DALLAS-The recent successful prosecution by the federal government of a tire dealer in Missouri for violating the Clean Air Act signaled an industry-wide warning to those servicing vehicle air conditioners: vent Freon into the atmosphere, and chances are the feds eventually are going to catch you. G & H Tire and Auto Inc. in Marlborough, Mo., found that out. Its owner, George Hofele, became the first person in the country convicted for repeatedly releasing the refrigerant during A/C work.
But the case has also demonstrated a lot of confusion on the part of automotive service technicians about what they can legally do while working on a vehicle's A/C unit.
For the second time in four months, the air conditioner in Erik Nelson's 1986 BMW was blowing nothing but hot air.
But this time, when he took the car to a shop in the Love Fieldarea, he really felt some heat.
``I had said if there was nothing major, could they just fill it with Freon,'' said Mr. Nelson, 34, an architectural engineer.
Citing federal environmental laws, service technicians told him they could not knowingly recharge a leaking compressor and Mr. Nelson would have to make some repairs. Those repairs ended up costing him more than $800.
Only his mechanic knows for sure whether he really needed all the repairs to revive his air-conditioning unit. Though federal laws regulating the production and use of Freon have changed, federal and industry officials said the shop was absolutely wrong in claiming that a leaking compressor cannot legally be refilled with Freon-a claim that is not all that uncommon this time of year.
After several months of heavy use, some air-conditioning units in older cars will need to be recharged with Freon to maintain their chill.
``We would like people to get things fixed,'' said Phyllis Putter, stratospheric ozone coordinator at the regional Environmental Protection Agency office in Dallas.
``But that is not what the law states. You can get (the air-conditioning unit) recharged (with Freon) without getting it repaired.''
A/C repairs, once a fairly straightforward procedure, were greatly complicated by Congress' passage of the controversial 1990 amendments to the Clear Air Act.
The act requires chemical manufacturers to cease production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are substances that are believed to damage the Earth's ozone layer.
Freon-a popular brand name for the refrigerant R-12-is the inert gas used in a car's air-conditioning compressor to cool the interior. It is a CFC and can no longer be produced after Dec. 31, 1995. (The type of Freon used in home air-conditioning units won't be affected until later this decade.)
That much has been clear for the past four years. More confusing are all the rules and regulations that put the Clean Air Act into effect, say those in the air-conditioning repair industry.
In sun-drenched Dallas, that can have all sorts of ramifications.
``The confusion last year was rampant,'' said Frank Allison, executive director for the International Mobile Air Conditioning Association, a trade association that represents the car air-conditioning industry. ``I don't think it will be as bad this year as last, but there is still some confusion.''
For anyone facing air-conditioning repairs, there are some basic facts to keep in mind:
Most cars built before 1993 have air-conditioning units that use Freon. A few '93 models use a replacement substance called R-134a, which is said to be environmentally friendly. Virtually all 1994 models are equipped with R-134a air-conditioning units.
Although Freon won't be phased out until the end of 1995, its supply is declining. DuPont, the largest manufacturer of Freon, will only produce 25 percent of the amount this year that it did in 1986. Nonetheless, Mr. Allison said supplies are adequate. But be prepared to pay about $15 a pound for Freon-and the typical automobile compressor holds about three pounds. Two summers ago, it sold for $5 a pound or less.
Even after production of Freon ends on Jan. 1, 1996, a supply will still be available. Some businesses such as new-car dealerships and the larger air-conditioning repair shops have been stockpiling the stuff for the last few years.
In addition, old Freon can be refurbished, and that might provide an additional source. Depending on whom you ask, Freon should be available in adequate amounts for the next two to six years.
Compressors that now use Freon can be converted to R-134a some of them for $200 or less. However, few shops have much experience with the procedure.
Because Freon is a CFC, it cannot be deliberately released into the environment, Ms. Putter said. The intent of that rule is to prohibit repair shops from haphazardly venting Freon from a compressor into the atmosphere.
A leaking compressor, she explained, is not considered venting. It is perfectly legal for someone to take a car to a service facility and have a leaking compressor refilled with Freon, she said.
Ms. Putter said she agrees with Mr. Allison that confusion-and not outright fraud-prompts some air-conditioning shops to insist that a leaking compressor be repaired before it can be refilled with Freon. ``I think it's a misunderstanding of what venting is,'' she said.
The EPA suggests that consumers consider converting their Freon-based units to R-134a when major repairs are needed to old compressors.
Sooner or later, officials say, the supply of Freon will be exhausted and all older compressors will have to be converted.
But Mr. Allison said this might not be the time to do it. As long as Freon is still available, consumers might be best served by going ahead and having their old compressors repaired, he said.
This Associated Press report ran in the Dallas Morning News.