Why is air conditioning being made so expensive?

Women, minorities hardest hit.

I hate summer.  To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets, I’m using the word HATE, here, about summer.  This year, humidity has been added to the heat of inland Southern California, creating a joyous environment in which bugs thrive and arthritis flares up like it’s January.

No, I don’t have arthritis yet, at least not as far as I know.  My neighbor does.  I do get twinges in my right knee, where I was operated on 20 years ago.  And my household does have bugs this summer.

But I’m writing about heat today because I had my air conditioning unit serviced yesterday, and it cost $50 a pound to refill it with Freon.  It cost less than half of that for my last refill, in 2007.  (The Freon refill was aside from having the capacitor in the condenser/compressor replaced, which was another $205.)

This was used Freon, mind you.  Under the Montreal Protocol of 1987, the US is phasing out the use of R-22 Freon, the refrigerant which is held responsible for depletion of the ozone layer, and which is used by virtually all household units.  The EPA plan for compliance with the Montreal Protocol involves reducing the allowances for the manufacture of R-22 over time.  According to the existing plan, there should still be plenty of newly manufactured R-22 to service existing units this year – although as of 1 January 2010, US manufacturers could no longer produce new units containing R-22.

But there’s been a hitch in the plan.  The EPA has created a problem with the availability of R-22.  For the years 2012-14, the agency has not issued formal allowances for the production of R-22.  At the end of 2011, the EPA proposed reducing the allowances for 2012-14 by figures between 11% and 47%, which is a bigger reduction than originally envisioned.  The EPA wants to accelerate the reduction in R-22 production.

But the formal allowances for the years in question have still not been set.  Everyone who writes on the web about air conditioning gives a summary like this one at ChicagoBoyz:

The market for R-22 is completely locked down and in a total state of chaos. Rumors are flying, and contractors don’t know who to believe or what to do.

In addition, it is time for us to begin ordering our air conditioning equipment to sell this summer. Nobody has any idea at all what to do about the dry R22 units. Will they be allowed to be sold? Will the cost be prohibitive with the new allocations/pricing on R22?

All this and more, courtesy of the Environmental Protection Administration.

So if your air conditioner conks out this summer in your house or business, or if you own a convenience store and a refrigeration unit goes down, or if you work in a restaurant and a walk in cooler goes down, expect that bill to be WAY higher than you thought it would be.

This was my experience yesterday.  The A/C tech said as far as he knew, no new R-22 is being produced at all.  What he knows for sure is that his employer is using only recycled R-22 to charge people’s home units.  That’s the R-22 that costs $50 a pound, more than twice what newly produced R-22 cost in 2007.

Of course, what people with old R-22 units are supposed to do is buy new units, which will use “ozone-friendly” refrigerants.  The whole system must be replaced – inside as well as outside – so the cost will be $5,000 and up for central A/C units.  For the size of my home, it will probably run a minimum of $7-8,000.  My unit was installed new in March of 2003, so it is just short of 10 years old.  Frankly, I would expect it to continue operating well for another 10 years, but the EPA has other ideas.

In 2011, the EPA noted a national oversupply of R-22, and apparently now seeks to reduce the production allowances more rapidly because of that one-time observation.  But outside of the southern and southern plains states, which were extremely hot last summer, much of the nation had below-average temperatures.  I only had to turn my A/C on twice (for a few hours each time) in all of 2011.  In 2012, however, the humidity coupled with high heat has made A/C essential for my health.  I have had asthma symptoms exactly twice in my life, and August 2012 has been one of those two times.  The other occurred more than 30 years ago.  Running the A/C at least part of the day enables me to breathe properly.

The other problem I have experienced this month is a mite infestation, caused by my mistake of sleeping with the windows open at night (something I have done safely in this house every summer since 2004).  The long streak of exceptionally, epically high humidity – more than three weeks with nighttime averages of 60-75%, which is unheard of here – is the source of this problem.  Running the A/C helps alleviate it.

There are human health reasons why A/C is essential in at least some summers in most of the United States.  Humidity is a plague in the dusty, arid Southwest.  It moves things around in the air that in most years never move at all, and encourages the growth of things that usually can’t survive in the dry conditions.

Yet I wonder how many people in my area are unable to afford to have their Freon refilled, or who have no real financial prospect in the next decade of getting a new air conditioning unit.  How many are on unemployment right now, or on Social Security?  How many are fortunate to have one or two jobs in their household, and can just make ends meet, but have nothing extra?  I’ve met people in my town who don’t even have A/C, and who normally rely in the summer on opening their windows at night.  But that’s not an option for most people this year.

Interestingly, on the matter of ozone depletion, analytical studies and new, comprehensive satellite data obtained since the 1980s have thrown serious doubt on the theory that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) deplete the ozone.  This is the theory behind the Montreal Protocol and the phasing out of Freon.  Especially since 2007, when a major study based on years of satellite observations was published, mainstream scientists have questioned the validity of the ozone-depletion theory.

The upper ozone layer is far from uniform, it turns out, and exhibits complex dynamics that can’t be represented properly by the simplistic assumptions of the ozone-depletion theory.  Ozone is so variable in a 24-hour period that it is a real challenge to determine which observations are seminal and which merely reflect ozone’s inherent variability.  The sun’s 11-year storm cycle has been discovered to correlate with ozone trends, but the effects remain unquantified.  According to the 2007 study of satellite data on the atmosphere, 60% of the observed ozone depletion over the north and south poles is unexplained.  In any case, the ozone deficits at the poles recover on an annual basis – and vary widely on a diurnal basis.

The bottom line is that we don’t know very much about what’s going on with the ozone layer.  Do we know enough to decide that air conditioning has to be made more expensive, for people who need it but can’t necessarily afford it if it costs more?  For a lot of people, the issue is considerably more than sweating and being tired because of the heat for a few weeks.  In that regard, I’ve been hit with a double-whammy this year, with mites and breathing problems, and I wonder how many others have been as well.

It’s very easy to dismiss what other people are going through if it isn’t happening to you.  But intemperate conditions that require artificial adjustments like air conditioning can happen in most places people live, and in any given year.  It’s basically inhuman to be dismissive about the importance of air conditioning for modern life: life in which people who aren’t rich live well and are healthy, rather than being preyed upon by everything in nature.

That is modern life: the non-rich having access to comfort and healthy conditions.  That’s the definition.  If we are squeezing the non-rich out of self-maintained middle-class life, including affordable basics like air conditioning, we are on the wrong track.  We cannot simply continue jerking each other around with ever-tightening regulation.  The least able to pay are always the hardest hit.  And 99% of the time, as with every environmental fad, we have no idea what we’re doing anyway.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

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13 thoughts on “Why is air conditioning being made so expensive?”

  1. Sorry about troubles and your mites, but isn’t it better/more efficient/far less costly to buy a few new room ACs and spot cool the place?

    (I’m rather fond of that movie)

    1. why no problem, foots.

      I was going to suggest buying a house where the weather wasn’t usually so extreme, nut i figured that the opticon was too much the wise consumer to buy a house without having analyzed the costs and being assured that she was making a wise investment.

    2. I think FOOTSIE was complimenting me, gnadige fuster. But I’m sure your insightful comments were also appreciated.

      The local weather guys can’t find a historical record of a previous humidity wave like the one we’ve experienced this month. Not even the most diligent research would have turned up the possibility.

      I suspect that inland SOCAL did have such a humidity wave during the Dalton MInimum from 1790 to 1830. The current solar minimum is being compared to the Dalton Minimum. (Which is better than being compared to the Maunder Minimum.)

  2. Have you looked into Evaporative Cooling?

    I had one in my last home and until the thermometer climbed north of 100 degrees, it kept the house comfortable.

    No freon and they operate much more cheaply than AC units. They work well in low humidity climates like SoCal. Increased humidity lessens their effectiveness but a semi-desert like SoCal cannot achieve the truly high levels of humidity present in places like Fl, Georgia and Houston where evaporative coolers don’t work well.

    Something like the portable cooler I linked to might be the answer you’re looking for, which in no way obviates the EPA’s fanaticism.

    1. LOL! “North of 100 degrees” is ops normal here in the summer. The issue with this summer is the humidity, which we normally DON’T have. I’ve lived in Tampa FL, Norfolk VA, and Corpus Christi TX, all of which are very humid in the summer. And the last month here has been very much like those other areas.

      110 is actually quite comfortable in the downstairs here, even without A/C — if it’s dry outside. I can go for days without the A/C in a dry summer regime, which typically sees temps bottom in the low 60s and hit 104-108 in the afternoon. Humidity of course modifies the temperature swings, so that you don’t get the much-needed cooling at night.

      The effects of the humidity have been catastrophic this year, frankly. It will probably be months before my home is entirely free of mites. For now, I hope to finish the season with the A/C I have. I don’t mind to put in new central A/C when I can afford it, and after the last month, I’m interested in a unit with HEPA filtering technology and dehumidifying capability.

      All of this was available 15 years ago, and was cheaper 5 years ago. Now it costs more. The alternatives to Freon are costly (one reason is that the other gases have to be put under greater pressure to have the same effect, so it takes a more powerful, more electricity-guzzling unit), and unless we change our national policy on rushing into poorly documented environmental experiments, we’ll be phasing out all but one of the alternatives over the next 25 years.

      But I appreciate the recommendations from folks. I haven’t need A/C this much since I left Tampa in 2001, but the cost to keep it going has skyrocketed.

      1. If you don’t mind the suggestion, Optcon (don’t know whether it applies in your case). Look into additionally insulating your home (if you haven’t already done so). We recently (several years ago) added exterior insulation and replaced windows/doors with double/triple glass. Our heating and air conditioning costs plummeted by over 50%. The additional 30cm of fiberglass under the roof and 15cm closed-cell foam on the exterior walls made a huge difference.

  3. I had to have my A/C on my truck recharged after they banned R-22. If you were certified A/C machanic you could purchase a product called F-22 which was compatable with R-22 and it was a lot cheaper than R-22. This was after they were filling every thing with R-134. It doesn’t take a genius to figure why this wasn’t made common knowledge.

  4. When the greenies were agitating for the signing of the Montreal Protocol, practically every small refrigerating and air conditioning unit on earth contained R-12, R-22 or R-502, the leakage and spillage of which was supposedly the cause of blindness in Patagonian sheep and keeping Chilean schoolkids at home. Television news breathlessly reported this growing catastrophe on a daily basis. The protocol eliminated the production and use of CFCs in developed countries but didn’t ban them in the third world. Even now they’re manufactured in India, for instance. The important point is that every CFC ever produced is leaking into the atmosphere. It could be destroyed but it isn’t. If the theories of Rowland and Molina, the originators of this fiasco, were true, the shriveling of the ozone layer would still be going on, Argentine sheep would still be bumping into things and every now adult in southern Chile would be covered with melanoma. But that hasn’t happened.

    1. California will never ban air conditioning as it plans to balance the budget by taxing all usage of air above the mandated normal level as defined in the amended tax code.

  5. Welcome to our glorious new age of artificial scarcity and mandated poverty. Or is it mandated scarcity and artifical poverty? Anyway, the high cost is a feature, not a bug. That´s what you ice people get for leaving Europe!

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