Options for R22

Options for Owners of R22 Systems

With virgin supplies of HCFC refrigerants banned since the 1st January 2010, owners and end-users of R22 air-conditioning and heatpump systems face a dilemma: their R22 system seems to be functioning well but the refrigerant gas is being phased out (new supplies already banned).  What options exist other than replacing the systems?

NOTE: It is the supply of virgin R22 refrigerant itself that was banned in January 2010, not the systems that use this refrigerant.  If no additional refrigerant would be needed for the R22 system, it could continue in use for some years.

The first step would be to inspect the air-conditioners to establish which refrigerant is being used.  Commonly, it would be either R22, R407c, or R410a.  This information should be marked on the manufacturer's nameplate on the outside condensing unit, or noted in the manufacturer's documents and original commissioning sheets, if these are still available.  The age of the system is also an indicator, as systems installed after 2004 will normally use either of the currently approved refrigerants, R407c or R410a whereas, before that date, the system would most likely operate with R22 refrigerant.

Owners with air-conditioning and heatpump systems that are in good operational condition may wish to retain their systems for a few more years and postpone the task of replacing the systems with costly new installations.  

Here are some points that should be considered:

a) Although refrigerant suppliers will still have some stocks of salvaged/recycled R22 refrigerant, these stocks will dwindle with time and prices will increase.  However, there is at least one other approved refrigerant that one could use in place of R22, so as to continue use of these older air-conditioners after January 2010.  One would continue use of the R22 system until the need for top-up of R22 refrigerant arises and, if wishing to continue with the R22 system, then replace the R22 refrigerant with R417a during the repair work.  The replacement refrigerant gives a slight drop in duty of approximately 3%, which would be unnoticeable in most cases.

Note: Before changing the refrigerant, check first with the manufacturer of the equipment and components of the system, as to whether changing to R417a (or some other replacement refrigerant) would be compatible with your aircon equipment.  Many manufacturers advise against it.  For example, there can be issues with seals on the system, giving rise to refrigerant leaks.  Some printed circuit boards are designed for R22 and the replacement refrigerant might not suit the PCBs.  Maybe the compressor would not operate properly with the alternative refrigerant, resulting in damage and premature expensive replacement.  Thus it is important to discuss the proposal with the manufacturer before carrying out the change. 

b) Along with the January-2010 ban of new R22 refrigerant, UK distributors are no longer replenishing their stocks of spare parts for the R22 systems.  When spare parts run out, they do not restock on the basis that R22 systems are at least 10 years old and the refrigerant being phased out.  Therefore, it will not simply be a matter of procuring recycled R22 or new R417a refrigerant; the lack of spare parts may nevertheless force replacement of defective systems.

c) R22 air-conditioning systems were installed prior to 2004.  Indeed, many of these systems were installed many years before that and are still in service.  However, systems of this age will soon (if not already) require increasingly frequent and more expensive repairs with time.  Like an older car, there is a point where it is better to invest one's money in a new car, covered by warranty, rather than to go on suffering the increasing repair costs and the higher fuel consumption of the existing one.

d) The efficiency of the older equipment is poor.  The new Inverter equipment offers comparative savings in electrical consumption of approx 30%, and better in some cases.  With such savings in electrical running costs (and repairs), the payback period can be an interesting business investment, especially where air-conditioners are used all year round and in computer rooms where the systems operate on a 24-7 basis.

e) Since April 2001, an energy tax called the Climate Change Levy was imposed on all businesses in the UK, exerting financial pressure to use less fuel by maintaining existing systems at peak efficiency and/or changing to more efficient systems, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  The tax raised approximately £1 billion in the first year and the levy on electricity is now at 0.47p/kWh +Vat.

f) Also In 2001, the Government introduced the Enhanced Capital Allowance (ECA) scheme as an incentive for businesses to invest in low carbon, energy-saving equipment, allowing businesses to write off 100% of the full cost of a new installation against their taxable profits in a single year, rather than spread over five years.  Only the most efficient systems, reviewed annually, benefit from this tax incentive.

g) In 2005, the Government reduced the VAT rate for domestic installation of heatpump air-conditioning systems to 5% as another tax incentive.

h) Comparing the new and old systems, the new inverter system offers improved room conditions.  The older equipment switches full-on with a blast of cold or warm air, and continues at full output until room conditions are met.  Then, it switches off the cooling/heating. When needed again, it restarts with full-on cooling or heating, cycling on and off in this way, throughout the day.

The new Inverter equipment, on the other hand, starts up at part duty and ramps up or down to meet the actual room load, and continues through the day ramping up or down to follow the changing room load.  Compared to the on-off system, there are no dramatic on-off changes of air temperature from the unit, and this provides a more comfortable environment for room users, especially those seated in the airflow.

i) When faced with replacement, there is often a question as to whether the existing copper pipework could be retained.  Generally speaking, the copper pipework should be replaced, as the R22 systems include incompatible oil, which leaves a film on the inner surface of the pipework.  This would normally invalidate the manufacturer's warranty on their new equipment.  There is also an issue with the wall-thickness of the existing pipework and the higher pressures of R407c and R410a.

For the oil, cleaning the system is not viable on a smaller system and questionable for larger systems.  

That said, there is new efficient R410a air-conditioning equipment available, designed to accept small levels of oil from R22 refrigerant, intended for use when retaining the existing pipework installation.  The existing system must be in working order when making the changeover so that the bulk of oil in the system can be removed with the refrigerant.  Where there have been compressor failures, reuse of the pipework is not recommended. Also, where a dye has been used inside the refrigerant system to locate leaks, this too prevents use of this new equipment in most cases. 

The wall-thickness of the old pipework was manufactured to an earlier specification, suitable for the pressures of an R22 refrigerant system but not for the higher pressures of the new R410a refrigerant systems.  Suitability of the R22 pipework must be reviewed if wanting to reuse with R410a equipment. In all cases of reuse, one would verify suitability with pressure tests.


Actions for the Owners of R22 Systems

With new supplies of R22 refrigerant being banned from sale since January 2010, owners of R22 air-conditioning and heatpump systems are faced with a dilemma of keeping the existing system(s) or replacing with new systems.

IMMEDIATELY, owners can take sensible preparatory actions to determine the best course of action.  If continuing with the existing systems, one can still obtain proposals for replacement systems so these are available as contingency plans, ready to initiate when the system finally fails and proves uneconomic to repair.

Some suggestions for owners of R22 systems include:

a) Establish which refrigerant is used in the air-conditioning system (normally noted on the manufacturer's nameplate on the outside condensing unit).

b) Establish the age of the system (often noted on the manufacturer's nameplate).  Air-conditioners are generally expected to last for 10-15 years, depending on the standard of original installation, the quality of maintenance, and usage.  Note that a system used only in the summer should last longer than one used on a 24-7 schedule, based on run-hours.

c) Unless already evident from the electrical supplies, consider having an electrician measure or install an electric meter to measure the consumption of the air-conditioners to isolate actual electrical costs and potential savings with new systems.

d) Review the air-conditioning repair costs in the last 2 years to get some idea of likely repair costs in the future.

e) Review the maintenance schedule; is it at least twice per year for office use and four times per year for a 24-7 computer room?  Is the maintenance thorough?  Lack of proper maintenance or no maintenance at all will reduce the longevity of a system's run-life and precipitate repairs.  This is true for all air-conditioning systems.

f) Find out how much it would cost to change the R22 refrigerant to R417a or another suitable drop-in replacement refrigerant.

g) Get a proposal for replacing the system(s), either like-for-like or maybe with a more appropriate alternative scheme.  Possibly your current air-conditioning requirements differ from the existing scheme with changes to partitions and room usage, increasing or decreasing the current requirement.

h) If the ECA tax incentive is of interest, check that the proposed equipment is included in the current ECA list of the most efficient models, which allow this tax incentive.  Only the current most-efficient models win a position on the list.

i) Find out if it would be practical to reuse the refrigerant pipework with new equipment.

j) From the prices quoted, set aside or build up a contingency fund for this replacement work, so your business can act quickly when necessary.


Decisions Must be Made Soon

Review of the above information should indicate the best course of action for your business, whether to:

1)  Continue with the older R22 systems despite the higher running costs and repair issues and postpone the upgrade until pressed by circumstances; or

2)  To upgrade immediately, taking advantage of reduced fuel consumption and new warranties.

For more information please contact us or Telephone: (+351) 912324600.

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