Residential AC and Heat Pump Refrigerants Under Increased Regulation

Refrigerants today are highly regulated hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) that are used in more than just air conditioners and heat pumps. They are used in refrigerators, freezers, automobile AC systems, heat pump water heaters, fire suppressant systems, foams, solvents aerosols, and more. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  requires HVAC technicians hold special Section 608 certification to work with refrigerants for health and safety reasons. 

Over the years, scientists have been searching for refrigerants that are both efficient and climate-friendly without being flammable. Not long ago, chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) like Freon or R-22 were phased out because of the harm they do to the ozone layer.  Because governments cooperated and ozone-depleting substances were largely phased down, scientists believe the ozone layer will make a full recovery in a matter of decades. We wrote also an article in 2021 that discussed refrigerants used in residential ACs and heat pumps and upcoming phasedowns.

HFCs, used for refrigeration, on the other hand, may phase down but they aren’t going to phase out completely. 

The AIM Act & What It Means

The bipartisan, federal American Innovation and Manufacturing Act (AIM) was signed into law on December 27, 2020. This law mandates that the EPA

  • reduce the production and consumption of HFCs used for refrigeration and other purposes by 85% by 2036, 
  • maximize reclamation and minimize releases from equipment (like residential AC and heat pumps), and
  • encourage the adoption of next-generation technologies

This legislation is already rapidly changing what home appliances will be available to cool and heat your home in the coming days. Residential AC and heat pumps are just one type of home appliance to be affected by new legislation. It also affects fire suppression foams, refrigerators and freezers, water heaters, foam insulation, ice makers and more.

Reducing the Production & Consumption of Refrigerants

The EPA measures each HFC’s climate impact with a metric called its Global Warming Potential (GWP). This technical metric is “a measure of how much energy the emissions of 1 ton of gas will absorb over a given period of time, relative to the emissions of 1 ton of carbon dioxide).” The larger the number, the more a gas warms the Earth’s atmosphere as compared to carbon dioxide.  It is ideal for manufacturers to pick a refrigerant with lower Global Warming Potential numbers than refrigerants currently in use in residential AC and heat pumps.

You can learn more about the final rule that sets benchmarks that will be used to reduce the use of refrigerants in the residential air conditioning and heating industry and others. The phasedown began in 2022 and will curb the use of HFCs dramatically by 2036.

EPA Phasedown Schedule of HFCs including AC and Heat Pump Refrigerants

Source: EPA – October 2022

Manufacturers of air conditioning and heating equipment supported the rules in keeping with a global treaty to reduce the use of climate-warming refrigerants

“This rule is a critical step in the 15-year industry-supported process of phasing down HFCs and represents a win for both the climate and the American economy.   We are hopeful that the administration will soon submit the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol – the treaty that underpins the AIM Act – to the United States Senate and continue the process of putting the United States on record with the majority of the world’s nations in support of this global phase down,” said Air-Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) President & CEO Stephen Yurek.

Newer Refrigerants Have Lower GWP

Newer refrigerants in ACs and heat pumps today, such as R410A, do not harm the ozone layer, but they have a higher GWP. This is why another refrigerant phaseout for R410A (also called Puron) is in progress and which will be replaced by different chemicals, HFCs and Hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), that do not harm the ozone layer AND have a lower GWP value. 

The EPA is accepting comments on its proposed timing for this next phasedown, which are due January 30, 2023. Industry groups such as Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) AND 23  industry signatories, including Rheem, have requested that a future phasedown lines up with laws implemented by California and Washington state’s rules, which requires the use of HFCs of 750 GWP or less for all new stationary ACs manufactured after January 1, 2025, and by VRF (variable refrigerant flow) equipment by January 1, 2026.

Why Should I Care As a Homeowner?

The residential AC and heat pump manufacturers are innovating and responding so they are providing the most efficient AC and heat pumps that comply with both new efficiency standards and refrigerant guidelines. No matter how old your HVAC system is or what refrigerant it uses, HVAC technicians will be able to take care of you. Knowing how the residential AC and heat pump regulatory landscape is changing is good for homeowners to know, so they can be proactive and ready for the future.

AC and heat pumps aren’t the only home appliances to be affected. Fire and building codes will be updated to match federal requirements, too. If you’re in the market for a new home or planning a renovation, these new standards will definitely affect homeowners.

The pricing of residential AC and heat pumps may be going up because refrigerants are more expensive, tougher HVAC efficiency requirements are in place (SEER2, etc.), plus new safety measures and technologies cost more. In a new wrinkle, there are penalties for installing residential AC and heat pump equipment that is not up to federal spec. While before there was more latitude with how AC and heat pump equipment could be repaired, new regulations and penalties may require full AC or heat pump system replacement if certain components fail to meet new environmental and efficiency standards.

You can count on HVAC manufacturers who will be rolling out new, more efficient equipment with the latest refrigerants for residential central AC and heat pump systems that are environmentally friendly and energy efficient. Local HVAC experts like Terry’s A/C & Heating, a Ruud Pro Partner™ serving Richmond, Katy, Sugar Land, Fulshear, and Far West Houston, Texas, will be standing by ready to help homeowners stay comfortable indoors any time of year. Contact us at 281-495-7830 if we can help you.