Friday, February 17, 2012

You’ll need cold cash to service your air conditioner

By Jim Weiker

Air-conditioner repairs could leave central Ohio homeowners hot and bothered this spring.
This winter, the cost of the refrigerant used in older air-conditioning units jumped more than 200 percent.
That means homeowners who used to pay $150 or $200 to recharge their air conditioners for the summer could pay twice that amount this time around.
“If you’ve got a leaker and need a couple pounds (of refrigerant) to get you through the summer, it’s going to cost you a whole lot more this summer than it has in the past,” said John Frary, service manager with the Favret Co., a Columbus heating and air-conditioning firm.
The price of R-22, the refrigerant used in many older air conditioners, skyrocketed on Jan. 20 after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered that manufacturers cut production of the material by 45 percent this year.
The wholesale price then “went off the charts,” said Rod Essig, with Carr Supply, a Columbus company that supplies the heating and air-conditioning industry.
The cost of a 30-pound tank instantly leapt from about $150 to about $400. Homeowners who traditionally have paid about $20 a pound during a service charge could now pay about $50 a pound.
The jump is so severe that at least one company, Sears Heating and Cooling in Columbus, might start charging by the ounce.
“We have customers who regularly ask us to add refrigerant every year because they have a small leak,” said Sears Heating owner Paul Schwerling. “But this will be so expensive by the pound.”
The EPA is phasing out R-22 by 2020 because it damages the ozone layer that protects Earth. Most air conditioners built in the past five years, and all air conditioners built in the past two, use a different refrigerant, called R-410A.
Still, an estimated 70 million — as much as 75 percent — of existing home air conditioners rely on R-22, according to industry sources.
January’s EPA announcement prompted such a run on R-22 that many distributors, including Carr, limited the amount that contractors could purchase. Distributors typically don’t stock a lot of R-22 until weather and demand heat up in the spring.
“We got caught with our pants down, along with many other distributors,” Essig said.
Some industry officials worry that air-conditioning contractors could end up without R-22 altogether this summer, although Talbot Gee, executive vice president of a trade group that represents heating and cooling suppliers, said he thinks there will be enough to meet demand.
Gee’s organization, Columbus-based Heating, Airconditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International, has joined others in an effort to raise R-22 production limits this year. Still, the long-term outlook on R-22 is clear: It will become more scarce and expensive until it vanishes altogether in eight years.
Manufacturers are promoting alternatives to R-22, although Gee said that using them could void warranties.
Industry officials think the rising cost to repair older air conditioners could fuel sales of new units, which can run $3,000 to $5,000.
“If you have a leak and need a refrigerant repair, it may be advantageous to upgrade your system because of cost,” Frary said.

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