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Questions & Answers on Motor Vehicle Air Conditioning

This fact sheet answers questions that are frequently asked in letters and phone calls to EPA and the Ozone Protection hotline. The questions are split into those asked by consumers and auto service technicians, but all of the questions may be useful to both groups.

CONSUMERS WANT TO KNOW...

  1. How do I know if my vehicle uses CFC-12 (R-12, also known by the tradename freon)?
  2. My vehicle uses CFC-12. I understand that production of CFC-12 is being banned because it depletes the ozone layer. What does this mean for me? How do I keep down the cost of servicing my vehicle's A/C system?
  3. I've heard that I might have to convert my vehicle's A/C system to use a different refrigerant. When will I need to do that?
  4. What will it cost me to convert my vehicle to a different refrigerant?
  5. If I decide to convert my vehicle, how will I know what changes are required?
  6. What new refrigerant will my service technician put in my vehicle? Are there many substitute refrigerants that are OK?
  7. I've been seeing substitutes other than HFC-134a for sale. If I find out that a particular alternative has not yet been reviewed by EPA, or that EPA has not yet finished its review of the product, can I legally buy the product? What happens if I buy it now, and EPA decides in the future that it is not acceptable?
  8. Will any alternative refrigerant listed by EPA as acceptable work in my vehicle?
  9. I have heard that HFC-134a does not cool nearly as well as CFC-12. Is this true?

SERVICE TECHNICIANS WANT TO KNOW ...

  1. What are the leak repair requirements?
  2. Can I vent HFC-134a or other substitutes?
  3. How was HFC-134a selected as a replacement refrigerant for CFC-12 in automobile air-conditioning systems?
  4. I know that the old refrigerant, CFC-12, does not pose cancer risks when used properly. Is this also true of HFC-134a?
  5. Is HFC-134a flammable?
  6. Are there any substitutes other than HFC-134a that have been approved by EPA?
  7. Has the Agency already declared any alternatives to CFC-12 for use in vehicles to be unacceptable?

CONSUMERS WANT TO KNOW...

How do I know if my vehicle uses CFC-12 (R-12, also known by the tradename freon)?
You or your service technician can check under the hood for a label that identifies the refrigerant used in your vehicle's a/c system. Some new cars began using refrigerant HFC-134a in 1992. By 1995, all new cars used HFC-134a.

My vehicle uses CFC-12. I understand that production of CFC-12 is being banned because it depletes the ozone layer. What does this mean for me? How do I keep down the cost of servicing my vehicle's A/C system?

The continued use of CFC-12 is not banned. Even though production of CFC-12 ended on December 31, 1995, use of CFC-12 is still permitted, so you can continue to use the CFC-12 that is in your vehicle now, and your service technician can continue to put it in your vehicle, as long as supplies are available. CFC-12 used today is constantly being recovered and recycled, and some CFC-12 produced in 1994 and 1995 has been placed into inventory, so that there is still refrigerant available for sale presently, although the price will likely continue to increase.

In order to minimize paying increasingly higher prices to replace CFC-12 that has leaked out of your a/c system, you should practice preventive maintenance by having your service technician check your A/C system for leaks, and you should get any leaks fixed. Keep in mind that having your leaks fixed is not an EPA requirement, although a few areas (Wisconsin, parts of southern California, the cities of Austin, Texas and Albuquerque, New Mexico, and there may be others) do require it.

I've heard that I might have to convert my vehicle's A/C system to use a different refrigerant. When will I need to do that?

You will need to decide whether to convert your vehicle's system to use an alternative refrigerant only if your system becomes inoperative and requires a new refrigerant charge, and CFC-12 is no longer available. Although there is no way to predict with certainty when supplies of CFC-12 will be exhausted, the extensive recycling and banking of CFC-12 occurring now should make it available for several years. Depending on the age of your vehicle, it may well be the case that CFC-12 will be around for the remainder of its life.

It may also make sense for you to have your system converted if you are having major service performed on your a/c system (for example, if you have been in a front-end collision or have had compressor failure). In that event, the additional cost of doing the conversion over and above the cost of the repair work may be minimal, because many steps in converting are also necessary in performing a major repair.

What will it cost me to convert my vehicle to a different refrigerant?

EPA estimates that conversions will cost between $100 and $800, or possibly more for a small number of models, depending on the make, model and age of the vehicle. Conversions at a minimum will require that the system fittings be changed. EPA estimates that this minimal conversion will add less than $200 to the cost of any repair work you have requested. Other components of the A/C system may have to be replaced, depending on whether your current a/c components are compatible with the new refrigerant.

If I decide to convert my vehicle, how will I know what changes are required?

EPA recommends that you consult your vehicle manufacturer or an authorized dealer or reputable service facility. Manufacturers have available or are developing retrofit guidelines for vehicles manufactured after the mid 1980s. The Ozone Protection Hotline will be able to tell you if the manufacturer of your automobile has established specific procedures for the conversion of your vehicle. When considering converting any vehicle, you should rely on the advice of a qualified service facility.

What new refrigerant will my service technician put in my vehicle? Are there many substitute refrigerants that are OK?

Automakers are producing new vehicles with HFC-134a, which does not deplete the ozone layer. EPA evaluates all substitutes for CFC-12 under its Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program in order to determine if they pose any risk to human health or to the environment. Currently, among the alternatives listed as acceptable subject to use conditions, HFC-134a is the only one which also has been fully tested and specified by automakers in their guidelines.

I've been seeing substitutes other than HFC-134a for sale. If I find out that a particular alternative has not yet been reviewed by EPA, or that EPA has not yet finished its review of the product, can I legally buy the product? What happens if I buy it now, and EPA decides in the future that it is not acceptable?

While you can legally purchase the product if the Agency has not yet made a determination as to its acceptability under the SNAP program, you should keep in mind that such a product has not been fully reviewed to determine whether it is safe to use. If EPA later declares the product unacceptable, you do not legally need to remove it from your vehicle's air-conditioning system, but you may choose to do so for your own health and safety. You should be aware that it may be costly to convert your system back to an acceptable alternative, and that it is illegal to charge your system with a refrigerant that EPA has declared unacceptable. The penalty for use of an unacceptable alternative (charging it into a customer's A/C system is considered use) is up to a $37,500 fine per day and 5 years in jail.

Will any alternative refrigerant listed by EPA as acceptable work in my vehicle?

Although EPA's SNAP program determines what risks an alternative poses to human health and the environment, the Agency does not determine whether the alternative will provide adequate performance or will be compatible with the components of your a/c system.

Keep in mind that using a refrigerant not yet reviewed and determined acceptable by EPA may result in damage to your a/c system components, including the compressor, and may limit your ability to have your vehicle's system serviced in the future.

I have heard that HFC-134a does not cool nearly as well as CFC-12. Is this true?

Vehicle manufacturers have designed air-conditioning systems for new vehicles that use HFC-134a while maintaining reliability and cooling performance. Specifications for converting CFC-12 A/C units to HFC-134a are also being designed to maintain performance, but this may vary depending on the condition of the unit prior to the conversion, and on other factors.

SERVICE TECHNICIANS WANT TO KNOW ...

What are the leak repair requirements?

EPA regulations do not dictate any particular service, as long as a technician is certified to work with refrigerant and any recycling equipment he or she uses meets EPA standards. EPA does not require that leak repair be performed before refrigerant is charged into a vehicle, although certain states and localities may require such repair. In addition, EPA does not require that the refrigerant be evacuated and cleaned prior to recharging the system with refrigerant. In other words, EPA does not require evacuation and recharge, and does permit top-off with the same refrigerant, in motor vehicle air-conditioners. If you are unsure about any EPA regulations governing auto air-conditioning, call the Hotline number listed above.

Can I vent HFC-134a or other substitutes?

No. Effective November 15, 1995, section 608 of the Clean Air Act prohibits individuals from knowingly venting substitutes for CFC and HCFC refrigerants during the maintenance, service, repair and disposal of air-conditioning and refrigeration equipment. A fact sheet explains this prohibition in much more detail.

Note: although this prohibition is part of section 608 (stationary refrigeration and air conditioning equipment), it also applies to section 609 (motor vehicle air conditioning).

How was HFC-134a selected as a replacement refrigerant for CFC-12 in automobile air-conditioning systems?

Engineers for automotive manufacturers conducted research and testing on many potential substitutes for CFC-12 before selecting HFC-134a. As part of this research and testing, they reviewed the potential health effects, toxicity, flammability, and corrosivity of each potential substitute, evaluated the effect of each compound on the life and performance of the air-conditioning components in the various models made by each manufacturer, and investigated the effect of each compound on the system's cooling capacity. They determined that HFC-134a was the most suitable alternative.

I know that the old refrigerant, CFC-12, does not pose cancer risks when used properly. Is this also true of HFC-134a?

HFC-134a is regarded as one of the safest refrigerants yet introduced, based on current toxicity data. The chemical industry's Program for Alternative Fluorocarbon Toxicity Testing (PAFT) tested HFC-134a in a full battery of laboratory animal toxicity studies. The results indicate that HFC-134a does not pose a cancer or birth defects hazard.

Is HFC-134a flammable?

HFC-134a is considered as safe or safer than CFC-12 in motor vehicle uses, including in collisions. Like CFC-12, HFC-134a is not flammable at ambient temperature and atmospheric pressures. However, HFC-134a service equipment and vehicle A/C systems should not be pressure tested or leak tested with compressed air. Some mixtures of air and HFC-134a have been shown to be combustible at elevated pressures. These mixtures may be potentially dangerous, causing injury or property damage.

Are there any substitutes other than HFC-134a that have been approved by EPA?

Several refrigerants have been designated as acceptable for motor vehicle use. All of these, including HFC-134a, must be used in accordance with several conditions on their use. For full details of these requirements, see EPA's factsheet "Choosing and Using Alternative Refrigerants for Motor Vehicle Air Conditioning." In addition, in order to comply with the Clean Air Act, technicians must recover any alternative refrigerant using separate recovery equipment dedicated to that refrigerant.

Has EPA already declared any alternatives to CFC-12 for use in vehicles to be unacceptable?

Yes. The Agency has determined that two CFC-12 substitutes, OZ-12 and HC-12a, both manufactured by OZ Technology, Inc. of Post Falls, Idaho, are unacceptable for use in motor vehicle air conditioners because of unanswered flammability concerns. EPA regulations also state that all flammable substitutes are unacceptable for use in vehicle a/c conversions. Other refrigerants have also been found unacceptable for environmental reasons. See EPA's factsheet "Choosing and Using Alternative Refrigerants for Motor Vehicle Air Conditioning" for more details.

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