It's Complicated

The automotive industry prepares for the next refrigerant, R1234yf.

The Mobile Air Conditioning Society (MACS) holds a convention and trade show each January. This impressive event brings techs and shop owners into direct contact with engineers who design A/C systems, government regulators who influence that design, and tool and equipment companies. It’s the only gathering I’ve seen that gets all of these people into the same room, along with subgroups like educators and trade associations.

The buzz for several years now has been about our next new refrigerant, R1234yf. For those who haven’t been following this issue, we’re changing refrigerants again due to regulations in Europe aimed at reducing automotive Green House Gas (GHG) emissions.

Many gases in the atmosphere, whether of natural or human origin, are classified as a greenhouse gas because they absorb infrared radiation (aka heat) and act like the glass enclosure of a greenhouse. Without them, the Earth’s surface would be much cooler than it is now. As GHG concentration increases, the greenhouse effect intensifies, causing significant changes in surface temperature and weather patterns.

Every greenhouse gas is assigned a Global Warming Potential (GWP) based on the most common greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2). If CO2 has a warming potential of 1, then R134a has a warming potential of about 1,400. A European Union regulation requires auto manufacturers to switch to a refrigerant with a warming potential of no more than 150 by the 2017 model year. R1234yf has a GWP of only 4, so that’s good, but to meet the timetable, car makers must begin the switch this year.

Climate science is driving a lot of automotive regulation, and it doesn’t matter where the regulation originates because it’s a world market and all automakers want to use the same refrigerant in every country where they sell cars. For similar reasons, the tool and equipment industry wants the same thing.

The problems is, at this point there is no good source of R1234yf. Right now the price is about $100 a pound, and production at the factory that would make it possible to lower the price has been delayed. I tried to learn why at the MACS Convention, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. Eventually the factory will be up and running, refrigerant will become available at a reasonable price, and the industry will begin to switch refrigerants over the next several model years.

Painful as it was, the change from R12 to R134a was a walk in the park compared to the change underway now, and what I’ve described here is just one of many problems. Getting this far hasn’t been easy, and there’s still a lot of work to be done, but at least the tools you’ll need to service cars with R1234yf are ready now.

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