By: Tracy Martin

There are big changes underway with more coming to air conditioning for automobiles and light trucks made in or imported to the United States. New EPA regulations will require new vehicles offered for sale starting in the 2021 MY to use a refrigerant other than R134a. OEMs have also been incentivized to use these alternatives before the phase-out deadline as they can earn emissions credits by making the change early. These tradable credits can help manufacturers comply with new, stricter fuel economy standards. Remember the switch from R-12 to R-134a? Will this refrigerant transition be the same? Not exactly.

R-134a is not going to disappear in the same way as CFCs (chlorofluorocarbon) or R-12 did. R-12 was phased out in accordance to the Montreal Protocol in the 1990s, as it was found that the chlorine contained in the refrigerant was creating a hole in the ozone layer when it was vented into the atmosphere. This phase out came in two parts. The first was that no vehicles from 1994 on could be manufactured or imported that used CFC refrigerants. A/C systems in new cars had to use hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) or what is commonly called R-134a. The second part of the phase out was the mandatory reduction in the supply of R-12 and U.S. production and imports of CFCs containing chlorine were cut. No R-12 refrigerant has been manufactured since 1996 and the only supplies left are “virgin” (original containers) or refrigerant that has been legally recovered and reclaimed.

In 2006, the European Union (EU) came out with a directive known as 2006/40/EC. Their goal was to reduce the emissions of fluorinated greenhouse gases from automotive air conditioning systems with a gradual phase out across the EU. The first major date of the phase out was 2008, then 2011, and then finally on Jan. 1, 2017, any new vehicle using a refrigerant with a Global Warming Potential (GWP) higher than 150 would be banned.

Regarding refrigerants, the EU’s action was a precursor for what transpired the US. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a new rule under their Significant New Alternatives Policy, or SNAP, called Rule 20. This rule dictated the eventual phase out of HFC refrigerants, including R-134a, across the United States. The basis of the rule was that by the year 2020, or MY 2021, all new manufactured or imported vehicles would not be able to use R-134a. There is room for a few exclusions, but these can only push the date back to 2025.

Why is R-134a being phased out? Unlike R-12, R-134a does not contain chlorine and does not damage the ozone layer. However, R-134a has a high GWP, which is a relative measure of how much heat a greenhouse gas traps in the atmosphere when compared to the amount of heat trapped by carbon dioxide (CO2). Those familiar with 5-gas analyzer readings from a vehicle’s exhaust know that high CO2 readings indicate a nearly ideal air-fuel ratio, efficient combustion and optimum catalytic converter operation. While high CO2 readings from a car’s exhaust may seem like a good thing, CO2 is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. GWP is expressed as a factor of carbon dioxide where its GWP is equal to 1. The GWP for R-134a refrigerant is 1,430, making it 1,430 times more harmful than carbon dioxide when released into the atmosphere.

There are three refrigerants that can be used to replace R-134a: R-1234yf, R-152a and R-744. More on these replacements later. An interesting fact about the phase out of R-134a is that unlike the switch from R-12 to R-134a, there will be no mandatory reduction in production or imports of the refrigerant, which means that supplies of R-134a should be stable both in availability and cost. However, the demand will start shrinking with each passing year because no new vehicles after 2020 will be able to use it. Over the next 10 or so years, vehicles that use R-134a will inevitably end up in junk yards and the production of R-134a will be reduced, then disappear completely. Instead of a phase out, R-134a will be economically starved out of existence.

R-1234yf refrigerant

To date, most auto manufacturers are using the hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) refrigerant R-1234yf as the replacement of choice for R134a. The 2013 Cadillac XTS was the first U.S.made vehicle to use the new refrigerant. With a GWP of 4 (instead of 1,430 for R-134a) R-1234yf is more environmentally friendly. Unlike the transition between R-12 and R-134a, there will be no conversions between R-134a and R-1234yf. Due to the price of R-1234yf, some DIYers and a few shops may make under-the-table conversions. The two systems have different designs, components and service ports. General Motors, Chrysler and other manufacturers have chosen R-1234yf as the refrigerant to replace R-134a. Honeywell, DuPont and other major manufacturers are pushing the use of R-1234yf as the best alternative to R-134a, but this trend is not without controversy.

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