It's costing you more to maintain your AC

Air conditioning coolant changes to blame


Federal regulations have turned what was a commonly available air conditioning system refrigerant into a scarce resource. And that may make a lot of homeowners sweat this summer.

"The regulations have changed when it comes to air conditioners. The older models use a Freon that is not going to be available in a few years and because of that production of that Freon has reduced causing the price to go up. So if you have to replace the Freon in an older model you are likely going to pay more this year," explains Angie Hicks, founder of Angie's List.

Consumers have reported spending two and three times the amount for a common type of refrigerant than in previous years.  

"For a homeowner who for many years may have a small leak in their systems and just have us come out in the spring or summer and top it off with a pound or two- well back in the day that might have run them a couple of hundred dollars. And with today's prices of R22, it may be $500 to $600," says HVAC contractor Larry Howald.,

Angie's List asked highly rated heating and cooling companies about these regulations.

  • The reason for the cost increase can actually be traced back to action taken by the federal government 25 years ago.
  • In 1987, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the phasing out of certain ozone-depleting refrigerants as part of the Montreal Protocol. The act calls for 90 percent of R-22 coolant, commonly called "Freon," to be phased out by 2015 and to be virtually obsolete by 2020.
  • Most air conditioners manufactured before 2010 use the coolant. The new EPA-approved coolant, known as R-410A, does not work with the R-22 equipment.
  • Refrigerant leaks are a common problem with air conditioners. Over a couple of years, most units will lose a pound or two of the eight pounds of coolant typically needed to keep the machine pumping chilled air throughout your home.

Angie's List Tips: Options for homeowners

  • The rate increase is sure to pose issues for homeowners with older, leaky equipment. Many are faced with the prospect of continuing to invest in higher repair costs for older equipment, or taking the plunge and replacing the equipment with a newer, more efficient system that uses the new coolant.
  • Having a conversation about your options with a licensed and qualified heating and cooling company can help homeowners determine if they should repair existing equipment or replace it. Any technician who handles refrigerant must be certified by the EPA to work with the coolant.
  • Homeowner opting for repair should be prepared to also pay additional costs to cover service, labor and any other parts necessary.
  • For homeowners who don't want to invest in an entirely new system but also don't want to keep investing in repairs, some manufacturers have circumvented the EPA guidelines, which called for an end to production of A/C units "charged", or filled, with R-22, by producing units that use the old coolant but don't come charged with it. These are often called "dry" units. Though these units generally cost less than a whole new system, consumers will still have to fill them with the old refrigerant, which is only likely to only get more expensive in the years to come.

As for preventing an AC leak to avoid the cost of topping off your coolant, Howald says it's pretty much unavoidable.

"There's really not a lot a homeowner can do to prevent a leak. With an air conditioning system that sits outside in the wintertime when it gets extremely cold and then in the summertime it gets warm and then the unit operating with some vibration, maybe it gets hit by the lawnmower guy whose using a weed eater or whatever, all those things – just the expansion and contraction can create a leak and it's pretty tough for a homeowner to do anything about it," he explains.