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A/C update for today's technicians

Tuesday, May 1, 2018 - 07:00
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The Mobile Air Conditioning Society’s annual Training Event and Trade Show (MACS 2018) was held Feb. 14-17 in Orlando, and we learned a lot about what’s going on in the industry, some changes that are taking place, and even about where the industry might be headed in the near future. Here’s a recap of just a few topics we discussed at the event.

(Images courtesy of Ward Atkinson) Looking at the back of these small cans of R-1234yf refrigerant, you’ll see the flammability warning symbol, there to remind users about the hazards involved with this mildly flammable refrigerant. For safety, always check the system for leaks, and follow up your repairs with both a vacuum decay and pressure test before charging the system

EPA’s HFC regulation thrown out 

By now you probably know that in 2015 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized what’s known as “Rule #20,” which removed R-134a from their SNAP list of acceptable substitute refrigerants for newly manufactured passenger cars and light trucks beginning with the 2021 model year. They did that because of the refrigerant’s high GWP (global warming potential), which is 1,430 times higher than CO2, and also to nudge the industry closer in line with Europe, which banned the gas in 2017.  

Right after that rule was announced, a lawsuit was brought against the EPA by refrigerant manufacturers Mexichem and Arkema, which said that EPA did not have the authority to regulate HFCs, since they don’t deplete the ozone layer. (In 1990’s Clean Air Act Amendments, Congress and the President gave the EPA the authority to regulate ozone-depleting substances such as R-12, but has not since directed them to regulate global warming gases like R-134a). In August, a U.S. District Court of Appeals agreed, reversing the regulation.

The only way to properly and accurately charge an A/C system is to use an R/R/R machine to first identify and recover refrigerant. The same machine can then be used to evacuate the system and perform a vacuum decay test. If all is good, a small amount of refrigerant (about 10%) can be used to pressurize the system and perform leak detection before putting in the entire charge. Newer R/R/R machines that meet SAE Standards J2788, J2843 or J3030 can accurately charge a system to within ± 0.5 ounces.

This action is seen as a setback for advocates of climate protection and HFC reduction, including Chemours and Honeywell, manufacturers of R-1234yf refrigerant, the HFO that has been replacing R-134a in mobile A/C systems since 2012, and which is now being used in approximately 60 percent of all newly manufactured U.S. vehicles and almost 100 percent of those currently being sold in Europe.

Although they struck this down, the court offered that the EPA could accomplish the same goal using its authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act, or by using a “retroactive disapproval” approach. Chemours, Honeywell and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), along with lawyers from the Trump Administration, helped to defend the EPA’s position in several court hearings, including a January 2018 appeal that upheld the previous court’s ruling. Where this goes from here is still unknown, but with talk of possible congressional legislation to ratify the Kigali Amendments, it’s surely not over yet. 

Along with the self-sealing valve, California law requires a $10 deposit with the sale of each can. Purchasers can return the cans within 90 days to get their deposit back, and retailers must send the cans back to the manufacturer for “heel” recovery and container recycling.

So, what does this mean for the mobile A/C industry? We’ll have to wait and see, but we can expect that those manufacturers who have already switched their vehicles over to use R-1234yf will continue to fill them with the gas. We may even continue to see vehicle platforms change over to yf in the coming years, as many are planned changeovers that are far along in the refresh or redesign process and are unlikely to be reversed.  

For some brands that have not yet made any changes to their U.S. models (like Acura, Daimler, Infinity, Mazda, Porsche and Volvo), we expect that unless the EPA appeals this Court’s ruling —and wins — or revises the previous rule or even writes a new one, they will continue to use R-134a in their air conditioning systems perhaps even into the next decade.

There is also widespread support for the current changeover (and a lot of time and money has already been invested) by industry advocates, OEMs, Tier 1 suppliers, parts, tools and equipment manufacturers and distributors. Many repair shops and technicians have also invested in tools, equipment, education and training to work with the new refrigerant. 

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