Pay Attention When Using Drop-In Replacement Refrigerants

With spring in full swing, now is the perfect time to conduct some well-needed maintenance on your building's heat pump system. It's also a great opportunity to make the switch from R-22 refrigerant to the latest environmentally friendly replacement.

However, not all replacements are created equal. While some drop-in replacements offer nearly-perfect compatibility with heat pumps reliant on R-22, there are others that could easily place yourself and your system in danger. Read on to learn the dangers of unapproved refrigerants and what's being done to crack down on their use.

Reasons To Make The Switch

Ever since the early 1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies around the world have led a global effort to reduce the production and consumption of hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) and chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants. Scientists have long since identified both HCFCs and CFCs as major contributors to ozone layer damage.

The Montreal Protocol currently calls for a sharp reduction in America's 1989 HCFC and CFC production and consumption by as much as 90 percent, with a complete phase-out of both slated for 2030. Faced with the prospect of dwindling supplies and rising costs, manufacturers have been hard at work developing workable alternatives that provide comparative performance.

The best way of staying ahead of the curve involves a complete replacement of your building's heat pump with a newer model outfitted with EPA-compliant refrigerant from the start. However, there's a chance you might not be ready to commit to such an expensive upgrade just yet. Switching from R-22 to a more abundant and EPA-compliant refrigerant helps if you want to get a few more years out of your legacy equipment.

Beware Of Unapproved Refrigerants

As supplies of R-22 refrigerant dwindle, some are taking unconventional and quite possibly illegal routes to satisfy growing demand for compatible refrigerant. The FBI and EPA have recently investigated cases of unapproved refrigerants being sold as drop-in replacements for R-22. While their use seems like a cost-effective shortcut, there are several factors that make these replacements highly dangerous for users and technicians alike:

  • Many unapproved drop-in refrigerants contain hydrocarbons such as butane and propane as their main component. These hydrocarbons are highly flammable, especially under the high-pressure environment of the average heat pump or air conditioning system. Hydrocarbons can catch fire or even explode if it comes into contact with a spark.
  • Some drop-ins also use ammonia, a non-ozone depleting form of refrigeration that's nevertheless toxic when released into the atmosphere.
  • Unapproved refrigerants may have other adverse effects on your heat pump system. For instance, many use incompatible lubrication oils that add further wear and tear on the system, resulting in a much shorter lifespan for your equipment.

These refrigerants are sold under a wide variety of trade names, most containing "R-22a" in some shape or form. In spite of what some unscrupulous sellers may claim, the EPA hasn't reviewed or approved R-22a for use in existing air conditioning and heat pump systems. Due to the above dangers involved in their use, the EPA isn't likely to approve them any time soon.

How To Find The Right Alternative

The best way to avoid the above problems is by sticking with EPA-approved replacements. There are several approved alternatives for use in existing heat pumps and air conditioning systems reliant on R-22 and other HCFC and CFC refrigerants. These include:

  • R-407c, an almost-direct drop-in replacement to R-22 for residential and commercial equipment
  • R-421a
  • R-422b
  • R-438a

Keep in mind that some of the above replacements may require a few tweaks to your unit to ensure the highest level of compatibility, such asstronger seals and valves, complete lubricant oil change-over, etc. If you're not sure which drop-in replacement works best for your unit, you may want to consult with a seasoned refrigeration expert prior to making the switch.

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