Let's jump right in and discuss what's on everybody's mind about the so-called ``Drop-in Refrigerants'' that are showing up in service shops everywhere. First of all, let's use the correct terminology-``Alternative Refrigerants.''
If you say ``drop-in,'' a lot of folks think that means exactly what it implies: ``Drop that baby into any air conditioning system with the existing refrigerant, no component change, no oil consideration or change, no fittings or labeling change.''
Wrong!! Can't happen!
The Environmental Protection Agency's final SNAP (Significant New Alternate Policy) rule, effective July 13, 1995, states:
All CFC-12 (a.k.a. R-12 or Freon) must be removed from the motor vehicle's A/C system prior to retrofitting;
Each refrigerant must be used only with a set of service fittings which is unique to that refrigerant in order to prevent cross-contamination;
Each refrigerant must be used only with equipment dedicated to that type of refrigerant; and
No substitute refrigerant can be used to top off a system that uses another refrigerant.
Possibility #1: Before April 18, 1994, the birth of the SNAP program, anybody and their grandmother could and probably did make and/or use anything that would work in an automotive air conditioner to make it cold.
Possibility #2: Unfortunately, R-134a was sold in small cans and this could easily have been mistaken as a top-off refrigerant for R-12.
No longer produced, R-12 is the refrigerant commonly known by the trade name Freon. Its use is being phased out because of its potential to harm the Earth's ozone layer.
Possibility #3: OZ-12, a flammable refrigerant, was produced, sold and used in at least 50,000 vehicles.
Possibility #4: Illegally imported, ``black market'' R-12 refrigerant.
Tests performed on confiscated illegal R-12 have found 80-percent of this bootlegged refrigerant to be contaminated, with a moisture content of at least 50 percent.
And while the EPA can only impose fines on the importer for violations, if you get caught with this illegal stuff, the U.S. Customs Service and the Internal Revenue Service can indeed prosecute you, the buyer, and confiscate the refrigerant.
Today, your chances are much greater to contaminate those very expensive 30-pound containers of R-12 you've been stockpiling in your shop. A ``refrigerant identifier'' is your only solution to this very serious problem.
There are some sophisticated identifiers that will sample the refrigerant in a vehicle and will identify R-12, R-134a, R-22, flammable refrigerants or others.
More good news: At present, the EPA has a new SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) rule on the table awaiting adoption: SAE J1771-``Criteria for Refrigerant Identification Equipment.'' With the potential of refrigerant contamination in mobile A/C systems and equipment, this document estab-lishes the criteria for equipment that identifies refrigerant composition.
Look for this new rule to be in place next year at this time-and a higher price on the identifier because of this rule.
You make the call. We have 15 different refrigerants out there: four are acceptable; three are unacceptable; and action is pending on eight others.
I'm going to leave you with some thought-provoking questions:
1. Let's assume you purchase an alternative refrigerant and retrofit your customers' vehicles. Then a customer takes his vehicle out of town and loses most of the refrigerant. What can he do? What will you do?
2. As a shop faced with a possibility of using 15 different alternative refrigerants (remember, you must have unique equipment for each), you already have R-12 and R-134a equipment. How much more equipment will you buy?
3. Will domestic and foreign vehicle manufacturers warrant an alternative refrigerant retrofit other than R-134a, which is now the accepted refrigerant that comes as original equipment in most new vehicles?
4. Will aftermarket compressor manufacturers warrant an alternative refrigerant retrofit other than R-134a?
No matter what your answers to these questions are today or tomorrow, the storm is here and we must weather it together.
While R-12 has been used in the air conditioners of an estimated 157 million cars and light trucks, its price has risen incredibly high, going up almost daily. There has been stockpiling of the refrigerant and some reported price gouging.
One solution: We must retrofit A/C units now!
So let's get to work. Good luck!
Mr. Johnson can be reached at 7203 Shockley Court, Fort Washington, Md. 20744; (301) 248-7890. Fax: (301) 248-7897.