At CLS Facility Services, clients and prospects often ask us questions about evolving efficiencies in the world of HVAC. Do newer units run more efficiently than their predecessors of just a few years ago? Are they more environmentally friendly? Could the cost of replacing my HVAC units be offset by the potential energy savings from new units?

One question in particular seems to come up again and again: As R-22 refrigerant gets phased out over the coming years, are HVAC units that run on R-22 refrigerant destined for obsolescence?

The answer, we believe, is no. In fact, as the evolution continues from R-22 to the more modern R-410A refrigerant and R-410A systems, it is possible to realize a significant cost savings by actually embracing R-22 through a unique approach.

Some quick background information is in order. R-22 is a type of refrigerant used in units designed specifically for that refrigerant’s operating pressures. Each compressor and coil within a given HVAC system requires one specific kind of refrigerant. In other words, you can’t put R-410A refrigerant into an R-22 system, and vice versa.

A refrigeration circuit is designed to use a specific refrigerant — the most notable is the compressor, which has a ratio at which it is designed to “pump” from low to high. R-22 has its own specific ratio. Yet beginning in 2007, R-22 refrigerant was no longer integrated into air conditioning units. R-22 refrigerants and systems aren’t illegal, nor are they banned. Rather, they’re just being phased out — particularly the refrigerant; manufacturers simply aren’t producing new HVAC equipment with R-22 refrigerant anymore. Instead, what they’ve been using since 2007 is R-410A, which studies and tests show is a more environmentally friendly solution. Like R-22, R-410A a has its own specific ratio.

What does this mean for building owners and managers? Well, let’s say the condenser on one of your R-22 split systems is getting old and needs to be replaced. With a split system, half of the system is located inside the building, and the other half is located outside. Traditionally, replacing the condenser would entail replacing the entire split system — both inside and outside — since it’s impossible to combine, say, an R-22 coil in a R-410A condenser. Given the conversion to R-410A, everything would need to be replaced so that it matches accordingly.

A complete system replacement obviously is more expensive than a partial replacement. As an option, though, your HVAC technician or HVAC services partner can still buy a new “dry” R-22 condenser that doesn’t include R-22 refrigerant in it. Instead of replacing the entire split system, inside and out, at an enormous cost, that technician can charge the dry R-22 condenser with refrigerant. Using this approach, your HVAC system could last a long time — perhaps even another 15 to 20 years — for a fraction of the cost of total replacement.

R-410A isn’t a more efficient refrigerant or system; rather, it’s just compliant with current Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Since R-410A’s emergence, governmental Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) minimum requirements have increased. HVAC units that utilize R-410A are more efficient only because the unit is designed with more copper and surface area. In other words, the unit design is more efficient; that efficiency isn’t directly traceable to the actual refrigerant.

All signs in the industry indicate to us at CLS that R-22 will indeed be phased out over the next five to 10 years. But taking the approach we outlined above, your technician can purchase refrigerant replacements that will be compatible with R-22 systems for many years to come. For example, DuPont ISCEON MO99™ (also called R-438A) is designed to work compatibly within R-22 systems. Other refrigerants such as RS-44 by Comstar also are compatible.

With regard to MO99, there’s one caveat to consider: Once MO99 is used in a new dry R-22 system, the warranty on that unit, which may be three to five years, will be terminated by the manufacturer of the R-22 unit. In no way does this mean that the MO99 will necessarily harm that unit. But regardless, the manufacturer will void the warranty if a failure occurs with any part of the unit once MO99 is used.

Also, a quick note about mixing and matching systems and refrigerants: While its true that both an indoor and outdoor section must match, there are occasions where an indoor coil will work just fine with either R-22 or R-410A refrigerant — provided that the correct metering device is installed (e.g., TXV or fixed orifice) and used to monitor the refrigerant superheat.

Lastly, whenever refrigerant is “swapped”, the refrigerant line sets must be either flushed with an RX-11 flush or replaced. Mixing even small traces of R-22 refrigerant with R-410A, or visa versa, can cause non-condensables (i.e., things that don’t compress well, such as moisture and particulates), contamination and poor efficiency. (Just as background, RX-11 flush is not chemically the same as R-11, which is a CFC that was banned in 1996 due to its high ODP. RX-11 flush entered the market in 1999 to replace R-11 as a cleaner, not a refrigerant. It possesses many of the same cleaning characteristics, but it’s an HFC-based chemistry that is non-toxic, non-flammable and non-ozone harmful.)

As HVAC-related technology and regulations continue to evolve, CLS is committed to keeping building owners and managers like you updated on ways that such changes can affect your business. If you are looking for an HVAC facility management company for 2015, learn more about CLS Facility Services by contacting us at 800-548-3542 or by filling out our contact form.