Refrigerant Shortage Driving AC Repair Costs Up

The soaring cost of some refrigerants will mean sharply higher air-conditioner repair costs this spring, experts say, adding a bit of gloom to this week’s early bloom.

The refrigerant known as R-22 is being phased out because it eats Earth’s protective ozone layer. R-22 air conditioners were made until 2010, and millions still operate.

But owners who need to replace leaked refrigerant this year are in for a nasty surprise: R-22 prices have tripled since January. Homeowners who would have paid $100 to recharge an R-22 system last year can now expect to pay $300 to $350, says an industry group, the Air Conditioning Contractors of America.

It could get much worse, as Charlotte’s Tracy Lee found Friday.

An evaporator coil rusted in one of his home’s cooling units, installed in 2005, and leaked its refrigerant. The repair technician “said the most expensive part of the repair was the refrigerant,” Lee said.

He barely exaggerated. The $1,958 estimate included five pounds of R-22 at $188 a pound, nearly half the repair cost.

Industry officials expect the price spike to smooth out over time – but not before July, in the depths of hot weather.

“In the meantime, I’m going to be caught in the crosshairs,” said Lee, whose house has two other air conditioning units of the same vintage.

AC service companies are scrambling to make sure they can serve their customers.

“For customers, it means they’re going to pay a lot more than they did last year,” said Morris-Jenkins owner Dewey Jenkins, “and going into the summer no one knows, there might not be enough” R-22.

Jenkins’ company, sensing trouble, stockpiled enough R-22 to take care of its customers who are under maintenance contracts. Jenkins estimated that a typical service call might cost an extra $80 to $120 this year.

Replacing a unit’s full R-22 charge with the newer alternative called R-410A, he said, would cost $1,000 to $1,200.

Brothers’ Roger Costner said his company is still working on pricing, but estimates a typical service call might cost an extra $50 this spring. He does not expect suppliers to run out of R-22 because he anticipates it to be increasingly recycled.

But AC experts say some customers will be faced with hard choices about older R-22 units with serious problems such as leaking components.

“Our thinking is if they do have a major issue with their system, they really should consider paying for a new system,” Costner said. New units will cool more efficiently and are likely to have longer warranties than older ones, he said, helping recoup their costs.

Josh Franks learned Friday that he falls into that unfortunate group. Franks paid $289 to recharge the R-22 in his 12-year-old air-conditioning unit, for the second time in two years.

With a slow leak in the unit, Franks said, “it looks like I’ll have to spend a whole lot more to put in a whole new system.” The repairman quoted a new system at $5,500.

The industry has known for years that R-22 supplies would slowly shrink under terms of a 1987 international agreement on ozone-depleting chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency sets new manufacturing limits about every five years.

But even a year ago, the refrigerant was plentiful and selling at record lows.

“Nobody really knows how much is out there, or how we got from a glut to uncertainty” about supplies, said Charlie McCrudden, vice president for government relations at the Air Conditioning Contractors of America.

Last August the EPA, prompted by a lawsuit, proposed reducing manufacturing volumes this year. In December, the agency proposed cutting manufacturing capacity by up to 47 percent for 2012 to 2014, in part to encourage reuse of existing stocks.

That created “a frenzy” that drove prices upward, McCrudden said. He predicts it will be July before the issue is settled.

“I think everybody got spooked,” he said. “I don’t think EPA intended to create this type of price spike and upheaval.”