The New A/C. Not as Simple as 1,2,3,4

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Now that you are comfortable with the R-134a refrigerant standard in automotive air conditioning, governmental regulators decided it is time for a change! It started with the European Union (EU) and the new directives they base on Global Warming Potential (GWP) standards established for mobile air conditioning refrigerants. To appreciate this change, you must understand the reasons for the change.

GWP reflects the number of years a refrigerant exists in the atmosphere while it is affecting global warming before it breaks down into a constituent or harmless gas. During its life, the refrigerant has an adverse effect on global warming, which continues until it breaks down to a harmless state. If you follow the evolution of auto refrigerants you will find:

·           R-12 (1994 and prior) has a GWP of about 8,500 and will take more than 150 years to break down

·           R-134a (1994 to present) has a GWP of approximately 1,440 and takes only 13 years to break down

The change in 1994 looks great, doesn’t it? The industry went from a refrigerant that took more than 150 years to break down to one that only takes 13 years! Unfortunately, new EU legislation 2006/40/EC bans the use of any refrigerant with a GWP of higher than 150 for all new vehicles sold starting on January 1, 2017. As a result, many vehicles designed and introduced today are equipped with a new refrigerant that meets this new standard.

The new refrigerant most auto manufacturers are turning to is officially named hydro-floro-olefin 2,2,2,3 tettraflouropropene. Don’t worry, the automotive industry uses a simpler name, R-1234yf. This new refrigerant not only meets, but also far surpasses, the EU mandate. It has a GWP of about 4 and will break down to constituent gasses in less than a week! But let’s take a closer look at how this new air conditioning system may affect your business.

Are all manufacturers going to R-1234yf?

No, but all must change from R-134a. Some German auto manufacturers are focusing on a refrigerant based on carbon dioxide (CO2) called R-744. Their reasoning is because R-1234yf is slightly flammable. However, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has issued findings of its own stating R-1234yf can ignite, but it would be extremely difficult. It can only ignite, if the critical factors in frontal crashes simultaneously occur. The refrigerant needs timing of the crash, correct airflow to engine compartment, extreme exhaust system temperatures and refrigeration release at the exact moment for it to ignite. According to SAE, these occurrences are not normally experienced at the exact time during a crash. So most manufacturers are relying on SAE research that states R-1234yf is safe and effective, and they are now including the new air conditioning systems in new model introduction. To move the change more quickly, the EPA is issuing tradable credits to help the auto manufacturers comply with new fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards that will increase to 54.5 mpg by 2025.

Can R-1234yf directly replace R-134a?

No. While the engineering and components of the two systems are similar and seem alike in many ways, R-1234yf is a unique compound. As a result, by law, the new systems are designed with different ports (the new ones are a bit smaller), some components have different shapes and the connectors have different thread patterns. The evaporators and some other components are totally different than previous systems. Also, the new R-1234yf systems use less refrigerant than old systems.

If the old and new refrigerants were to mix, the air conditioner would experience system pressure issues, component damage throughout the refrigeration system and diagnostic errors on the service machines.

Will I still be able to use current PAG oils and dyes?

R-134a PAG oils will not work with R-1234yf, so keeping the oils correctly marked and stored separately is important. However, if the ultraviolet dye you use is tested and certified safe in accordance with SAE J2297 (latest revision January, 2013), it will not harm seals or lubricants and can be used for either refrigeration system. Going one step further, leak detection equipment must meet the current SAE J2913 standard issued in February, 2011, to correctly detect leaks in R-1234yf systems.

Is a leak detector the only new equipment I will need?

No, it is only the start. Whether you use basic recovery equipment or combination recovery, recycling, recharge (RRR), the equipment used for R-134a will not work on R-1234yf. The new equipment is designed to safely address the flammability property of the new refrigerant. This equipment is designed so no combustion of refrigerant is possible. The new equipment connects to the new-style fittings designed specifically for R1234yf systems. The service will be performed in the same manner as the R-134a, so at least technicians will not need extensive retraining. Some brand-new RRR equipment is designed to accommodate both R1234yf and R-134a systems. While it is more expensive, the dual-system equipment may prove to be a good investment in the long run.

Since the design of the two refrigerant systems look very similar, any shop will want to have a refrigerant identifier as part of their shop tool inventory. These are sold as a stand-alone tool, or some newer RRR equipment makes the identifier capability a feature on the machines.

How concerned should I be regarding flammability?

Basic precautions and common sense must be utilized, but it is not an aspect that should cause extreme alarm. Some items to address in the immediate work area:

·         Remove anything that causes a spark — welders, grinders, dryers, etc. Even switches or motors that may spark internally must be moved to another area.

·         Use LED drop or work lights in this area, preventing the possibility of a broken bulb that can cause a spark.

·         There should be absolutely no smoking anywhere near the A/C service area. That may not be a concern, because today most shops do not allow smoking anywhere inside the service area.

·         Just in case, make sure a properly maintained fire extinguisher is in the work area, stored without obstruction, and employees know how to use it.

·         Refrigerant storage tanks must not be stored in low areas, such as basement-type locations or stairwells.

Besides the above precautions, standard personal protection should be used when completing any service.

Just how popular is the new R-1234yf? Do many cars have it today?

The list is growing, usually as new body styles and models are introduced. This is a partial list of newer cars with R-1234yf systems:

BMW i3 and i8

Cadillac XTS

Chevrolet Malibu, Spark EV and Trax

Chrysler 200 and 300

Dodge Charger, Challenger and Dart

Ford Transit

Honda Fit EV

Hyundai Santa Fe

Infiniti Q50

Jeep Cherokee

Kia Cadenza, Optima and Sorento

Mazda CX-5

Mitsubishi Mirage

Range Rover and Range Rover Sport

Ram 1500

Tesla Model S

The list isn’t long, but in a few years, the new refrigerant will be the norm on new vehicles. One research firm noted that while newer vehicle production is quickly changing to the R-1234yf systems, it might be 10 years before this system represents 50 percent of all vehicles on the road. There are millions of the R-134a systems in use, and coupled with continued vehicle life growing each year, the market will be a slow but constantly growing process.

Going forward, here are some points to keep in mind in developing and growing your air conditioning service over the coming years:

·           For repair and maintenance shops, the change to R-1234yf is going to be a long process, so there is little need to run right out and purchase new equipment, unless you specialize in mobile air conditioning.

·           When you are in the market for new RRR service machines, keep in mind the higher priced equipment that accommodates both R-1234yf and R134a may be a good investment in the long term. Also, any other new equipment or tools (such as ultraviolet leak detectors) should be capable of R-1234yf service.

·           PAG oils are dedicated to each type of refrigerant, but dyes are available that will not harm seals or lubricants for both systems. You may want to start using the dyes that conform to SAE J2297.

Once again, the only constant in automotive maintenance and repair is change. As legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Prepare for the change to R-1234yf, and you will prepare for success.

TIM CRAIG is a 38-year veteran of the automotive aftermarket, a special consultant to Mighty and a partner in RT Performance Marketing. Craig can be reached at: timcraig@comcast.net

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