates you to handle the returns, payments and paperwork. 

As things currently stand, there just aren’t enough incentives to ever realistically reach the 20% recovery/reclaim goal, and this will surely result in an industry disaster within the next few years. So, what’s my suggestion? I wrote it several years ago, but the idea just wasn’t popular at the time: The EPA has to require refrigerant manufacturers to add a deposit to the price of every pound of HCFCs they sell, in order to provide contractors and users a viable financial incentive for their (and your) recovery efforts. The incentives should only be enough to encourage recovery and reclaim, but not enough to encourage theft. Yes, such a program will impact service costs, but what will happen when we can no longer service in-warranty air conditioners?