To Retrofit or Replace R-22 Refrigerant? The Big Question for Apartment Properties

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That refrigerant that courses through the lines of every one of your apartments’ air-conditioning units most likely has got to go. And you’d better get ready.

By 2020, there will be no more R-22 refrigerant produced to keep many of today’s current cooling systems running. That could be a chilling thought for some who have hundreds or thousands of units in the portfolio that will be affected.

Why R-22 Refrigerant Must Go

The R-22 phase out is a result of our country’s effort to reduce the production and consumption of Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which are said to be ozone depleting substances. The move is in compliance with the Clean Air Act, which does not allow any refrigerant to be vented into the atmosphere during installation, service, or retirement of cooling equipment.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began a five-tiered phase out in 2004, when the Montreal Protocol first required the U.S. to reduce its consumption of HCFCs by 35 percent. Among the HCFCs are R-22 refrigerants, which have been widely used to cool American homes and businesses for the past 40 years.

Next year, the third step of the phase out will be implemented, requiring that consumption of HCFCs be reduced by 90 percent. By 2020, most types of HCFCs will no longer be produced or imported to satisfy a mandate of 99.5 percent reduction in consumption. In 2030, no HCFCs will be produced or imported.

R-22 Alternatives

With the elimination of R-22, most air conditioning and heat pump units built before 2010 will have to either be updated to use any of the other alternative refrigerants on the market or replaced. Servicing R-22-based systems after 2020 will depend solely on using recycled or reclaimed refrigerants.

Until the phase-out is complete, R-22 will be available in limited supply, but at a price. A 30-pound cylinder that once cost around $40 now consistently fetches $275-$400. In some cases, the cost has been as high as $600.

Create a Replacement or Retrofit Plan for Your Apartment Properties

In the meantime, properties should get a plan together to make the switch if they already haven’t, says Chad Moulin, CAMT, of Property Operations and Training. Moulin, who was on hand to talk about the R-22 phase out at April’s Texas Apartment Association conference in Dallas, says properties have several options to keep residents cool, including retrofitting existing HVAC systems to use other approved refrigerants.

Retrofitting smaller parts of existing systems and using any of the dozens of approved refrigerants that are already available can be more economical, as long as system pressures match up. The first step is determining the system size and if a retrofit will work.

Existing equipment that may be undersized or at capacity for an apartment unit likely won’t be a candidate and will require a major components change. Once new components, which require operating at higher pressures, are swapped, the best refrigerant option is R-410A. Many of the new systems installed today use R-410A, which allows for higher system efficiencies than R-22 systems by reducing power consumption.

Properties that have over-sized units can use just about any of the alternative refrigerants and simply retrofit systems at a lower cost. The retrofit would include replacing driers, filters and elastomer components and adding one of the leading retrofit refrigerants − R-427A, R-438A (also known as MO99) or R-422-B or NU-22.

Also, properties can re-use recovered R-22 from systems that are retrofitted or changed out as long as the refrigerant is put back in a system owned by the same person or company.

What to do for Gradual Changes

Whether a retrofit or replacement, properties will obviously have to adjust the budget in the coming years. That’s why Moulin suggests a gradual change, although it may mean running multiple refrigerants across the property.

During that changeover process, he cautions, maintenance teams should properly label systems to indicate what type of refrigerant is being used. Mixing coolants in the same system could ruin the unit and require full replacement.

For best practice, Moulin adds, use spray paint when labeling the type of refrigerant on a unit. A printed label could fade over time.

Most of all, get a plan. The time for R-22 is short, and Moulin asks, what “R” you going to use next?


(Image source: Shutterstock)



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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