Rules on coolants are raising costs


October 13, 1992|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Staff Writer Bloomberg Business News contributed to this article.

New federal requirements on the handling of refrigerants are raising the cost of repairing air-conditioning systems, ranging from central residential systems to those that cool office buildings and grocery freezers.

Automobile owners might also find themselves having to pay to convert an old car's air conditioning system to handle environmentally safer coolants.

Environmental Protection Agency regulations that took effect July 1 prohibit the release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) into the atmosphere because they deplete the ozone layer, which protects the Earth from excessive ultraviolet radiation.

CFCs are used as cooling and insulating agents in nearly all refrigerators and freezers and in most air-conditioners. CFCs are also used as cleaning agents in the production of electronics and medical equipment.

The ban is a prelude to a 1995 deadline for phasing out production and imports of chlorofluorocarbons. Recycled CFCs will continue to be sold. For consumers, the 1995 deadline will probably mean higher prices.

"Once we begin retrofitting some significant percentage of the 130 million automobile air conditioners at direct consumer expense, public reaction will become considerably more intense," said J.A. Krol, vice chairman of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.

Du Pont, the largest maker of CFCs, already has three facilities making CFC alternatives. Other major producers of CFCs, including Allied-Signal Inc. and ICI Americas Inc., are also building plants.

Existing vehicles will not be required to change over to the new coolant. The only autos that will need to be retrofitted are those whose air conditioning systems either have been damaged or are malfunctioning, according to Tony Vogelsberg, environmental manager for Du Pont's fluor chemicals.

One alternative to CFCs will be a blend of refrigerants that are about 98 percent less damaging to the ozone layer, Mr. Vogelsberg said. Motorists will have to pay about an extra $100 for parts to convert their cars to the new coolants, he said.

Even this alternative coolant, a mixture of HCFCs and CFCs, will be banned between 2010 and 2030, Mr. Vogelsberg said. But by then, most of the cars retrofitted will be off the road.

Expecting a possible crunch, Mr. Vogelsberg said the government ought to begin creating a system for car repair companies to handle the extra demand.

A permanent solution to the problem is to use HFC 134a, a new refrigerant that Du Pont sells under the name Suvan. Many foreign and domestic cars are already outfitted with new systems using HFC 134a. Mr. Vogelsberg said new-car buyers should look for the new systems.

Business will also have to bear a cost to convert its systems to the new coolants. Mr. Vogelsberg said Du Pont will spend about $100 million between 1989 and 1995 to refit all its office and industry cooling systems.

Grocery stores, with their numerous freezers and coolers, will also be hard hit, with conversion costs estimated at $40,000 for each store.

But Washington-based Giant Food Inc. will avoid many of these costs, after having seen the trend more than a decade ago.

Taking its cue from the banning of CFCs in aerosol sprays 12 years ago, Giant management decided that CFCs in refrigeration systems would be the next to go.

So in 1980, the company started buying cooling equipment using HCFCs, which will still be in production until at least 2010, according to Robert E. Bittner, director of engineering for Giant Food. Now, he said, Giant has only a handful of stores still using CFC equipment.

As industry and automakers gear up for the 1995 deadline, air-conditioning contractors are grappling with the new recovery regulations that took effect this summer.

In the past, if a contractor had to break into the sealed cooling system of an air conditioner, refrigerator or freezer, he would simply vent it to the atmosphere. But now the contractors must use equipment to pump the gases out of the system and into a cylinder or bag. That gas then can either be put back into the system, or purified and recycled.

L The new equipment and time mean higher prices for consumers.

"The consumer in the long run will be the one taking it on the chin," said Henry G. Sullens, president of United H.V.A.C. Co. Inc., a Middle River company that installs and services residential central air conditioning systems.

Mr. Sullens estimates that his company, which has about 30 workers, has spent about $7,000 in equipment and training to comply with the new regulation. This expense is partly responsible for the company's decision about a month ago to raise its service rates from $45 a hour to $56 an hour, he said.

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