Motor vehicle air conditioning (MVAC) is an almost universal part of the modern automotive scene. When the temperature is over 100 F, or even when the temperature is 20 F (aids in defogging windows), your air conditioning system (AC) is vital to passenger comfort and safety. What changes could be coming?
Surprisingly, the basic concept of AC was first noted by none other than Ben Franklin. In a recent piece from The Mobile Air Conditioning Society Blog it was reported that in the mid-1750s, Franklin was experimenting with using a vacuum to evaporate liquid ether and reported a significant temperature drop in the remaining liquid. It’s the same phenomenon that can happen on a hot day when a cold soda can is opened and the soda turns to ice.
In the mid-1800s, an Australian named James Harrison patented a machine that compressed a gas to a liquid and evaporated it again in a continuous cycle, carrying away enough heat to make ice on a commercial scale. Things progressed quickly from there on, with various gases used to extract heat from air. All of these gases that were used were either flammable (hydrocarbons) or toxic (ammonia).
By the 1920s, in a search to remove hazardous refrigerants, scientists developed safer materials called chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), a compound made of fluorine, chlorine and carbon atoms. CFC is a non-toxic non-flammable gas with relatively high mass and is a great refrigerant. Most of you know it as R-12. In fact, it’s so stable that the only thing in nature that breaks it down is ultraviolet light. That’s part of the reason it’s no longer made.
By the 1970s, environmental scientists learned that CFC isn’t harmless after all. CFC is broken down in the upper atmosphere, and the components react with ozone molecules (O3) causing them to convert into oxygen molecules (O2). The remnants, especially chlorine, continue ruining ozone for years. Stratospheric ozone is the shield that protects us from the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Given this, the world’s governments signed a treaty to ban the production of CFC. The mobile A/C industry switched to a new refrigerant in 1995 (R-134a). Thankfully, CFC is no longer manufactured, and recent studies indicate its presence in the atmosphere is finally beginning to decrease.
Most systems today use new types of refrigerants based on hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) and hydrofluorocarbon (HFC). These are almost as good as CFC without damaging the Earth’s ozone shield. However, they were developed before the environmental impact of fluorine was fully understood. Today, that impact is regulated as Global Warming Potential (GWP). One of the primary design criteria of every air conditioner and refrigeration system, from cradle to grave, is its potential contribution to global warming. Therefore, HCFC and HFC gasses are on a schedule to be phased out by 2030.
A lot has taken place regarding refrigerant regulations in the last few years. In 2015 when the US EPA issued Rule No. 20, two refrigerant manufacturers sued the EPA over its requirement to stop using R-134a in new vehicle production beginning with MY2021. They thought the rule was unfair because the only practical alternative OEM car makers had was to switch over and use the new R-1234yf refrigerant, which only one manufacturer could make due to patent protection. The courts agreed and threw out a portion of Rule No. 20 saying the Clean Air Act, “does not require (or give EPA authority to require) manufacturers to replace non-ozone-depleting substances such as HFCs.”
The EPA issued Rule No. 21 in September 2017. This is the rule in force for current refrigerant regulations — the purchase restriction, among others such as self-sealing cans. The rule primarily affected EPA Section 608 Technician Certification and was widely supported by industry, so nobody thought it would become an issue.
Even though there didn’t seem to be any issues, the EPA is now reconsidering some of those regulations. Although most automotive, truck and heavy equipment technicians primarily live in “EPA 609 Technician Certification world” with respect to mobile A/C service, they are still affected by what happens with EPA’s section 608 (which includes EPA’s refrigerant management program, under which it regulates the purchase of all refrigerants).
This brings us up-to-date with what’s been going on, but the story’s not over yet. On October 1, 2018, EPA issued another proposed rule (Protection of Stratospheric Ozone: Revisions to the Refrigerant Management Program’s Extension to Substitutes) that modifies Section 608. In it, they plan to revisit regulations pertaining to HFCs and other substitute refrigerants. Most of these would have the biggest effect on technicians and companies who work in the commercial/residential/industrial refrigeration markets.
However, there is one line in the proposed rule that could affect those who work in mobile A/C. The line simply says, “EPA is also taking comment on whether, in connection with the proposed changes to the legal interpretation, the 2016 Rule’s extension of subpart F refrigerant management requirements to such substitute refrigerants should be rescinded in full.” That’s a mouthful, but, basically, it means that the EPA is considering whether it should rollback the rule requiring technician certification to purchase mobile A/C refrigerants (like R-134a and R-1234yf), along with the requirement for small can manufacturers to install self-sealing valves in those cans.
Should the EPA decide to move forward with this rule, anyone would be allowed to purchase mobile A/C refrigerant (with the exception of R-12). And while it would also rescind the self-sealing valves, that is unlikely. Can makers spent huge sums of money changing over their production lines to manufacture self-sealing cans, and market prices have already adjusted to the change. Plus, retail stores and jobber shops have been selling conversion kits and adapters for the two different can tops.
No one knows exactly what’s going to happen yet, but it’s reasonable to expect to hear something from the EPA soon. So stay alert, there could be some big changes in your business soon.