Green Room

Why is air conditioning being made so expensive?

posted at 4:58 pm on August 28, 2012 by

I hate summer.  To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets, I’m using the word HATE, here, about summer.  This year, humidity has been added to the heat of inland Southern California to create a joyous environment in which bugs thrive and arthritis flares up like it’s January.

No, I don’t have arthritis yet, at least not as far as I know.  I know people who do.  I do get twinges in my right knee, where I was operated on 20 years ago.  And my household does have bugs this summer.

But I’m writing about heat today because I had my air conditioning unit serviced yesterday, and it cost $50 a pound to refill it with Freon.  It cost less than half of that for my last refill, in 2007.  (The Freon refill yesterday was aside from having the capacitor in the condenser/compressor replaced, which was another $205.)

This was used Freon, mind you.  Under the Montreal Protocol of 1987, the US is phasing out the use of R-22 Freon, the refrigerant which was held responsible in 1987 for depletion of the ozone layer, and which is used by virtually all household units.  The EPA plan for compliance with the Montreal Protocol involves reducing the allowances for the manufacture of R-22 over time.  According to the existing plan, there should still be plenty of newly manufactured R-22 to service existing units this year – although as of 1 January 2010, US manufacturers could no longer produce new units containing R-22.

But there’s been a hitch in the plan.  The EPA has created a problem with the availability of R-22.  For the years 2012-14, the agency has not issued formal allowances for the production of R-22.  At the end of 2011, the EPA proposed reducing the allowances for 2012-14 by figures between 11% and 47%, which is a bigger reduction than originally envisioned.  The EPA wants to accelerate the reduction in R-22 production.

But the formal allowances for the years in question have still not been set.  Everyone who writes on the web about air conditioning gives a summary like this one at ChicagoBoyz:

The market for R-22 is completely locked down and in a total state of chaos. Rumors are flying, and contractors don’t know who to believe or what to do.

In addition, it is time for us to begin ordering our air conditioning equipment to sell this summer. Nobody has any idea at all what to do about the dry R22 units. Will they be allowed to be sold? Will the cost be prohibitive with the new allocations/pricing on R22?

All this and more, courtesy of the Environmental Protection Administration.

So if your air conditioner conks out this summer in your house or business, or if you own a convenience store and a refrigeration unit goes down, or if you work in a restaurant and a walk in cooler goes down, expect that bill to be WAY higher than you thought it would be.

This was my experience yesterday.  The A/C tech said as far as he knew, no new R-22 is being produced at all.  What he knows for sure is that his employer is using only recycled R-22 to charge people’s home units.  That’s the R-22 that costs $50 a pound, more than twice what newly produced R-22 cost in 2007.

Of course, what people with old R-22 units are supposed to do is buy new units, which will use “ozone-friendly” refrigerants.  The whole system must be replaced – inside as well as outside – so the cost will be $5,000 and up for central A/C units.  (For the size of my home, it will probably run a minimum of $7-8,000.)  My unit was installed new in March of 2003, so it is just short of 10 years old.  Frankly, I would expect it to continue operating well for another 10 years, but the EPA has other ideas.

In 2011, the EPA noted a national oversupply of R-22, and apparently now seeks to reduce the production allowances more rapidly because of that one-time observation.  But outside of the southern and southern plains states, which were extremely hot last summer, much of the nation had below-average temperatures.  I only had to turn my A/C on twice (for a few hours each time) in all of 2011.  In 2012, however, the humidity coupled with high heat has made A/C essential for my health.  I have had asthma symptoms exactly twice in my life, and August 2012 has been one of those two times.  The other occurred more than 30 years ago.  Running the A/C at least part of the day enables me to breathe properly.

The other problem I have experienced this month is a mite infestation, caused by my mistake of sleeping with the windows open at night (something I have done safely in this house every summer since 2004).  The long streak of exceptionally, epically high humidity – more than three weeks with nighttime averages of 60-75%, which is unheard of here – is the source of this problem.  Running the A/C helps alleviate it.

There are human health reasons why A/C is essential in at least some summers in most of the United States.  Humidity is a plague in the dusty, arid Southwest.  It moves things around in the air that in most years never move at all, and encourages the growth of things that usually can’t survive in the dry conditions.

Yet I wonder how many people in my area are unable to afford to have their Freon refilled, or who have no real financial prospect in the next decade of getting a new air conditioning unit.  How many are on unemployment right now, or on Social Security?  How many are fortunate to have one or two jobs in their household, and can just make ends meet, but have nothing extra?  I’ve met people in my town who don’t even have A/C, and who normally rely in the summer on opening their windows at night.  But that’s not an option for most people this year.

Interestingly, on the matter of ozone depletion, analytical studies and new, comprehensive satellite data obtained since the 1980s have thrown serious doubt on the theory that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) deplete the ozone.  This is the theory behind the Montreal Protocol and the phasing out of Freon.  Especially since 2007, when a major study based on years of satellite observations was published, mainstream scientists have questioned the validity of the ozone-depletion theory.

The upper ozone layer is far from uniform, it turns out, and exhibits complex dynamics that can’t be represented properly by the simplistic assumptions of the ozone-depletion theory.  Ozone is so variable in a 24-hour period that it is a real challenge to determine which observations are seminal and which merely reflect ozone’s inherent variability.  The sun’s 11-year storm cycle has been discovered to correlate with ozone trends, but the effects remain unquantified.  According to the 2007 study of satellite data on the atmosphere, 60% of the observed ozone depletion over the north and south poles is unexplained.  In any case, the ozone deficits at the poles recover on an annual basis – and vary widely on a diurnal basis.

The bottom line is that we don’t know very much about what’s going on with the ozone layer.  Do we know enough to decide that air conditioning has to be made more expensive, for people who need it but can’t necessarily afford it if it costs more?  For a lot of people, the issue is considerably more than sweating and being tired because of the heat for a few weeks.  In that regard, I’ve been hit with a double-whammy this year, with mites and breathing problems, and I wonder how many others have been as well.

It’s very easy to dismiss what other people are going through if it isn’t happening to you.  But intemperate conditions that require artificial adjustments like air conditioning can happen in most places people live, and in any given year.  It’s basically inhuman to be dismissive about the importance of air conditioning for modern life: life in which people who aren’t rich live well and are healthy, rather than being preyed upon by everything in nature.

That is modern life: the non-rich having access to comfort and healthy conditions.  That’s the definition.  If we are squeezing the non-rich out of self-maintained middle-class life, including affordable basics like air conditioning, we are on the wrong track.  We cannot simply continue jerking each other around with ever-tightening regulation.  The least able to pay are always the hardest hit.  And 99% of the time, as with every environmental fad, we have no idea what we’re doing anyway.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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cozmo on August 29, 2012 at 11:15 PM

Got it, shipmate. Glad you enjoyed it. Do check out the restaurant supply places for dishwashing detergent with phosphates. The reasoning — seriously — was that restaurants have to meet santitation requirements, so their dishes have to actually get clean. Folks at home are apparently expendable.

I agree on needing to air a home out. Sealing it so the heat and air can work efficiently is a good thing, but I like living in a place where — most years — I rarely have to use either.

My normal summer electric bill is about $35 (and if I lived in a cheaper place, it would be more like $25), because I seriously don’t use my A/C. I much prefer being able to open the windows at night and cool the house that way. In a normal year, the temps each summer day will rise from the low 60s to anywhere from 95 to 112, and if the house starts each day around 65-68, it doesn’t get about 80 downstairs, even on the hottest dats.

But this year has been an outlier. The humidity has killed us. So I’ve run the A/C more in the last month than I ever have in a whole summer. I’m a bit apprehensive about the coming electric bill. My electric bill was around $250, 8 months out of the year in Tampa. But of course, you had to use the A/C 24/7 there, just to prevent mold.

J.E. Dyer on August 29, 2012 at 11:44 PM

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