Most non-professionals would never guess that a chemical substance used as a refrigerant by the vast majority of the HVAC industry can hide so many interesting facts. However, there’s a lot to be said about Freon – from its complex history to its unclear future to its effects on humans and the environment.
Some online sources state that Freon was banned in 1955, while others explain that they were taken out of use in the 1930s. In fact, it’s all a mix up, which involves the complex history of this substance, as well as the various environmental protection protocols in use today. Freon is a generic word used to signify most refrigerants nowadays, but, in actuality, it is a trademarked brand name, which belongs to a General Motors subsidiary. All Freons initially contained CFCs and the most commonly used refrigerant for AC today, the one we usually call Freeon is Freon-22, also known as R-12, or CFC-12. The Montreal Protocol, first signed in the 1970s has, indeed, banned CFCs from use, since they deplete the ozone layer. HFCs under various names are replacing CFCs as ‘Freeon’ today, but they too have a major issue: they are greenhouse gases. Until a better, non-polluting, non-flammable, and non-toxic option comes along, though, humanity will continue to use HFCs as Freon.
If you’ve ever had a HVAC technician discover a Freon leak in your A/C system, fridge, or freezer, you may have also heard them telling you to be wary of exposure to this substance. Some actually believe that a Freeon leak will always cause you to asphyxiate. Yet science tells us that this volatile, colorless gas, can only cause adverse effects when present in a concentration of 11 per cent or more. Typical effects include dizzy spells, the inability to concentrate, a depression of your nervous system, and, worst case scenario, heart arrhythmia. Indeed, Freeon leaks can cause asphyxia, but only in completely confined spaces.
The Environmental Protection Agency of the U.S. government specifically prohibits the use of propane as an A/C refrigerant. That’s because this substance is highly flammable and toxic. Not only can it cause major harm when inhaled excessively, but it can also be at the root of unexpected explosions or house fires. Replacing A/C refrigerants is a complex task and should never be handled by non-professionals and, in any case, propane should never be used. It may be a gas, just like all types of Freeon out there, but that alone doesn’t make it suitable.
The Montreal and Kyoto protocols have imposed specific standards and benchmarks with respect to the use of ozone depleting substances, as well as for greenhouse gases respectively. This is actually the main reason why R-22 was largely phased out by the HVAC industry in the 1990s: research revealed it was damaging the ozone layer. It was replaced with R-134a, but this type of Freeon also has its issues. First off, it’s not compatible with the type of oil that older R-22 systems use. At the same time, R-12 is no longer being produced since the 90s and even back when production stopped its price skyrocketed from $89 per 30lbs to more than $1,000 for the same amount. R-22, the type of Freeon currently being used for most residential and small commercial A/C systems has also gone out of production is 2009 and needs to be completely phased out by 2020.
Then, R-134A has a huge index (1,300) for negatively contributing to the global warming phenomenon. In fact, it is no longer being used by European carmakers for auto A/C systems since 2011. This is an issue both for the U.S. HVAC industry, as well as for its Chinese counterpart – both countries had already made massive investments into R-134a plants. CO2 may be the refrigerant of the future, but time and research alone will tell.
Given the above issues with replacing pollutant refrigerants, current standards allow for the recycling and reclaiming of otherwise banned refrigerant substances. While they may no longer be produced or imported (except for restoring old systems, in the case of R-22), they can still be recycled and reclaimed. This way, the authorities hope to maximize the usage potential and increase the lifespan of these substances, without imposing replacements or retrofits on household consumers. Since it’s expensive to retrofit an older fridge or A/C system and since newer systems aren’t exactly affordable either, it’s important to keep the existing ones in good working order. That’s because if there are no leaks in them, the Freeon they use will never evaporate, dissolve, or otherwise disappear. The only way it can be depleted is via a leak – so make sure you have your HVAC technician spot the leak before it’s too late and you find yourself facing a massive bill.