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The new A/C challenges

The days of R134a are nearing an end. What challenges will that bring us?
Tuesday, April 1, 2014 - 06:00
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Now what?

There are several challenges facing those in the A/C service and repair business. But we’ve overcome challenges before. Image courtesy of Robinair

First, don’t throw out your R134a equipment just yet. Even though it is highly likely the EPA will use its authority under the Clean Air Act to mandate the phase-out of R134a, it will be just that — a phase-out as opposed to a phase-down. That means that all the vehicles currently out there using R134a will continue to do so until they fade from the landscape. No retrofits, and that’s a good thing, considering the high cost of HFO1234yf (Chrysler MSRP at your local dealer is $1,236.80 for a 10-pound container).

Second, consider HFO1234yf a refrigerant that is here to stay. Fortunately, the learning curve for servicing and repairing these systems is not too steep. Basic operation and troubleshooting will be the same as we’re used to on R134a systems.

You will, however, need dedicated service equipment to work on these vehicles. RRR machines will be equipped, and require, some form of refrigerant identification before they will allow you to recover what’s in a car, and the mildly flammable classification will necessitate different storage and handling techniques. Additionally, evaporators used in cars equipped with the new gas are more robust to prevent potential leaks in the cabin and must be replaced with a new, certified unit — no soldering and no junkyard swaps.

From a purely business standpoint, you might ask yourself whether it’s time to enter the HFO1234yf service market. These cars will be under factory warranty for some time, so unless you’re a collision shop that needs to recover or recharge systems after repair, or your shop is in a market not easily serviced by a dealer, you might want to hold off awhile to see that develops in the A/C landscape.

And that leads us to Point No. 3: What other refrigerants might we see in the future? Peering into the crystal ball I used 5 years ago, I see R744 appearing in the European models. That means another dedicated piece of equipment — and, at the least, formal training for dealing with such a high-pressure system. I don’t foresee the average shop servicing these cars any more than shops today service Euro drivability issues, but some of our readers who specialize in European service might keep a watchful eye on the horizon, as the drama in the European Union continues to unfold.

Under the radar is a potential challenger to HFO1234yf: R445a. Produced by Mexichem and also referred to as AC6, it’s a blend of 85 percent 1234ze(E), 9 percent 134a and 6 percent 744. Said to be significantly cheaper than HFo1234yf, it is also a low GWP refrigerant that is at press time awaiting addition to the EPA Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) list of approved gases; SAE is already working on standards. If picked up by manufacturers concerned over cost, that would mean yet another dedicated machine and equipment a shop would have to invest in to service these systems.

Potentially, shop owners and technicians could be looking at dealing with four different refrigerants instead of the one (OK, maybe two if you count the few R12 cars still out there) in the foreseeable future. How soon? HFO1234yf is here today, and I’m betting R744 will be on the scene within the next few years. Although these new systems will be under factory warranty, collision shops and independents in remote areas may have to deal with them well before that warranty expires.

Will it be worth staying in the A/C business? Will we be seeing mobile A/C specialists like we see mobile diagnostic guys today? It’s going to be a challenge, for sure. But we, as an industry, have risen to the challenges of the past. I suspect we’ll rise to this one, too.

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