Dawn of a new A/C system era

Tips to prepare for the switch from R-134a to HFO-1234yf refrigerants.

Air conditioning used to be one of the service technologies that didn’t change much from year to year. The negative effects of R-12 on the ozone layer, the resulting transition to R-134a, and the regulations related to the recovery and recycling of refrigerant changed all that. Now in 2012, we’re on the brink of yet another transition— the switch to HFO-1234yf. This new refrigerant, destined to bring a cascade of changes to the A/C service landscape, is coming soon to a service bay near you. To be ready, you need to be aware and informed.

Q: We’ve heard that cars with HFO-1234yf will be here soon. When’s it actually going to get here?

A: Some domestic models will be using this new refrigerant this spring, with some Subaru models already at dealerships. The Cadillac ATS is also expected to be released by mid-year with a factory fill of HFO-1234yf. Dealerships will need to consider service equipment for HFO-1234yf this year. This may also be the case for collision shops, depending on whether they perform A/C work in-house. Aftermarket shops will need to consider HFO-1234yf-ready equipment within the next couple of years.

Q: Will HFO-1234yf cylinders and containers resemble those of R-134a?

A: First of all, there will be no small containers of HFO-1234yf to placate the DIY market. R-134a cylinders are colored blue, while HFO-1234yf cylinders will be white with a red band. Although the size of an HFO-1234yf cylinder has not yet been determined, it’s expected that the cylinder size will be less than 30 lbs. Also, as is required by EPA, the new refrigerant will require unique fitting sizes so as to minimize the chances of refrigerant cross-contamination.

Q: Will the cost of HFO-1234yf be about the same as R-134a?

A: No, initial estimates claim that HFO-1234yf will be ten times as costly as the current price for R-134a. However, there are a couple of factors that should be considered to keep cost in the proper context.

First, the price of HFO-1234yf will initially reflect limited manufacturing volumes. So, as the availability of this new refrigerant increases with additional manufacturing volume, it should help towards bringing the cost down.

Second, today’s systems leak much less than older systems, resulting in a reduced need for recharging. The system leak rate today is about 12 grams of refrigerant per year, which translates to about six years of vehicle age before the system will require recharge service.

Q: Does the transition to HFO-1234yf mean our shop will need a new recovery/recycling machine?

A: Yes, unique service fittings as well as different performance criteria will dictate that you use a refrigerant recovery and recycling machine dedicated to the new refrigerant. Of special note is that the machine will not recover refrigerant until it first identifies the purity of refrigerant through an integrated refrigerant identifier. If the refrigerant to be recovered does not pass the purity test, the system must be evacuated with recovery-only equipment and disposed of properly. SAE standard J2927 defines the performance criteria for the refrigerant identifier portion of the machine and SAE J2843 defines the performance criteria for the recovery-recycling portion.

Q: Will all refrigerant identifiers for HFO-1234yf be integrated into a recovery/recycling machine?

A: No, stand-alone identifiers will also be available for the new refrigerant as an independent tool to help prevent cross-contamination of refrigerants. When shopping for a compliant identifier, ensure that it shows a label stating, “Certified to meet J2912.”

Q: Can I use my current electronic leak detector to test for leaks in a system charged with HFO-1234yf?

A: No, you will need to get a new leak detector for the new refrigerant, and the detector must meet the minimum performance criteria outlined in SAE J2913. Detectors meeting this standard must bear a label stating, “Design certified by (name of testing lab) to meet SAE J2913.” You may also have an additional leak detection option in the not-too-distant future. SAE is currently working on a standard—designated as J2970 — that addresses leak detection using hydrogen-nitrogen tracer gases. This standard has not yet been finalized.

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