Keeping Cool: A Look into Apartment HVAC Systems

apartment hvac systems


Investing thousands in new air-conditioning units or making a jump to the next wave of refrigerant to keep your residents cool is something to think about. Considering changing EPA regulations regarding the juice that cools air conditioners, a more conservative approach may be the best strategy.

At a recent multifamily housing conference, background chatter about a/c refrigerants circulated among veteran maintenance and training apartment executives. It wasn’t exactly a sexy conversation, but worth lending an ear between education sessions.

The kink in the line is not just the ongoing phase out of R-22 refrigerant – the refrigerant of choice for the last two decades – but what’s going to happen to its successor, R-410A. Today, all newly manufactured air conditioners and refrigeration systems in the U.S. are charged with R-410A. The problem is that the refrigerant is now under scrutiny because it’s considered a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

Already well into use, R-410A was first believed to be the coolant of the future when the EPA began a five-tiered phase out of R-22 in 2004 to reduce the production and consumption of ozone damaging Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs).

Refrigerant debate is heating up

While the EPA hasn’t begun a R-410A phase out, some believe it’s only a matter of time. Last year, the EPA may have set the stage by announcing a handful of newly approved refrigerants that are deemed better for climate protection.

One thing is definite: R-22 will not be produced after 2019. What happens then could be anybody’s guess, says David Jolley, National Director of Maintenance/Purchasing for Pinnacle.

“We’re kind of lost out in space as to where we’re going,” he said recently.

R-410A, developed in 1991, is one of several refrigerants approved for commercial refrigeration and home cooling, and is preferred in the U.S., Japan and Europe. Since the R-22 phase-out was announced, the HVAC industry has routinely upgraded existing air-conditioners with R-410A hardware or replaced units with new ones.

Among other refrigerant options is one consisting mostly of propane, which already is used sparingly in some refrigerants. The problem with using a high propane-content refrigerant, Jolley says, is that it’s flammable and could pose a danger. There are other refrigerants that can do the trick, which only cloud the situation. Maintenance teams could be in a quandary when those call center lines heat up in the dead of summer with sweating residents, especially if system replacement is necessary and a new refrigerant must be chosen.

Repairing existing units may be the best solution

apartment hvac systems

Jolley says Pinnacle is riding out the refrigerant debate until the EPA has the final say. Investing in dozens of new R-410A-charged units could pose a gamble if the refrigerant is phased out.

“Our goal is to fix what we have,” he said.

If and when a refrigerant shakeup happens, maintenance techs will need to be on their A game. For starters, measuring R-410A cooling capacity is a little different than for R-22.

Jolley noted that additional training is needed for those who maintain apartment air conditioning systems. He says that many technicians don’t understanding the basic principles of superheating for R-22, which is necessary to determine if a system is cooling efficiently. A unit operating under the right superheating temperature will use less electricity than one that may be undercharged but feels like it’s cooling well because the outdoor suction line is cold and sweaty.

Teaching the differences between the refrigerants is essential and will save in the long run.

Investing in training will help keep residents cooler more efficiently

Pinnacle is investing in maintenance training so that HVAC issues can be diagnosed correctly and the right repairs made. It’s a step that Jolley says is necessary in an industry that hasn’t traditionally gotten its wrench fully around teaching maintenance techs proper a/c service.

The old standards of charging a system to “beer can-cold” without the right meter leaves too much room for error. And, replacing an existing unit before running a full gamut of tests can get expensive.

“Let’s increase our training and let’s focus on what we have,” Jolley said. “If the compressor is out, we’re going to fix the compressor. If a component is out, we’ll replace that instead of replacing the entire condenser unit. There are markets where some of the old outside units are 30 years old. Does it make sense to buy a $400 compressor and put it in a unit that’s 30 years old? Maybe not. But you have to look at it and see what kind of condition it’s in.”

Pinnacle is combining its own resources and training offered by HD Supply and apartment associations around the country to educate about service and repairs. One of the largest multifamily management companies in the U.S with a portfolio of approximately 147,000 units and 3,500 team members, Pinnacle is training on units taken from service at its properties.

To Jolley’s point, lack of training has been costly. Out of 60-plus condensing units that had previously been factory warranted, only two had bad compressors. All the others were results of installer errors and probably could have been salvaged.

“Unless you have a meter to put on it and test it, you’re going to misdiagnose,” he said. “We only needed a $20 part.”

Sounds like maintenance technicians will need to keep a cool head when checking out apartment HVAC systems that aren’t working properly. Especially until the refrigerant debate is settled.


Contributing Editor, Property Management Insider
President, Ballpark Impressions, LLC

author photo two

Tim Blackwell is a long-time publishing and printing executive in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who writes about the multifamily housing and transportation industries. He has contributed numerous articles to Property Management Insider, and worked as a newspaper reporter in the D/FW area. Blackwell is president of Ballpark Impressions, and publishes the Cowcatcher Magazine. He is a member of the Fort Worth Chapter/Society of Professional Journalists.

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