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Playing the Numbers
R22 vs. R410A

In compliance with the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the United States has prohibited the transport and sale of R-22 charged air conditioning equipment since January 1, 2010. Most people know R22 by the brand name Freon, while air conditioning technicians refer to it as R22, and the U.S. government has classified it as HCFC-22, a controlled substance. Whatever you choose to call it, prior to 2010 R22 had been the go to refrigerant for cooling homes and businesses. Composed of hydrofluorcarbon (HCFC), R22 emits chlorine atoms when it escapes into the atmosphere. These atoms damage the ozone, which acts as a blanket to help screen out ultra-violet rays which have been linked to skin cancer, one of the fastest growing cancers in the United States.

Under the Montreal Protocol, the EPA has made an effort to push consumers to switch from R22 (Freon) based air conditioning systems to R410A (brand name Puron) based systems. When it escapes (for example, through a leak in an evaporator or condenser coil), R410A does far less harm to the environment than R22. Because the Montreal Protocol banned R22-charged condensers, it appeared, back in 2010, that if your R22 condenser failed you would have no choice other than to purchase R410A equipment. This not only meant that you would have to replace the failed condenser unit with an R410A model, but, if your evaporator worked with R22 only, you would then have to replace that as well. An air conditioning system (condenser, evaporator coil and refrigerant lines) can operate with only one refrigerant; R22 and R410A must never mix. (Fortunately, modern evaporator coils can be converted from R22 to R410A). Since the 2010 deadline, manufacturers and dealers have found a way around the R22-charged condenser ban. They may legally dry-ship and sell R22-compatible condensers. That is, the condensers they sell do not contain any R22 refrigerant. Hence, they don't violate the law. Once the equipment has been installed, an EPA certified technician can charge it up with R22. This means that you do still have a choice between upgrading your cooling system to R410A or replacing failed equipment with a unit which uses R22.

Besides the fact that R410A is less damaging to the environment, there are other advantages to using R410A-based equipment. For one thing, it is slightly more efficient than R22 equipment. Also, R410A based compressors run cooler than R22 based compressors and, consequently, are less likely to overheat and burn out. Another benefit of R410A air conditioning systems is that they use new, synthetic lubricants which circulate more efficiently than the mineral oil used to lubricate R22 systems. This translates to less wear and tear on the unit's moving parts.

This is not to say that R410A is perfect. For one thing it operates under much higher pressure than R22 and charging up a system with R410A takes more time and more expertise than charging one with R22. This translates to slightly higher labor costs which eat up some of the savings in the cost of the R410A itself versus the R22. Furthermore, these systems exert a lot more pressure on air conditioning system components, including refrigerant lines. Manufacturers have taken this into consideration when constructing R410A compatible condensers; they have designed them with thicker, stronger shells to reduce the noise and the vibrations created by the compressor and to reduce the strain on the piping connections, thereby reducing the incidence of refrigerant leaks. Nonetheless, technicians out in the field are finding that R410A equipment generally does not last as long as really old R22 equipment. You may have gotten twenty or even thirty years out of an old R22 condenser. You may only get ten years out of a new R410A unit. Opting for a brand new R22 condenser will not solve this longevity problem. Due to changes in design and materials, the R22 condensers manufactured today are unlikely to last as long as their R22 predecessors.

The most important consideration as to whether to replace your condenser with an R22 or R410A based unit may be the rising cost of R22 refrigerant. Effective January 1, 2020, the domestic production and import of R22 will be banned all together. Many plants which traditionally manufactured R22 have already converted to the production of R410A and the cost of R22 has been steadily increasing as a result. After January 1, 2020, R22-based systems which have lost refrigerant can still be charged with recycled R22, but supplies are expected to be scarce and extremely expensive.

If you are among the minority who wish to replace their existing R22 condenser with new R22 equipment, time is running out. Some manufacturers have already ceased production of R22 equipment as they convert the last of their R22 production lines to R410 equipment.

By the way, R410A is no longer the newest kid on the block. The EPA would like to slowly move all American homes from R22 and R410A to an even newer refrigerant, R441A. R441A is expected to have zero impact on global warming and ozone depletion. There is just one small problem. The version of R441A producers have come up with so far is a highly flammable blend of ethane, propane, isobutane and n-butane, not necessarily the type of substance you want coursing through the refrigrant lines inside your walls. Consumers who have been unhappy about the conversion from R22 to R410A may find themselves missing R410A once the R441A refrigerant takes over.