Soon, we'll be at the mid-point of 2009. How time flies when you face an EPA deadline.
The deadline in this case is January 1, 2010, when the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) restrictions on the hydrochlorofluorocarbon refrigerant known as R-22 take effect. At that time, R-22 will be available solely for use in servicing existing R-22-based HVAC equipment.
So, the question of the month is: If refrigerant were a patient in a hospital, would it be on the road to a “full recovery”?
Julius Banks, refrigerant team leader of the EPA's Stratospheric Protection Division's Alternatives & Emissions Reduction branch, says the industry is facing a good news/bad news scenario.
“There was a 20% increase in R-22 reclamation between 2007 and 2008, as reported by EPA-certified reclaimers. That's a positive step, and a direct result of contractor activity. But, I don't think anyone would argue that the amounts coming back are still much below what we'd like,” Banks says. “It's going in the right direction, but not enough to prevent concerns about shortfalls in the future, unless field activity changes.”
Refrigerant reclaimers also have mixed feelings about the status of refrigerant recovery and reclamation in light of the 2010 deadline. They also see improvement, but more needs to be done. ContractingBusiness.com spoke with representatives of some leading reclamation services, and a few HVACR contractors to learn their thoughts on the state of refrigerant reclamation.
Take Recovery Seriously
Rich Dykstra is president of Consolidated Refrigerant Reclaim (CRR), Peoria, AZ, a sister company to the Rapid Recovery network of reclamation service providers. He's also an ex-HVAC contractor now in his second go-round as a refrigerant handler. He started Refrigerant Management Services in 1992, sold it in 2000, and reentered the business in 2002.
Dykstra believes lack of information regarding recycling was a key characteristic of the HVACR industry of the 1990s. Today, he says, the information vacuum has been replaced by a large degree of contractor apathy.
“Many more wholesalers and reclaimers are doing a pretty good job of providing the infrastructure for reclamation, so that's not really an excuse anymore,” Dykstra says. “The problem now is getting contractors to take refrigerant recovery seriously.”
In Dykstra's opinion, many contractors ignore the rules, and won't spend any money to establish a refrigerant recovery plan.
“The contractor who's doing the right thing has a harder time competing with the contractor whose overhead doesn't include refrigerant recovery equipment, cylinders, or technician training,” Dykstra says.
Rather than rely on whistle-blower programs, which were used during the 1990s phaseouts, Dykstra would like to see more contractors opt to play by the rules. He hopes the growing number of wholesalers and reclamation companies will make a difference.
Les Rhynard, national sales and service manager for Rapid Recovery, agrees there's a definite need for more R-22 to be recovered and sent to reclaimers. “The trick is in getting it from the 10- to 30-ton units sitting on top of strip malls, movie theaters, and office buildings to the reclaimers,” he says. His point is that so much of the refrigerant is still in use; and when it doesn't get recovered from a system, it can't be reclaimed.
“Some contractors take charged air conditioning units directly to a scrap yard after a replacement. What happens to the refrigerant? I don't think we'd be looking at a refrigerant shortage issue if R-22 was being recovered as it should have been,” Rhynard says. Rapid Recovery teams recover refrigerant and provide contractors with documentation of the transaction. The refrigerant is then sent to Dykstra, at CRR.
Overcoming Mixed Refrigerant Cost Issues
Chris Ludwig, president, Pure Chem Separation, originally had founded a reclamation company in 1991, which he later sold. When Ludwig and his business partner, Fred Schwartz, started Pure Chem, they purchased much of the equipment from the previous company, including a large, fractional distillation column, which is central to the company's service.
Pure Chem technicians deliver a 240-pound or half-ton cylinder to a contractor's place of business. When it's full, they pick it up, and another empty is left in its place.
“We work directly with contractors because we think there are economies to that,” Ludwig says, and adds that he'd like to see more recovered refrigerant coming back into circulation. He blames much of the attitude on cost issues.
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“It's happened over time, because contractors were getting charged for refrigerant. Common refrigerant return programs were charging cylinder-handling fees, from $30 to $50 per cylinder. If it was mixed, they added a disposal fee of $3 to $5 per pound. This is what killed reclamation. Conscientious contractors wanted to do the right thing, but were bearing a huge cost burden,” Ludwig says.
As a solution to the contractor's pricing dilemma, Pure Chem is able to separate mixed R-22. “By doing so, we can pay $2 per pound currently for 99.5% R-22. Even if R-22 is mixed we still pay for it. We can take in R-22 down to 70% impurity, without penalizing the contractor,” Ludwig says.
Wholesaler Program Benefits
Airgas entered the refrigerant market when it acquired CFC Refimax in 2006, followed by purchases of Gartech Refrigerant Reclamation and Refron — all of which are involved in refrigerant recycling and reclamation.
This year, Airgas Refrigerants, Inc. has embarked on a campaign in concert with industry wholesalers, to allow HVACR contractors to return used refrigerants directly to those wholesalers. Jodi Crawford, marketing manager for Airgas, says over 260 wholesalers currently participate in the ReKlaim program, which allows wholesalers to accept reclaimed refrigerant in a variety of sizes, including 30- and 50-pound cylinders.
Airgas Refrigerants' ReKlaim program is supported by a direct mail message that tells contractors to “turn those used refrigerants into cash,” by finding a participating wholesaler near them.
“We encourage wholesalers to share the money they make on the gas with the contractor directly. It's a growing business, and part of our new strategic thrust to assist smaller contractors by providing them with a resource for returning used refrigerants,” Crawford says.
Purity requirements do apply, and the level of compensation changes, depending on refrigerant purity. However, Crawford says Airgas pays top dollar for refrigerant with a purity level of 95 to 100%. Crawford finds financial incentives are the most effective method of gaining contractor participation.
“We've reduced our fees, and we pay one of the top payback rates in the industry. Cylinder evacuation fees are falling, or being eliminated all together, depending on the details of the program,” Crawford says.
On larger industrial units, Airgas field service technicians will also visit a site to correct any problems related to system contamination. If a system has oil or water contamination, they'll bring equipment on-site to correct the problem.
For an Airgas store locator, visit: reklaim.airgasrefrigerants.com/.
Fast and Efficient Cylinder Exchange
Refri-Claim, a division of ICOR International, Inc., Indianapolis, IN, provides a cylinder exchange program (refri-claim.com). Marc Richburg, national sales manager for Refri-Claim, says the key advantages to this method are speed and efficiency.
“There's no waiting for someone to get your cylinder pumped down. You're not burdened with maintaining more cylinders than you really need. The refrigerant user receives a clean, operable, DOT-certified cylinder with every exchange,” Richburg says. (See Richburg's guest editorial on p. 6).
“Contractors are becoming more aware of the necessity to recover and reclaim R-22, through programs such as our own and those of others,” says Michael Mulligan, vice president, refrigerant reclamation programs, USA Refrigerants, Nanuet, NY.
“The contractor education process regarding R-22 recovery and buyback began about three years ago, and we're seeing increased activity,” Mulligan says. He's encouraged by increased recovery efforts of contractors, as well as changes in attitudes across other industry sectors related to contractor support.
USA Refrigerants is a nationally recognized refrigerant distribution company that also specializes in the reclamation of R-22. In September of 2008, USA became the Affinity Partner with ACCA as it relates to the buyback of recovered R-22 from ACCA Contractor Members. (USARefrigerants.com)
“Contractors are becoming more aware, and new programs are working to their benefit,” Mulligan says.
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“In the past, most of the economic and environmental liabilities fell on the contractors' shoulders, and they were the least able to absorb it. Now, wholesalers are putting programs together, and programs like ours are paying for refrigerants.
“Contractors see there's an opportunity to offset some of the costs associated with R-22 recovery by selling their used R-22 and doing the right thing environmentally.”
Time Waits for No One
The HVACR contractor could be facing the biggest hit in all of this, if R-22 isn't at acceptable levels during the first year of the phaseout. While it might seem like a smart business move to become an R-22 “speculator,” and hold onto the refrigerant until the price rises, ask yourself whether it's worth the wait. Does your bottom line need the relatively low amount of money you might make by hoarding R-22? And can you devote the time to track it?
Do the right thing — environmentally and strategically. Recover R-22 by the book, and take it to a wholesaler or reclamation facility. It's better to get ahead of the game than to have to play catch up.
DOING THE RIGHT THING
Alan Bishop, national service coordinator, Merit Services, Carrollton, TX, has been using Pure Chem's reclamation services for six months. Previously, the company would recover refrigerant themselves into 30- and 50-pound cylinders, and turn them into the supply houses.
“We'd be paying up to $50 for a 50-pound cylinder. That's a big hit on the bottom line, especially if you have 14 guys doing it two to three times a month,” Bishop asserts.
Merit Services considers individual customer requirements and cost when recommending repair or replacement of older units.
“We can show them the advantages of switching to a higher-efficiency system now, if their budgets allow. We help them see financial impact of increased service requirements of aging systems, and the impact of increased costs for repair,” Bishop says.
“Merit Services will always do what's best for its customers with regards to system age, cost, and efficiency, whether it's R-22 or R-410A.”
Sean Daley, owner, Seasonal Energy Mechanical, Thorndale, PA, used to pay $45 to turn in a 30 pound cylinder at a local distributor. He now gets about $2 per pound from Pure Chem, and he's got plenty to reclaim. Right now, he's in the middle of recovering refrigerant from 1,600 homes at McGuire Air Force Base, Burlington County, NJ. The base's existing homes are being razed, and new ones are to be built in their place.
Daley says he's doing all he can to help customers with old systems understand the wisdom in switching to higher-efficiency, R-410A systems as soon as possible.
The competition in Daley's market is very tough in the tough economy, which he says causes some to ignore refrigerant recovery.
“It's become a bidding war, with everybody trying to lowball everybody else,” he says. “But with what they're charging the customer, I don't know how they can pay their technicians, and I know they can't be reclaiming the refrigerant. By the time they pay for the recovery machines, the refrigerant scales, the cylinders, and technician certification, and then add the time it takes to recover the refrigerant, they can't be making any meaningful profit.”
Kurt Eggert, president, Fire Ice Mechanical, Inc., Bellerose, NY, — the 2007 ContractingBusiness.com Commercial Refrigeration Contractor of the Year — uses a cylinder drop-off program provided by a United Refrigeration branch in Woodside, NY. Up until now, Eggert hasn't used recycled R-22, because he had stocked up on fresh supplies well in advance. Soon, however, the many R-22 systems Fire & Ice technicians have installed will need to be replaced with R-410A equipment, and Eggert intends to keep more reclaimed R-22 on hand.
Eggert predicts more contractors will be more dedicated to refrigerant reclamation as the price of R-22 starts to climb.
“Especially if they want to graduate to larger jobs that require larger refrigerant charges; they need to realize they can get paid for recovering the refrigerant, reclaiming it, and for putting it back in,” Eggert says. “When word gets out that it's a valid way to make money, they'll reclaim more.”
Bob Blanchard, commercial service sales consultant for Busby's, Inc., an Augusta, GA-based commercial contractor, adds a refreshing commentary that gets to the heart of the matter: procrastination.
“Everybody had time to make the recovery process less painful than it's been,” Blanchard says. “The fact that we have very little R-22 recovered, and had 22 years to do it (since the Montreal Protocol), speaks significantly about our reluctance to recover it. We ignored it until two years ago. The 2010 date wasn't a secret.”
Blanchard follows up R-410A equipment proposals to customers with a letter that explains the EPA legislation simply, and states the importance of moving to R-410A systems.
For an official Environmental Protection Agency brochure related to the R-22 phaseout, visit: contractingbusiness.com/refrigeration/epa_technician_brochure_R22_phaseout_0324
For a listing of EPA-certified refrigerant reclaimers, visit: contractingbusiness.com/refrigeration/epa_list_certified_refrigerant_reclaimers_0324