Heat Pump Refrigerants Changing Again: Why Homeowners Should Care
We have reported on past phaseouts of refrigerants used in residential air conditioners and heat pumps previously, and another transition is on the way. Refrigerants are used in both air conditioners and heat pumps. Heat pumps have a nifty reversing valve that uses refrigerant to transfer heat in or out of the home depending on the season.
Texas homeowners, living on Houston’s West side and into Fort Bend County, Richmond, Katy, and Fulshear, Texas, will want to keep an eye on these developments because it can affect the decisions they make if they are considering:
- replacing an older heating and cooling system, or
- repairing a heat pump or Central Air system
What is driving demand for refrigerants?
After one of the hottest summers we have had in the Houston area on record, it comes as no surprise to anyone that the demand for cooling is rising. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that in the next 30 years, “the use of air conditioners is set to soar, becoming one of the top drivers of global electricity demand.”
The demand for heat pumps, which use refrigerant to transfer heat in and out of a home, is also rising. These essential home appliances are popular not only for their energy efficiency in heating and cooling a home but also because they do not require burning fuel to generate heat. The government is encouraging consumers to switch to electrical appliances like heat pumps as a result.
Why are refrigerants changing again?
Global cooperation resulted in The Montreal Protocol which agreed to end the use of ozone-damaging Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), including a refrigerant called R-22 or Freon®. Then, the Kigali Amendment took that one step further to phasedown the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which had no adverse effect on the ozone layer but instead had a higher Global Warming Potential.
A higher Global Warming Potential (GWP) means that HFC refrigerants, like R-410a or Puron® with a GWP of 1890, can accumulate in the atmosphere and cause it to warm more quickly. This is why scientists have been on the hunt for a refrigerant that does not harm the ozone layer and does not contribute to global warming.
Their solution is replacing refrigerants currently in use in residential air conditioners and heat pumps with a new class of A2L refrigerants that are more environmentally friendly and more efficient. These are HFC and Hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) blends. As technology and innovation proceed, it is our opinion that future phasedowns may occur.
What refrigerants will new air conditioners and heat pumps be using in 2024?
R-454b, also known as Opteon™ XL41, Solstice® 454B, and Puron Advance™, is the likely refrigerant that homeowners will find in most residential heat pump and air conditioning systems starting in the summer of 2024 in our area. The use of low-GWP refrigerants is mandated as part of the bipartisan American Innovation and Manufacturing Act (AIM), which was passed to reduce the production and use of HFCs.
HVAC manufacturers Goodman, Amana, and Daiken have been using R-32 globally, an A2L-rated refrigerant with a Global Warming Potential of 675, just beneath the impending ban of the use of refrigerants with a GWP of 700 or less. HVAC manufacturers, like RUUD and Rheem, are opting to use R-454b because its Global Warming Potential (466) is much lower.
Keep in mind that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates that as of January 1, 2025, new stationary residential and light commercial air conditioning and heat pumps, including mini-split systems may no longer use high-global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants. High-GWP refrigerants are defined as those above 700, which would include the current R-401a. Variable refrigerant flow systems must comply the following year on January 1, 2026.
* An important caveat: Components used to repair existing heating and cooling systems will not be subject to these restrictions.
What should I know about R-454b?
R-454b is a non-toxic refrigerant and classified by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) as A2L, which means it is mildly flammable. Now “mildly flammable” may give you pause as it did us when this possibility was first brought up by HVAC manufacturers a few years ago.
Knowing what we know now through recent dealer trainings for RUUD ProPartners, reading we have done, and newer safety measures that will be incorporated into new heating and cooling system design make us much more confident that the new refrigerants will be a good solution for our customers and the environment. Also, A2L refrigerants have been safely used outside the U.S. for years. According to the Building Safety Journal, more research and updates to building and safety codes are making it possible to use A2L refrigerants in a residential setting safely.
Air conditioning manufacturers, like RUUD, Rheem, and many others, are and will continue to offer even more training in the use of heating and cooling systems that use A2L refrigerants. HVAC contractors may need to upgrade some of their tools and gauges if they have not done so already, so they are rated to work with these new refrigerants and will minimize the possibility of setting off a spark. This is important because installation and service for air conditioners and heat pumps involves welding refrigerant lines (called sweating).
Functionally, though, R-454b works in very similar ways to R-410a, with similar pressures and temperatures. R-454b is also slightly more efficient than R-410a according to a recent in-person RUUD dealer training held in Houston, Texas held in October 2023.
Can I replace R-410a with one of the new A2L refrigerants?
No, heating and cooling systems that currently use R-410a cannot be retrofitted to use any of the A2L refrigerants. Why? The EPA required this in part because of the difficulty experienced with the transition from R-22 to R-410a. Also, when A2L refrigerants are used in a heating and cooling system, they are required by law to have a refrigerant monitoring system in place for safety.
Ways residential heating and cooling systems will be adapted include the following:
- Newer equipment will contain less refrigerant by volume by about one-third. This means residential HVAC will have a smaller and safer volume of A2L refrigerant in each system.
- Coils will improve heat transfer capability with microfins or smaller diameter tubing. Engineering innovation means more efficiency and safety.
- Refrigerant leak monitoring systems will be factory-installed on the interior unit. While this will involve a cost increase, it will also make catching leaks faster, easier, and safer.
Do I have to change my heating and cooling system because of this change?
No. Just because refrigerants are changing does not mean you need to change your equipment right away. Even if your system is running with an older refrigerant, like R-22 (Freon®) or R-410a, homeowners do not need to change anything if your HVAC system is working well. Of course, homeowners should maintain their heating and cooling system twice a year, once in the fall and once in the spring, to prevent breakdowns.
On the other hand, if you’ve been having problems with your heating and cooling system or it is getting closer to 12-20 years old, it might be worth it to start thinking about replacement.
Because Freon® is no longer being manufactured, the supplies of it are small, and it is very expensive when we need to repair equipment. We anticipate the same circumstance to repeat itself for R-410a, since the AIM Act mandates the gradual phasedown of HFCs, like R-410a, by 85 percent by 2036. Over time, R-410a will become more difficult to source and more expensive, which will make it easier and more economical to change to the newer equipment that uses the newer A2L refrigerants. For now, if your air conditioner or heat pump is getting regularly maintained, you should be all set.
Have Questions About the New Refrigerants? Call Us
Call us at 281-495-7830 to get on our schedule and we’ll bring the heating and cooling service directly to your door. As a Ruud Pro Partner™, we serve homeowners and business owners across Fort Bend County and Far West Houston, including Memorial Village through Katy, Sugar Land, Richmond, and Fulshear. We recommend regular maintenance on heat pumps and air conditioners in the fall and the spring to prevent breakdowns. Learn more about our Peace of Mind Protection Program and get to know our expert AC and heating technicians who are ready to serve you.
Header photo courtesy of Terry’s A/C & Heating customer Liz Hamm, publisher of BeLocal Richmond