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environmentally cool cars

Published Oct. 9, 2005

Robb Bauman has met those rarest of creatures: car owners who actually volunteer to spend hundreds of dollars on a repair that may not be needed for months or years, if ever.

But Bauman, who is president of Gulfcoast Auto Air in St. Petersburg, says he's generally not willing to sell those customers what they want _ modifications to allow their air conditioner to run on the new generation of coolants.

"We have customers coming in and asking for a retrofit," he said. "But I'll only do it if they have a few major components in the air conditioning system that have gone bad at the same time." What? A car repair shop that's turning down business?

Sounds strange, but Bauman and other experts say it just isn't time yet for most car owners to worry about retrofitting their cars to comply with pending changes in environmental laws.

Ever since most scientists agreed that emissions from automobile air conditioners are contributing to the "hole" in the Earth's protective ozone layer, the race has been on to cut back those emissions. Production of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) coolant _ commonly known as "R-12" or by the Du Pont brand name "Freon" _ already has been cut to half its 1986 level, and will be halted entirely at the end of 1995.

In its place, automakers say they will be using a hydrofluorocarbon (HFC), commonly known as HFC 134a. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the difference is that HFCs do not contain chlorine, and so do not contribute to the depletion of stratospheric ozone.

But they're not perfect _ some HFCs do contribute to global warming, although they are considered nowhere near as destructive as CFCs.

Already, CFC usage has been cut back, and some scientists say they're already seeing an improvement in the atmosphere.

Last year, Freon sales direct to consumers were halted. And auto shops need a special environmental permit to buy the stuff.

Also last year, shops were forbidden from recharging a balky cooling system without repairing the leaks that allowed the R-12 to escape.

Automakers and air conditioning experts say there is still enough R-12 around to service the cars that need it. The cost is going up, but it's still cheaper than a retrofit, which industry experts say will likely cost $200 to $800 _ on top of any repairs the system needs to make it function.

Furthermore, retrofits haven't yet been perfected.

"I don't see how you can go for a retrofit right now since there are no guidelines _ except from Volvo _ about retrofitting," said Gordon Marks, president of Marks Air in Tampa. Marks is also chairman of the national Mobile Air Conditioning Society (MACS), whose board members include Bauman.

"The biggest confusion is, people think that in November of '95 the government is going to take a big vacuum cleaner and suck up all the R-12 that's left. That's not true," he said.

"What we're telling customers is, you need to make your R-12 system as tight as possible so it will last two, three or four more years," he said. "By the time you have trouble again, you might need a new car anyway."

Both Marks and Bauman said that they do retrofits only for customers who understand that the process is still being tested and perfected.

How long will

R-12 last?

Most industrialized nations have pledged to eliminate certain ozone-depleting chemicals _ CFCs, halons and carbon tetrachloride _ from cooling and manufacturing processes by at least 2000. The United States has moved up the deadline to 1995.

But Du Pont, the biggest maker of R-12, has announced that it is halting production in 1994. So already, prices have gone up and refrigerant could soon become scarce.

"It gets harder every day to obtain it at a decent price," Bauman said. "It's gone up over 100 percent since 1991."

No one is absolutely sure when R-12 will run out, because shops are recycling refrigerant whenever they can. Some experts say the current supply could last for years, with careful recycling.

However, Bauman said, by the time most motorists bring their troubled cars to him, most of the refrigerant already has leaked out and there is nothing to recycle. Furthermore, because some motorists and mechanics are getting creative and dumping other kinds of refrigerant into R-12 systems, some of the recycled refrigerant is becoming contaminated. Once a foreign coolant _ such as R-22, which still is being sold in retail stores _ gets into a tank of R-12, the contents of the entire tank is unusable.

When to retrofit?

For most people, deciding when to retrofit will be a simple matter of mathematics. Once R-12 becomes so expensive that it would be cheaper to convert the system, it's time to consider a conversion.

A price range of $200 to $800 for a retrofit is being used these days, but it's hard to get much more specific since different cars need different modifications. Carmakers are working on making retrofitting kits for each of their models, but most are not expected to be available until 1994.

The new, environmentally friendlier refrigerant, HFC 134a, has smaller molecules than those that make up R-12, and so tougher hoses, known as "barrier hoses," must be used to keep the gas from leaking out of the system, Bauman said.

Furthermore, HFC 134a operates at higher pressures than R-12. So the hoses must be stronger.

A different kind of oil must be used to lubricate an HFC 134a system. And most of the mineral oil used in the old R-12 systems must be removed so as not to contaminate the new system.

"You have to have a lubricant that will dissolve into the refrigerant so it will move through a maze of tubing and not get trapped in a low point. The lubricant constantly goes through the compressor so it won't seize up," said Bruce Hoover, director of the chlorofluorocarbon program at Ford Motor Co.

New fittings must be put on the system to keep a mechanic from inadvertently putting R-12 or some other refrigerant into a new 134a system. Alternately, the fittings would keep a mechanic from pulling out HFC 134a into a recycling tank that's full of R-12, which would contaminate the R-12.

The existing compressor may need to be fitted with an auxiliary fan to accommodate the higher pressures. Some cars might need a new condensor, depending on the size of the existing condensor and its cooling capacity.

Finally, labels identifying the system as an HFC-134a retrofit are attached so the next mechanic who encounters it will know what he's dealing with.

Now comes the tricky part: Some cars could need everything changed. But some automakers have been revising their air conditioning systems in recent years so that a less drastic retrofit is needed. Bauman said that Ford and General Motors, for instance, have been revising their systems since the 1991 model year to use hoses that are compatible with the new coolant. He expects that older models and some foreign cars will be the hardest to retrofit.

Some models already come with HFC 134a air conditioning systems. Chrysler, for instance, has the new systems in its 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee, Concorde, Intrepid, Eagle Vision and Dodge minivans.

Gordon said that if he were shopping for a new car this year, he'd want one with a new system, or else a guarantee that the manufacturer would do a retrofit if needed.

Hoover said that consumers won't notice any difference between the new and old systems.

"We're designing the system so that the customer sees the same characteristic in the vehicle. Taurus has been in production on a limited basis over a year now, and we've found one works equally as well as the other," he said.

Buyer beware

Marks cautioned that consumers should beware of conversions or refrigerants that sound too good to be true.

"If you want to get something retrofitted, wait until the guidelines are out from the manufacturers. You need to make certain you have a good relationship with a repair facility and that they're doing it by manufacturers' rules," he said.

And beware of anyone who promises to drop some miracle substance in your air conditioner instead of a more costly retrofit.

"There are only two refrigerants that are approved: R-12 and R-134a. If you put anything else in the system, you're asking for trouble," Marks said.

"Consumers should run the other way if someone tells them they have some new refrigerant."

Adds Bauman: "Customers are going to have to be very well informed."