Lead Runner in the Refrigerant Relay

Jan. 1, 2009
The wholesale HVACR distributor provides a valuable service to contractors who may be seeking guidance in the management of used refrigerants.

In Part I of our Green Giants series, we reported on the stewardship-driven practices of some of the HVAC industry's leading manufacturers. Those achievements include large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, use of water-based cleaning systems, and a greater preservation of raw materials. (See Green Giants’)

In Part II, we explore efforts leading HVACR industry distributors are taking to assist contractors with improved refrigerant reclamation services. If you've got full cylinders of used refrigerant gathering dust in your storage area, it's time to get up to speed on proper refrigerant management. And the first place to start is with your distributor. The wholesale HVACR distributor provides a valuable service to contractors who may be seeking guidance in the management of used refrigerants.

Some distributors have taken steps to establish their own licensed reclamation facilities. Others will send used refrigerant out to a certified, licensed reclaimer. Either way, they know the rules, and can steer HVACR contractors in the right direction.

Frank Meier, president and CEO, Meier Supply Co., Johnson City, NY, says Meier Supply is right in step with reclamation activity at each of its 17 locations in New York and Pennsylvania.“Wholesalers generally are trying to make it easier for HVAC contractors to reclaim refrigerant. We're all aware that we're going to be short on R-22. The shorter the supplies are, the more expensive it'll be,” Meier says. Meier Supply tests and determines the quality of refrigerants, evacuates reclaim cylinders, and pays the contractor for the refrigerant. It then returns the refrigerant to the manufacturer.

Meier says the “reclaim your R-22 now” message needs to heard with every day that passes, because, in his opinion, it's still not popular among the majority of contractors. He says the urgency of the R-22 situation can't be overemphasized. To help grease the wheels, Meier Supply is establishing “Refrigerant Solutions” reclamation sites, and is increasing communication with contractors. “We're sharpening our focus on ways to increase our communication to our customer base,” Meier says. “The Environmental Protection Agency says that without the reclaimed gas there won't be enough gas for servicing R-22 equipment after 2010.”

Bill Bergamini, president, Illco, Inc., Countryside, IL, told Contracting Business he's seen this all before. Illco, Inc. — formerly Illinois Supply Co. — was working with contractors during the R-11, R-12, and R-502 reclamations of the 1990s.

“We started a full reclamation and recycling program in 1991. It includes consolidation of mass amounts of like refrigerants,” Bergamini explains. “We regularly accept 30-, 50-, 92-, 125-, 240-, and 1000-pound cylinders, but will take any size cylinder a contractor might have. We've been committed to this since the phaseout of CFCs, and we've not missed a beat. After that first transition was nearing completion, activity slowed down, but we've stayed with the service, and now we're back in action with R-22 recycling.”

Illco serves the refrigerant, equipment, and parts needs of HVACR contractors in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, northwest Indiana, and southern Wisconsin. Contractors can take used refrigerant to any of Illco's seven locations. Cylinders are weighed and tagged, and the contractor receives a claim check. From there, it's sent to Illco's Countryside headquarters for processing.

Illco's refrigerant recycling program has been in place for 16 years, “so I don't think it's a mystery to contractors,” Bergamini says. “I don't know that education is the problem. Still, we often include reminders with mailed invoices, and we have posters in the stores. We want to make new customers aware of the service.”

Bergamini believes stewardship in the HVACR industry has improved across the board, starting with vastly improved manufacturing processes.

“From the time of the CFC phaseout in the early 1990s, systems have gotten much tighter than before. Leaks and other system problems are not as frequent as they used to be. Today, I don't see anywhere near the amounts of refrigerant lost. That by itself is a big improvement,” Bergamini says.

Mark Westerback, refrigerant marketing manager for Johnstone Supply, Portland, OR says there's been a significant increase in R-410A training provided by manufacturers and distributors. Contractor “sticker shock” over R-22 prices helps to generate over-the-counter conversations about the phaseout, and the need to get up to speed on R-410A.

“Formal training is helping contractors become comfortable with R-410A, the phaseout of R-22 equipment and the new R-410A refrigerants and equipment,” Westerback says. There's also lots of informal education that involves telling contractors about the phaseout and reclamation programs,” Westerback says. “It's not any different from what we've been doing for years, there's just more of it.”

According to Westerback, more reclaimers are providing tank exchange programs, whereas five years ago there were very few tank exchange programs.

“What's most important for the industry is that the contractors are aware of their options, and take advantage of this valuable service,” he says.

Contractors are also recycling raw materials more frequently than before.

“I think there's a whole lot more recycling of metals because prices have been high,” Westerback says.

“More people today are recycling because they want to be environmentally responsible, and because there's some economic benefits,” says Chris Swanson, Johnstone Supply's marketing manager for commercial and specialty equipment. “There are more recycling opportunities than ever. Whether it's refrigerant, mercury, metal, or batteries, there's a recycling location near you. There haven't been broad sweeping changes in chemicals used, however we've seen more ‘earth-friendly’ coil cleaners. We've seen more awareness about those and they're just starting to be marketed.”

Johnstone Supply has offered mercury recycling assistance to HVAC contractors for the past eight years, in affiliation with the Thermostat Recycling Corporation (TRC), a non-profit group sponsored by Honeywell, White-Rodgers, and General Electric.

TRC facilitates the nationwide collection of all brands of used, wall-mounted mercury-switch thermostats so that the mercury can be purified for re-use. Collection takes place through HVACR wholesale outlets, HVAC contractors that meet certain size or location criteria, and local household hazardous waste facilities.

The TRC program is available to eligible participants throughout the U.S. Participating organizations pay only a one-time fee of $25 to obtain a collection bin - all other costs of the program are borne by the TRC. In 2006, the TRC collected more than 113,600 thermostats containing over 1,080 pounds of mercury.

The relationships HVACR distributors have forged with original equipment manufacturers and refrigerant producers make them a valuable repository of the most current procedures and practices. As the days fly by in 2009, they'll likely have even more information related to the R-22 phaseout, refrigerant pricing, and how to streamline the way you recycle refrigerant and other resources.

Contractors will face many business challenges in 2009. Refrigerant management doesn't have to be one of them.

NEXT MONTH: For some of the HVAC industry's best contractors, stewardship is a “natural” part of their businesses. (And, read what HARDI vice president Talbot Gee has to say about distributor progress in encouraging more refrigerant reclamation, at contractingbusiness.com, keywords “HARDI distributors.”)