Car Air Conditioning Questions


With the recovery and recycling of R-12 now mandatory in all areas of the country, you may be thinking that the storm of change is over. Not so. There are still clouds over head because of the industry-wide transition to R-134a and a few still loom on the horizon. This doesn’t mean you’re in any danger though. That is, at least as long as you’re armed with the right strategy. That cause is what we’ve dedicated this update report to…your cause. Here’s what you need to know to adapt legally, effectively-and most of all-profitably.

Refrigerant Report

To expedite a reduction in ozone depletion, R-12 and all CFCs, for that matter, are scheduled for phase-out on December 31, 1995. Several producers of the refrigerant, however, will cease production sooner. DuPont, for example, will end its production of Freon at the end of 1994. As production cuts back, prices will increase accordingly.

Manufacturers have worked day and night to develop effective alternatives to R-12 that provide efficient cooling with little or no environmental side-effects. Based on the results of extensive research, HFC-134a, commonly known as R-134a, has been chosen as the next refrigerant by consensus within the industry. Hence, car makers are moving ahead swiftly with the use of R-134a. It’s estimated that roughly 90% of the 1994 new car and truck fleet will use the new refrigerant.

Just a few days before this went to press, Chrysler announced it will use R-134a exclusively in all its new vehicles by January 1, 1994 – two years ahead of the mandate enacted by the Federal Government. Ronald R. Boltz, Chrysler’s Vice President of Product Strategy and Regulatory Affairs, remarked, "We’ve moved as aggressively as possible in removing R-12 from our product line and we believe our rapid deployment of air conditioning systems using R-134a is in the best interest of our consumers and the environment."

In spite of the environmental advantages that R-134a offers, it does have some drawbacks. It is less efficient than R-12, so R134a requires higher operating pressures and larger system components to compensate for the penalty in performance. R134a is also incompatible with R-12, so the two refrigerants should never be mixed. Furthermore, even though R134a is less likely to affect the ozone layer, the new refrigerant still has the capability of contributing to the greenhouse effect (global warming) when released into the air. Consequently, the recovery and recycling of R-134a becomes mandatory on November 15, 1995. In spite of this deadline, it’s likely that you may be involved with R134a recovery and recycling somewhat sooner because of this refrigerant’s high initial cost and more stringent local regulations.

The Latest On Retrofitting

Does this mean that all systems charged with R-12 are doomed once they lose their refrigerant charge? Hardly, but as time marches on, the limited availability of R-12 won’t make it very cost-effective to keep an A/C system on an R-12 diet. That’s why carmakers and other industry groups have been working hand-in-hand to develop a standardized retrofit procedure for switching R-12 systems over to R-134a.

Just recently, the Society of Automotive Engineers released a standard to that effect, known as J1661. The standard covers all aspects of the retrofit procedure and recommends reference to manufacturers’ procedures when available.

A critical portion of the retrofitting procedure involves evacuation of the A/C system. We found that some controversy exists regarding how, and for how long the system should be evacuated. According to SAE J1661, "…evacuate the air conditioning system for a minimum of 30 minutes to remove air and trace R-12 from the system…." The verbiage continues, noting that some manufacturers may
require a longer evacuation period for their systems.

According to Simon Oulouhojian, President and Chief Operating Officer of the Mobile Air Conditioning Society (MACS), "J1661 encompasses the collective knowledge of industry experts, many of them at the original equipment manufacturers’ level. It’s difficult to dispute the findings of such a panel, especially when you consider what they have at stake."

D. Wayne Strout, President and Chief Executive Officer of Refrigerant Technologies, Inc. (RTI), disagrees with the evacuation procedure advocated by SAE and MACS. Strout recommends that the system be evacuated for one hour, then filled with an initial charge of R134a. Next, he recommends running the system, then recovering and recycling the entire fill of refrigerant before charging it into the system once more.

This final step, he believes, emulates flushing to remove any residual mineral oil that may have mixed with the ester or PAG oil.

On that note, we’d like to mention a breakthrough in refrigerant oil specifically formulated as a retrofit lubricant. Castrol’s Icematic Retro 100 has a unique formula that’s compatible with both R-12 and R-134a. Up until now, the refrigerants required mineral (R-12) and PAG or ester (R-134a) oils, which couldn’t be mixed. This product promises to make retrofitting less of a headache.

MACS estimates the cost of retrofitting older A/C systems will be approximately $250 to $800, depending on the condition of the system and the age of the vehicle. It’s likely that the cost of retrofitting will increase accordingly with a car’s age. Since 80 to 100 million vehicles are estimated for retrofit by the year 2000, you may want to look into this flourishing area of A/C service as a new profit center.

As we went to press, Ward Atkinson, MACS technical advisor, advised PTEN that another SAE standard was on the ballot regarding the standardization of retrofit fittings. According to Atkinson, "Some fittings currently on the market may not open when required and others may stick open after service equipment is removed. We’re finding that a stack-up of tolerances is often the cause, because many of the internal dimensions are really not specified in any current standard."

Making the Grade

The EPA requires machines used for the recovery/recycling of R-12 and R134a to be tested by an independent standards testing organization. At the current time, the EPA recognizes Underwriters Laboratories and ETL Testing Laboratories, Inc. as approved organizations. These labs evaluate recovery and recycling equipment for compliance with applicable SAE standards. Both labs forward a list of machines to the EPA, which then consolidates both lists into one. The end result is a listing of EPA-approved equipment.

When shopping for a machine, check to see if it’s approved by the EPA. In the past, some machines carried a UL label, implying that they were EPA-approved, but really weren’t. The label merely meant that one or more internal components, like a transformer, may have passed a UL test. To avoid confusion when shopping, look for verbiage such as "Design certified by (testing organization) for compliance with SAE-J (applicable standard number)." That way you can be sure the equipment you’re buying is up to the task.

Recovery-Only Exclusion

If you own several shops, you needn’t fear the expense of a recovery/recycling machine for each facility, or having to send refrigerant off-site for reclamation (reclaimed refrigerant must meet a more stringent, like-new purity standard than SAE’s recycling standard). The EPA provides an exemption for owners of multiple service facilities that allows you to recover refrigerant at all of your shops, then recycle it at one of them with a piece of approved equipment. This exemption does not apply to franchised organizations or chain stores.

The equipment used for the recovery-only of R-12 does not have the capability to recycle refrigerant or recharge a system. The SAE standard addressing recovery-only equipment states, "Then equipment discharge or transfer fitting shall be unique to prevent the unintentional use of extracted (recovered) R-12 to be used for recharging auto air conditioners." Recovery-only equipment must also be EPA-approved.

Late-Breaking News In Leak Detection

Just before our deadline for this article, SAE released two long-awaited standards regarding leak detection. The first, SAE J1627, describes the rating criteria for electronic refrigerant leak detectors. One of the most critical parts of this document is a standardized 1/2-ounce per year leak rate that will eventually give electronic leak detectors a performance benchmark. Eventually, these products will carry a label with the "design certified…" lingo that will make it easier for you to choose a leak detector based on proven, not published performance.

The second standard released by SAE addressing leak detection, SAE J1628, involves the procedure for use of a detector meeting the first standard. Among other things, the standard defines the rate of movement for the detector’s probe, a critical part of finding leaks.

Currently, no standards exist regarding gas leak detectors, because they can’t "sniff" R-134a and the previously-mentioned standards address R-12, R-22 and R-134a.

There are no standards currently available on leak-tracing dyes. That’s because an equivalency for dye-indicated leaks and electronically-sensed leaks couldn’t be determined at the time the previous SAE standards were adopted. It’s only a matter of time, however, because SAE is currently working to provide guidance on the use of leak-tracing dyes.

The Facts About Fittings

To reduce the chances of mixing R-12 and R-134a during service, R-134a equipment must have a 1/2"-16 ACME thread for connection to manifold gauges or recovery/recycling/recharging equipment. This is a different size than the fittings used on R-12 equipment.

The opposite end of low-and high-side R-134a service hoses can connect directly to a quick-coupler that connects to the vehicle, or an optional M14 x 1.5 fitting can be used between the hose and quick coupler. Unlike R-12 systems, which typically use threaded service fittings for the high and low sides, R-134a systems use quick-coupler fittings without external threads. To ensure proper connection of service hoses, the high-side fitting has a 16.0 mm O.D. and the low-side fitting has a 13.0 mm O.D.

Cautions On Cross-Charging

You should be aware of the hazards involved when an A/C system becomes cross-charged. This means that the system has been partially charged with a refrigerant other than the type specified by the manufacturer.

Typically, a cross-charged system will perform poorly and suffer damage from chemical breakdown and lubrication problems. Should a recovery/recycling machine be connected to a cross-contaminated system, the machine will have to be cleaned out completely, including replacement of major components like filters and dryers. Furthermore, if a contaminated machine is connected to other A/C systems before the problem is discovered, those systems, too, will become infected.

Presently, cross-charging is difficult to detect on-site. Leak detectors using current technology provide unreliable results when sniffing mixed refrigerants. Although the only exacting way to assess a refrigerant is by sending it to a lab. Robinair is currently working on some affordable testers that will be capable of determining the type of refrigerant right for your shop.

Building Consumer Confidence

Hopefully, the information in this article has helped you gain perspective on where the industry is at, and where it’s headed. Now take that perspective and educate your customers about what it’s going to take to service their air conditioning systems now and in the future. MACS launched a consumer awareness blitz back in July with three consumer brochures. For more information regarding the MACS brochures, call (215) 679-2229.

Also recognizing the importance of such a campaign, the National Automotive Dealers Association (NADA) issued a press release with a "don’t blame the dealer" theme. The release was a direct response to consumer alarm over how much the price of A/C service had risen.

The business of servicing automotive air conditioning systems will continue to change as R-134a gradually becomes the most widely used refrigerant. This doesn’t mean, however, that recovery and recycling will end once R-12 is no longer produced. The remaining supply will have to be conserved with diligence, a responsibility that both you and the environment can benefit from.

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All Around Automotive Repair Inc. is a full-service automotive repair and detail shop—but with a unique calling: to provide affordable service to the entire community regardless of financial circumstances.

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