• Consumers, Contractors and Coping with the R-22 Phaseout

    Jan. 1, 2010
    Remove all the hand wringing about the ultimate replacement of R-22 from the marketplace, and it is the contractor who is the last connection before the industry and the end user: the consumer. We interviewed leaders at ACCA and RSES for their assessment and spoke with a nationally recognized contractor

    Amid heightened concern and interest of the HVACR community over the issue of the R-22 phaseout, it's sometimes a reflexive action to disengage from thinking too deeply about the person at the end of the channel: the consumer.

    Yet, as the phaseout begins and the entire industry witnesses both a top-to-bottom emphasis on more efficient equipment and a decrease of R-22 usage, the spear of this change for the consumer will be the contractor.

    Now, with the EPA ruling issued, how well prepared is the contractor community to both meet the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities?

    Industry experts seem to agree that first and foremost is the issue of education. “The biggest challenge for the industry as a whole is the staggering number of contractors and technicians who don't understand the fundamentals of the refrigeration cycle or that replacement refrigerants are not mysterious — only different in terms of pressure-temperature relationships,” says Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES) Executive Vice President Mark Lowry. Lowry notes that because contractors don't face “compulsory motivation” to gain additional knowledge.

    Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) Vice President Glen Hourahan sees the sizing and selection of systems as a major challenge for contractors. “Contractors will need to follow OEM guidance when sizing/selecting systems for high ambient temperature locations [e.g., roof mounting in southern climates],” Hourahan says. Also, because of the larger size of R-410A condensers and evaporation, it will create additional challenges when replacing current equipment, he says.

    Despite the hurdles of continuing education and equipment issues, there are opportunities. New technology gives an advantage to the contractors who understand it and introduce it into their marketplace in a fashion that the consumer understands. “It provides the opportunity to expand their market share and perhaps improve their margins, by excellence in customer service,” says Hourahan. “Having the answers to customer questions before the customers know what their questions will be has been one key to the success of professional HVAC contractors.”

    Both organizations, RSES and ACCA, promise to continue their tradition of providing current, relevant information to help that contractor who believes in technical expertise to succeed.

    “RSES has been teaching about the differences between R-22 and replacement refrigerants since the 1990s when EPA certification became mandatory for handling CFCs and HCFCs,” says Lowry. “Further, we have published numerous technical bulletins and articles in the RSES Journal specifically concerning R-410A.”

    RSES provides articles for free, as they see increased demand from contractors seeking answers. “Questions such as ‘Do I have to be certified to handle R-410A?’ have become so routine, we posted the information online,” says Lowry. [Available at www.rses.org/410A.]

    Hourahan describes ACCA as the “honest broker” of technical support for contractors as they began their internal transition. “ACCA has produced technical guidance for contractors that addressed system sizing/selection, ‘drop in’ replacements, lubricants, line-set considerations, retrofit challenges, and the importance of clean, dry, and tight refrigerant circuits,” Hourahan says. “Going into the future, ACCA will continue to provide objective technical guidance and support the training efforts of local HARDI distributors.”

    How do these industry leaders view the interaction between the R-22 phaseout, contractors and its impact on HARDI wholesalers?

    “HARDI wholesalers' counter personnel spend so much time trying to explain the basics of systems to their customers who don't understand why components fail, or seem to fail, that it impacts their ability to help the wholesaler in more profitable activities,” Lowry says. He puts it in context by quoting Larry Brewer, [HARDI member] of Georgetown, TX-based INSCO Distributing: “The better educated my customers are, the more profitable my branch is.” Lowry emphasizes a fundamental approach necessary for making a smooth transition from one technology to another: improved knowledge.

    Hourahan describes HARDI members as a “fulcrum between the OEM and the contractor and, as such, are a key element in a successful refrigerant transformation. HARDI members are well positioned to help contractors learn installation instructions for new product lines. In this regard, distributors have a unique opportunity to ensure that contractors observe the industry-created, ANSI-recognized requirements detailed in the HVAC Quality Installation Specification.” [Available at www.acca.org/quality/.]

    Is there a final word on this R-22 phaseout and contractors? Probably not. But Ray Isaac, president of Rochester, NY-based Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning and winner of Contracting Business magazine's Contractor of the Year 2002, puts things in perspective.

    “As a professional contractor, I always take the glass half full approach. For the prepared, and as long as there is nothing injurious to our industry members in the new ruling from the EPA,” says Isaac, serving as current chairman of NATE, “we see it as an opportunity. What better selling feature could you have than to offer something the government mandates; it's good for the environment, improves efficiencies, raises the selling price and maybe margins, and elevates the technical requirements of the industry by creating a barrier of entry for areas that don't have licensing. The key, of course, is to ensure that there is enforcement of the new ruling. Otherwise, only those individuals who are doing things right will be punished.”

    Tom Pericˊ is the editor of HVACR Distribution Business. Contact him at 856/874-0049 or [email protected].