No Safe Alternative

Gary Hansen is vice president of engineering for Red Dot Corp. Based in Seattle, Red Dot is a worldwide leader in the development of mobile HVAC systems and replacement parts for demanding applications, including commercial trucking, construction, agriculture, off-highway vehicles, and the military.

There's a rule of thumb in economics that says people react to price increases only when they can turn to substitutes. When Brand X raises the price of a class-8 tractor, you can bet that sales will fall because you can buy Brand Y or Z for less. Raise the price of diesel fuel, for which there is no direct replacement, and all you can do is keep on truckin'.

As someone who designs mobile heating and air-conditioning systems, I'd like to think there is no direct substitute for R-134a. It's the only refrigerant tested and accepted by government agencies and equipment manufacturers for new mobile A/C systems and R-12 retrofits.

As a consumer, I wish there were a direct alternative to 134a. It might have taken the sting out of last year's price spikes and the elevated prices that continue today.

But the fact is, there is no drop-in substitute for 134a.

People will say hydrocarbon refrigerants, marketed under such names as OZ-12, DURACOOL 12a, and HC-12a, can blow cold air for less cost. But what they're hawking could compromise the safety of your technicians and, at the very least, lead to one repair headache after another on your trucks and other equipment with air-conditioned cabs.

If you specify refrigerant or work on mobile A/C systems, there are many good reasons to be wary of hydrocarbons:

1. SAFETY. Hydrocarbon refrigerants may contain large quantities of propane, butane, or other gasses that are highly flammable. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says there is insufficient proof that hydrocarbons are safe for today's mobile A/C systems, which aren't designed to mitigate the serious risk of fire or explosion under the hood, inside the passenger compartment, or in the shop.

2. CONTAMINATION. Because hydrocarbons don't require unique charge fittings, there's no way for you to know that something other than 134a is in the vehicle you're working on. This not only is dangerous for the safety reasons outlined above, the potential to contaminate your recovery/recycling equipment is high. Use refrigerant identifiers in your shop and, when you detect something other than 134a, tell the customer and politely send him on his way.

3. WARRANTY. No vehicle manufacturer has endorsed or authorized the use of hydrocarbon refrigerants in its A/C systems for good reason: using non-OEM approved refrigerants can degrade gaskets, seals, hoses, and lubricants.

4. THEY MAY BE ILLEGAL. It's illegal to use flammable refrigerants in mobile A/C systems in 19 states and the District of Columbia, and federally the EPA has banned hydrocarbon refrigerants as a replacement for R-12.

Eventually, 134a will be phased out, not due to high costs but because of environmental regulations. The most promising replacement is R-152a, a refrigerant commonly used as an aerosol propellant. It's efficient: for every 16 ounces of refrigerant charge of 134a, a 152a system requires only ten ounces. And switching from 134a could cut greenhouse gas emissions from the A/C unit by more than 90 percent.

In October 2004, the Environment Ministers of the European Union agreed that 152a could be used as a replacement for 134a, kicking off a six-year phase-out timetable among EU countries starting in 2011. Currently, the refrigerant is the centerpiece of a demonstration project led by the Australia-United States Climate Action Partnership (CAP). The US Environmental Protection Agency, the Society of Automotive Engineers, and the Mobile Air Conditioning Society Worldwide are among the organizations involved.

R-152a is not a drop-in solution—it will require testing, safety mitigation, and minor changes to components to make it a safe, effective, and market-ready refrigerant. Until R-134a is banned and 152a is ready for widespread use, please be vigilant about hydrocarbons and use a refrigerant identifier to protect your technicians and equipment.

Hydrocarbon refrigerants are neither direct substitutes nor alternatives to 134a. As you start charging A/C systems in advance of the summer cooling season, remember that these cheap refrigerants aren't worth the risk.