DETROIT-Keeping older cars cool this summer is getting more expensive. The price of R-12, a refrigerant used in the air conditioners of an estimated 157 million cars and light trucks, has as much as doubled in recent weeks.
The Big 3 automakers and major import manufacturers have their own supplies of R-12 (also known by the trade name Freon) but won't disclose the price.
However, according to auto dealers and industry watchers, a 30-pound cylinder of the refrigerant costs auto dealers:
$575 at General Motors Corp.
$510 at Chrysler Corp.
$412.80 at Ford Motor Co.
$575 at Toyota Motor Sales
About $495 to $650 at other outlets such as warehouse distributors, wholesale clubs, automotive jobbers and national automotive chains.
Until about four to six weeks ago, automakers and distributors were charging $300 to $375 for the same amount of R-12, dealers said.
R-12 is a chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC, that damages the ozone layer. As a result of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, R-12 production ceased at the end of 1995.
All vehicles built after 1993 use the nonharmful R-134a refrigerant, which costs dealers about $100 for a 30-pound cylinder.
Some producers of R-12, such as AlliedSignal Inc., have sold virtually all of their inventories, but lack of supply is not the problem.
The bulk of the refrigerant is in the hands of distributors and wholesalers who have committed their supplies to their best customers and to those who buy it in large quantities, according to some industry watchers.
``The producers didn't want excessive inventory of R-12 on hand; they took orders from packagers and the OEs,'' said Frank Allison, executive director of the International Mobile Air Conditioning Association in Fort Worth, Texas. ``They built little over and above what the demand was.''
One multifranchise auto dealer who did not want to be named said that after some serious shopping around he recently spent $100,000 for 200 30-pound cylinders at $480 per cylinder and nine30-pound cylinders at $454 per cylinder.
``If nothing else, I'll sell it over the counter,'' he said.
The parts manager at one Chevrolet dealership said he has no choice but to pass the additional cost on to his customers.
A customer who paid $15 per pound for R-12 last summer, will pay about $35 per pound this summer, he said. ``There's no question about it; we can't possibly absorb a 60 percent increase,'' he said.
Bill Corcoran, vice president of public affairs for AlliedSignal, which manufactured R-12 until it was banned, said there is enough in the marketplace to meet demand. People who can't find it at their usual source are beginning to panic, creating a false demand, he said.
``People are concerned that if they don't act, today there won't be any tomorrow,'' Mr. Corcoran said.
``We don't think that's accurate.''
Simon Oulouhojian, president of the Mobile Air Conditioning Society in East Greenville, Pa., which provides technical information, training and communication about automotive air conditioning to its 1,450 members worldwide, said members report R-12 prices ranging from $495 to $600 per 30-pound cylinder.
``It's a feeding frenzy now,'' he said.
The price of R-12 includes a hefty federal excise tax. To encourage the phaseout of R-12, the federal government increased the excise tax to $5.80 per pound Jan. 1, 1996, up from $5.35 a pound. That means the price of a 30-pound cylinder includes $174 in taxes.
Christine Dibble, policy analyst in the Environmental Protection Agency's Stratospheric Protection Division, said the EPA estimates the current supply of R-12 at 80 million to 150 million pounds.
The auto industry will consume a cool 35 million to 40 million pounds this year.
Residential and commercial use, such as home air conditioners and supermarket refrigerator cases, will soak up another 25 million pounds in 1996, Ms. Dibble said.
She predicts ``spot shortages'' of R-12 this year and shortages in 1997. The supply will run out in 1998, she predicted.
When that happens, owners of vehicles that require R-12 will need to have the air conditioners converted to accept an environmentally safe refrigerant if they want to keep cool.
Big 3 and other manufacturers offer R-134a retrofit kits that range from about $200 to $900, depending on the vehicle. The price does not include labor.