The question of whether to repair or replace older, broken equipment typically comes down to a simple analysis. Estimating the cost of current and future repairs on the old unit against the cost and benefits of installing a new unit can generally guide you to the best decision. However, when it comes to older central air conditioners and heat pumps, this evaluation is quickly becoming a moot point.
A Special Case: R-22 Air Conditioners and Heat Pumps
Heat pumps and air conditioners manufactured before 2010 typically used R-22 refrigerant. R-22 is a harmful greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, causing global warming. The U.S. government, along with many governments around the world in accordance with the Montreal Protocol, have been phasing out R-22 in favor of the newer R-410a refrigerant.
R-410a is more environmentally friendly than R-22, but operates under higher pressures, requiring different components. Because of this, older R-22 heat pumps and air conditioners are not compatible with R-410a. As part of the R-22 phase out, from 2010 on, all heat pumps and air conditioners shipped with refrigerant are required to use R-410a.
In 2014, the U.S. EPA released its final R-22 phase out schedule. It required that all manufacturing and importation of R-22 be reduced every year until 2020, when R-22 will be completely phased out. In 2014, 51 million pounds of R-22 were imported or produced. The phase-out schedule reduced this to only 22 million pounds in 2015, 18 million in 2016, 13 million in 2017, 9 million in 2018, and 4 million in 2019. As supplies of R-22 have lowered, prices have skyrocketed. In 2017, these price hikes have gone to a new level, now over a hundred dollars per pound for the consumer and rising. In fact, our biggest supplier has ceased stocking R-22 entirely due to high prices and lack of availability.
What does this mean for the consumer?
In a nutshell, any repair that requires a significant investment in an R-22 heat pump or air conditioner becomes a bad deal, especially if that repair requires adding refrigerant to the system. With the price of R-22 currently at over a hundred dollars per pound and rising, adding new R-22 to a system could cost a homeowner thousands of dollars in refrigerant alone, plus the cost of parts and labor for the repair. Very soon, heating companies won’t have any R-22 to put in these older units at all, rendering a broken R-22 system completely useless.
If your R-22 heat pump or air conditioner needs repairs, it might be a good idea to avoid the repair altogether and invest the cost of the repair in a new R-410a unit that will be good for years to come.