Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My R-22 Adventure

So this winter was pretty mild by DC standards. We really only got one noteworthy snow, it didn't really shut anything down, and the winter was atypically warm. We had the added benefit of an excess of firewood, so we were able to generously supplement our heating cost by keeping the wood stove going overnight anytime the temperature dropped below freezing. Due to all this, I purposefully ignored failure of the heat pump on one side of our split level palatial estate. At worst when it got cold enough, the 'EM HEAT' would be triggered, turning on electrical heating elements, and hot air would be blown through the system, and I would open my wallet to fork out a few more dollars to the power company.

With the coming of summer, I switched the heat pumps over to 'cool' mode. As the days heated up, it became increasingly clear that the heat pump was just not functioning. I finally relented and the A/C experts were called in. An initial check of the coolant pressure in the unit revealed that there was no pressure and the coolant in the system was gone. Further investigation revealed that a vibration in the unit had caused one copper pipe in contact with another to wear through, venting the coolant. Here's where the full ignorance of the  federal government  as embodied by the EPA caused an expensive intrusion into my life.
To understand why a short history lesson is in order. In 1968 a couple of chemist noticed that CFC molecules reacted with ozone in such a way as to effectively remove them from the atmosphere. The scientist continued to study this effect and, upon discovering that the ozone layer around the earth was developing holes, raised an international outcry in 1984 that the released CFCs from cooling and heating systems (as well as aerosols) around the world were going to cause irreparable damage to the atmosphere and doom us all to a horrible skin cancer death. The whole story can be found here. This led to the passing of an international treaty in 1987 by the United Nations called the 'Montreal Protocol'. It was perhaps the first time that all the civilized nations in the world banded together to address a global man made threat. It was wonderful, noble, and breath taking. Tragically it was based on an acutely flawed scientific theory, and not really strictly adhered to by the signatories. But other than that, it was really great.

As pointed out here, a study in 2007 based on years of satellite observations, indicated that the 'hole in the ozone layer' was mostly nonsense as the ozone in the upper atmosphere is anything but uniform as it is well, air. This makes detection of a 'hole' somewhat problematic as air moves around. This has led to numerous scientist questioning the validity of the studies that led to the fore mentioned treaty. Common sense would lead one to wonder how the CFCs from the A/C units and aerosols, which even in their heyday represented one molecule in billions and billions of air molecules, somehow worked their way into the upper atmosphere and found the ozone molecules and reacted to them before they reacted to anything else like rain or dust, opening up a huge 'hole' in the atmosphere.

It should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention to the effect of 'Climate Change' zealots that the federal government and the current administration in particular is unwilling to reconsider this treaty based on new facts. Instead they have accelerated the adoption of the treaty, doing their best to save the human race from a painful and horrible death, or something like that.

At this point you are wondering what does all this have to do with a broken heat pump in northern Virginia? We had five options for addressing the broken heat pump, listed here in order of what one would guess at for cost in a world untouched by federal regulation:
  1. Buy fans, sweat, and hope it doesn't get too hot...
  2. Repair the leaky pipe and refill the system. 
  3. Leave the system in place and buy window units to cool that side of the house
  4. Replace just the aging outside unit. 
  5. Replace the whole system. 
As part of the accelerated implementation of the Montreal Protocol, the EPA has stopped the production and thus the availability of R-22, the CFC laden gas used by most heat pumps installed in the US. The laws of supply and demand have thus kicked in causing a dramatic multiplication of the cost of the remaining supply. Just five years ago, a recharge of our system from zero pressure would have cost us less than $100. At current rates, a recharge was estimated to cost over $800. Thus option 2 was a non-starter.

Selecting option 4 was similarly repugnant but for a slightly different reason. It turns out that foreign manufactures of these units have less trouble obtaining R-22 than what is available in the open market in the US. I suspect this is due to less stringent treaty adherence in such places as Mexico and China. They used to supply these units charged with coolant to make them more attractive to domestic installers (gotta love that free market adaptation to our onerous government regulations). It didn't take long for the government to close that loophole and prevent these units from entering in the US with stored coolant. 

Given this loophole closing action by the ever vigilant EPA, and perhaps their friends at the TSA, the cost of a new unit would just be additional expense on top of the cost of a recharge. If the aging inside unit sprung a leak, we would be back to another recharge cost and additional unit replacement cost. Option 4 was therefore a non-starter. It is worth noting here that these units are specifically designed for use with R-22 and the environmentally acceptable R-410 will not work in them. I have read where in some third world countries they have used natural gas as a replacement for R-22. The A/C experts assure me that given it's combustibility, such a replacement is highly dangerous as even closed systems don't always stay that way.

Option 3 became the cheapest approach. We only really needed to effectively cool two rooms in that part of the house. Window units, while tacky, were relatively cheap (<$100) and would probably do the job, albeit expensively from a power consumption viewpoint. They would not of course help up in the winter, and we would have to purchase some other option to help out in the fall. If we were to ever sell the house, we would have to repair or replace the non-working unit or take a hit in our asking price. There were similar concerns for option 1.

If you are guessing that we went with option 5, replacement of the whole system, you guessed correctly. The new system, which cost over $6000 installed, is based on R-410, and is an 'environmentally friendly' coolant system. We were fortunate that we could still afford such an installation. In my walks around the neighborhood, I have noticed several of my neighbors seem to have their windows open and fans going. I suspect, given that most of the houses in the neighborhood are of the same vintage, they have had similar failures but do not have the funds for a replacement. 

I find it outrageous that this ignorant government policy has transported my typical suburban neighborhood back 40 years to an era where many houses did not have A/C and relied on wood for heating. The next time you think that government regulations don't effect you, think again. I suspect this is just a small taste of what we are in for when the 'climate change' crowd gets their way. I also suspect that if Obamacare is not staunched,  we will see similar intrusions into our daily lives that will be even more onerous. 

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