When Mark Spector’s central air-conditioning system stopped cooling his Trumbull, Conn., home this summer, he sent an SOS to his repairman. What happened next illustrates the myriad challenges the United States faces as it tries to phase out the popular but environmentally devastating cooling gas that was in Spector’s unit.
The Environmental Protection Agency has tried to reduce use of this gas, HCFC-22, which depletes the ozone layer and contributes to global warming, by imposing strict quotas on its production. Since 2010, it has also banned the sale of new air-conditioning units containing the compound and has promoted recycling of the gas from old machines so it will not be released.
But what happened next in Spector’s home circumvented all the agency’s rules and good intentions: Instead of finding and repairing the hole in his aging unit, a complicated task, a serviceman pumped in more coolant, which leaked out by the next day. When Spector called around for another solution, a salesman offered to swap in a new condenser unit, but one that still used HCFC-22 — meaning one more U.S. home would continue relying on an environmentally damaging coolant for years.
HCFC-22 is being phased out of air conditioners worldwide under an international treaty called the Montreal Protocol, and the United States has aggressively pressed poor countries to pick up the pace. But the United States has yet to put its own house in order. And, with 140 million central air units still running on HCFC-22 in this country, it is a major offender.
Leaks abound in working equipment. Coolant seeps out of discarded equipment in landfills. Regulatory loopholes allow manufacturers to sell parts that rely on HCFC-22, so systems using the old gas can be refurbished rather than replaced. There is almost no reclamation of the gas from old machines for recycling. The EPA is behind schedule on ratcheting down domestic production, and smuggling is rarely detected. Even where there are regulations — for example, repair technicians are legally bound to collect old gas rather than vent it — there is little enforcement.
And, as Spector discovered, many of the environmental crimes and misdeeds that keep the country dependent on HCFC-22 happen on your property, most likely without your knowledge.
“It’s totally illegal to vent gas, but it’s also totally inconspicuous," said Stephen Andersen, a former EPA official who has campaigned for better controls on cooling gases. “I always watch like a hawk when they’re in my yard," he said of technicians.
The concentration of HCFC-22 in the atmosphere is 218 parts per trillion, more than double the amount two decades ago, and it gets there in a number of ways. Low-quality or old equipment leaks, and detecting the colorless and odorless gas without pressure-testing devices is difficult. Sometimes the release is intentional, because it costs less. For example, installing a new part properly usually requires first siphoning a machine’s coolant into a canister, for later replacement. But it is quicker, though illegal, just to cut the line. A technician saves half an hour on a job, and the customer gets a smaller bill.
Bobby Ring, who runs a servicing company in suburban New Jersey, said that makes it hard for him to compete.
“There are contractors out there who refuse to make the investment in recovery equipment to reclaim or recover refrigerants, and no one is looking, so — phsssst — they let the refrigerant escape," he said.
Although large companies, which are required to report coolant use, have been fined for large leaks, the EPA has never prosecuted a residential service company for intentionally releasing HCFC-22.
Asked about the lack of backyard enforcement, David Bloomgren, a spokesman for the EPA, said it is “a challenge to locate or obtain evidence of illegal venting," so the agency focused on large polluters but encouraged homeowners to report possible backyard violations they observed to an EPA tip site at epa.gov/tips.
While it is hard to quantify exactly how much coolant is illegally released from America’s residential air conditioners, the EPA estimates that only 7 percent of used coolant is turned in for recycling.
“The vast majority of it hits the sky," illegally vented, said Kevin Zugibe, chief executive of Hudson Technologies Inc., a company set up to recycle HCFC-22.
Under the Montreal Protocol, the United States has until 2015 to cut production and imports of newly made HCFC-22 to 10 percent of what it was a decade ago.
Without a much better supply of recycled HCFC-22, the United States will not be able to do that — or have enough to service all the older air conditioners, grocery store freezers and other refrigeration equipment.
In the European Union, only recycled or reclaimed HCFC-22 can be legally used to service equipment. In Australia and Japan, recovery of the gas from old appliances is mandatory, and technicians receive a fee for collection.
But the EPA has no plans to enact requirements or incentives for recycling in the near future, preferring to rely on market pressures, Bloomgren said. In January, the EPA proposed more specific limits on domestic production for the coolant, in the hope that curtailing supply would force “more recovery and reuse of HCFC-22 in large systems, as well as encourage transition to HCFC-22 alternatives." It said those rules would be in place by May, but they still are not.
But with weak incentives, repair technicians say, it seems a waste of time to collect the gas, and some distributors even charge extra to those who do the right thing and bring it back for recycling.
The EPA has tried to address overuse of the gas by regulating air-conditioning equipment, forbidding the sale of new machines containing the gas starting in 2010.
Initially, when the rules were proposed months earlier, manufacturers responded by introducing systems that ran on more environmentally friendly — if costlier — gases; they struck old models from catalogs. But at the last minute and in the face of a recession, the EPA publicized that it would allow owners of older systems to replace any and all parts so long as the new parts did not contain the coolant.
Unfortunately, as Spector discovered this summer, that created a loophole that subverted the mandate: Manufacturers could sell condenser units — the major component of every air-conditioning system — that were empty of coolant gas. Then, after installation, a worker could simply add new HCFC-22, complying with the letter if not the spirit of the law.