The soaring price of a commonly used refrigerant will mean higher air-conditioner repair costs, experts say, adding a bit of gloom to springtime's bloom.
The refrigerant known as R-22, which is used in older air conditioners, is being phased out because it eats Earth's protective ozone layer. R-22 air conditioners were made until 2010, and millions still operate.
Homeowners with R-22 air conditioners are in for a surprise if they have to replace leaking refrigerant: R-22 prices have been shooting up since January. Recharging an R-22 system might have cost $100 last year, but now will cost $300 to $350, according to an industry group, the Air Conditioning Contractors of America.
"There's been a considerable increase (in the price of R-22 refrigerant)," said Scott Gochnauer, owner of Gochnauer Heating and Air, which serves Hilton Head and Bluffton. "R-22 has almost doubled at the wholesale price. It's gone to about $450 for a 30-pound cylinder from $150 in the last two or three weeks."
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Those figures reflect wholesale prices, Gochnauer said. Retail prices homeowners pay are up even more.
The cost of R-22 is rising because there's less of it, experts say. Supplies of R-22 have been gradually shrinking for years under the terms of a 1987 international agreement on ozone-depleting chemicals. Then in December, the federal Environmental Protection Agency proposed cutting capacity by up to 47 percent for 2012 to 2014, in part to encourage reuse of existing stocks.
That created "a frenzy" that drove prices up, said Charlie McCrudden, vice president for government relations at the Air Conditioning Contractors of America.
"There's not much anyone can do," said Pat Dennis, owner of D&S Heating and Cooling in Beaufort. "The federal government is the one causing the problem by phasing it out."
Homeowners with older, leaky R-22 systems will be faced with hard choices: Pay higher prices for R-22; replace their old system with a new one that uses a less expensive refrigerant, R-410A; or try of refit the old system so it works with R-410A.
"With the rising cost of R-22 ... some homeowners are replacing their entire systems with new ones that are compatible with the much less expensive refrigerant," said Matt Wilhite, a principal at Blufton-based Howell-Chase Heating and Air Conditioning.
The two refrigerants aren't interchangeable.
Gochnauer said using the less expensive R-410A refrigerant in a system designed for R-22 "would be like using diesel fuel in a gasoline engine -- it won't work."
Refitting older R-22 systems to make them work with the cheaper R-410A doesn't always work, Wilhite said.
Replacing a entire system "works better than trying to refit an old system so that it will work with R-410A," he said.
"Our business has seen a sharp increase of new equipment sales due to the cost of refitting older R-22 systems to make them work with R-410A," he added. "With systems that are compatible with R-410A, our customers are getting quieter and more efficient systems along with the newest technologies."
Gochnauer said he expects to see more customers replace their systems.
"What is happening is that this problem is just going to hasten the process of people changing their systems out," he said.
But he urged homeowners to take the time to understand their systems and ask questions before signing up for repairs or replacements, whether they're considering recharging an older system with R-22 or replacing the system with a new one.
Dennis, owner of D&S in Beaufort, expects the number of older R-22 systems to translate into a lot of work for repair companies.
"There are so many, many, many R-22 systems still out there, he said. "If you walk down the block here, I would be surprised if you found one in 10 of the R-410A systems."
"I think they will be more trouble before it's over. It's like gasoline: You either have to do without it and not pay for it, or pay for it and not complain about it."
Reporter Anne Christnovich and The Charlotte Observer contributed to this story.