R22 vs. R410A – Making an Informed Decision

August 18, 2015

R22 vs R410A

In compliance with the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the United States has prohibited the transport and sale of R-22 charged air conditioning equipment since January 1, 2010. Most people know R22 by the brand name Freon, while air conditioning technicians refer to it as R22, and the U.S. government has classified it as HCFC-22, a controlled substance. Whatever you choose to call it, prior to 2010 R22 had been the go to refrigerant for cooling homes and businesses. Composed of hydrofluorcarbon (HCFC), R22 emits chlorine atoms when it escapes into the atmosphere. These atoms damage the ozone, which acts as a blanket to help screen out ultra-violet rays which have been linked to skin cancer, one of the fastest growing cancers in the United States.

Under the Montreal Protocol, the EPA has made an effort to push consumers to switch from R22 (Freon) based air conditioning systems to R410A (brand name Puron) based systems. When it escapes (for example, through a leak in an evaporator or condenser coil), R410A does far less harm to the environment than R22. Because the Montreal Protocol banned R22-charged condensers, it appeared, back in 2010, that if your R22 condenser failed you would have no choice other than to purchase R410A equipment. This not only meant that you would have to replace the failed condenser unit with an R410A model, but, if your evaporator worked with R22 only, you would then have to replace that as well. An air conditioning system (condenser, evaporator coil and refrigerant lines) can operate with only one refrigerant; R22 and R410A must never mix. (Fortunately, modern evaporator coils can be converted from R22 to R410A). Since the 2010 deadline, manufacturers and dealers have found a way around the R22-charged condenser ban. They may legally dry-ship and sell R22-compatible condensers. That is, the condensers they sell do not contain any R22 refrigerant. Hence, they don’t violate the law. Once the equipment has been installed, an EPA certified technician can charge it up with R22. This means that you do still have a choice between upgrading your cooling system to R410A or replacing failed equipment with a unit which uses R22.

Besides the fact that R410A is less damaging to the environment, there are other advantages to using R410A-based equipment. For one thing, it is slightly more efficient than R22 equipment. Also, R410A based compressors run cooler than R22 based compressors and, consequently, are less likely to overheat and burn out. Another benefit of R410A air conditioning systems is that they use new, synthetic lubricants which circulate more efficiently than the mineral oil used to lubricate R22 systems. This translates to less wear and tear on the unit’s moving parts.

This is not to say that R410A is perfect. For one thing it operates under much higher pressure than R22 and charging up a system with R410A takes more time and more expertise than charging one with R22. This translates to slightly higher labor costs which eat up some of the savings in the cost of the R410A itself versus the R22. Furthermore, these systems exert a lot more pressure on air conditioning system components, including refrigerant lines. Manufacturers have taken this into consideration when constructing R410A compatible condensers; they have designed them with thicker, stronger shells to reduce the noise and the vibrations created by the compressor and to reduce the strain on the piping connections, thereby reducing the incidence of refrigerant leaks. Nonetheless, technicians out in the field are finding that R410A equipment generally does not last as long as really old R22 equipment. You may have gotten twenty or even thirty years out of an old R22 condenser. You may only get ten years out of a new R410A unit. Opting for a brand new R22 condenser will not solve this longevity problem. Due to changes in design and materials, the R22 condensers manufactured today are unlikely to last as long as their R22 predecessors.

The most important consideration as to whether to replace your condenser with an R22 or R410A based unit may be the rising cost of R22 refrigerant. Effective January 1, 2020, the domestic production and import of R22 will be banned all together. Many plants which traditionally manufactured R22 have already converted to the production of R410A and the cost of R22 has been steadily increasing as a result. After January 1, 2020, R22-based systems which have lost refrigerant can still be charged with recycled R22, but supplies are expected to be scarce and extremely expensive.

If you are among the minority who wish to replace their existing R22 condenser with new R22 equipment, time is running out. Some manufacturers have already ceased production of R22 equipment as they convert the last of their R22 production lines to R410 equipment.

By the way, R410A is no longer the newest kid on the block. The EPA would like to slowly move all American homes from R22 and R410A to an even newer refrigerant, R441A. R441A is expected to have zero impact on global warming and ozone depletion. There is just one small problem. The version of R441A producers have come up with so far is a highly flammable blend of ethane, propane, isobutane and n-butane, not necessarily the type of substance you want coursing through the refrigrant lines inside your walls. Consumers who have been unhappy about the conversion from R22 to R410A may find themselves missing R410A once the R441A refrigerant takes over.

Blogger Terry Portillo owns and operates ACU Air Heating and Air Conditioning in The Woodlands, Texas.


Welcome to the Hottest Place on Earth

July 28, 2015
Death Valley

Death Valley – Photo Courtesy of Jon Sullivan

California and Nevada’s Death Valley, located in the Mojave Desert, is the official winner with a record-breaking high of 134 degrees Fahrenheit recorded there on July 10, 1913. Located in a below-sea level basin, Death Valley is not only the hottest place on earth, it is the driest and the lowest place in the United States. Remarkably, it is nonetheless home to over fifty-one species of mammals, including coyotes, mountain lions, burros, bobcats, sheep and foxes; over three-hundred species of birds; and thirty-six species of reptiles. Death Valley’s longest summer ever took place in 2001 when the temperatures climbed into the triple digits for one-hundred-and-sixty consecutive days.

Prospector's Wagon Drawn by 20 Mules

Prospectors seeking their fortune cross Death Valley in a wagon drawn by twenty mules

Al’ Aziziyah, a small town in northwestern Libya is believed to be even hotter than Death Valley with National Geographic having recorded a reading of 136 degrees Fahrenheit there on July 13, 1922. However that reading was never officially recognized.

Al'Aziziyah

Al’ Aziziyah – Image courtesy of Aptech Qatar

Not to be outdone, if you live in Texas, the summer temperature in your attic has likely matched that of Death Valley and Al’ Aziziyah. An unventilated attic in the Texas can reach a temperature of 140 degrees in the middle of summer. If an air conditioning technician pays a visit to your attic, he may come down every so often to chug-a-lug the cold water he carries in his van. He’s not shirking his work, just trying to avoid heat stroke. And his uniform, fresh and pressed in the morning, may have wilted by noon. But he’ll do what he can to keep you and your family cool.

As you may have figured out, the heat that builds up in your attic is transferred through your ceiilng into your living quarters. This makes your air conditioner work harder and your electric bills soar higher. To improve the efficiency of your cooling system, consider ventilating your attic. A power attic ventilator (attic fan) can lower your attic’s temperature by as much as 30 degrees during the summer by drawing fresh air in and forcing hot air out. Power attic ventilators can be purchased at most large hardware stores. You will likely need a roofer to install the hardware and an electrician to hook it up. In most cases, the savings you see on your summer utility bills will more than make up for the initial expense and your air conditioning equipment may last longer as it will not have to work as hard to cool down your home.

Blogger Terry Portillo owns and operates ACU Air Heating and Air Conditioning in The Woodlands, TX.


Turning Up the Heat: Bi-Partisan Battle Against New Furnace Standards

July 22, 2015
Mo Brooks

Mo Brooks
Voice of Common Cents

In Washington this past week, both Republicans and Democrats spoke out against a Department of Energy (DOE) proposal which would make new natural gas furnaces more expensive than ever before for homeowners. The DOE wants raise the minimum residential furnace efficiency standard from 80 AFUE in the south and 90 AFUE in the north to a minimum standard of 92 AFUE nationwide. AFUE stands for Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency. The number represents the percentage of the fuel the equipment uses which is converted to actual heat. For example, an 80 AFUE furnace converts eighty-percent of the fuel it uses to heat; the other twenty-percent of the fuel utilized is lost.

The DOE would like us to believe that a minimum efficiency standard of 92 AFUE would make it more affordable for homeowners to heat their homes. However, the actual savings is tied to the climate in which the home is located, how well or how poorly the house is insulated, and the frequency and the temperature setting of the furnace. In the south the savings many homeowners would see in their gas bills over the lifetime of the furnace would not make up for the extra cost of having to purchase an 92 AFUE Furnace as opposed to an 80 AFUE model. Even up north, a full ten-percent of homes would not experience a positive payback given the cost of a 92 AFUE furnace. Those northerners who would experience a net economic benefit from a higher efficiency furnace already have the option of purchasing one. The question is whether all homeowners should be forced, when the time comes to replace their furnaces, to purchase one which is not cost effective for their climate and their needs. As Consumer Reports notes in its article on furnace efficiency, “Given that most furnaces with an AFUE over 90 percent are quite expensive, they’re likely to be economic only in regions where winters are especially harsh—including most of the Northeast and Midwest. ”

Should this regulation go through, it could actually mean higher utility bills for some homeowners, should the ticket price of a 92 AFUE gas furnace force them to switch to a heater which uses a more costly form of energy (such as an all-electric air handler). Still others, once their existing furnaces die, may find themselves going without central heat all together or turning to dangerous space heaters to get them through winter’s coldest nights.

U. S. Representative Mo Brooks (R-Alabama) is to be commended for leading the battle against the proposed furnace efficiency standards. Brooks wrote a letter to DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz asking him to reconsider the change and got one-hundred-and-twenty-one house members to sign it. Unfortunately the battle is far from over. Let’s hope that the Department of Energy will do the math and withdraw this proposal which would result in a higher net heating cost for many Americans living in the south and along the Pacific coast.

Blogger Terry Portillo owns and operates ACU Air Heating and Air Conditioning in The Woodlands, Texas.


EPA Entertains Use of Flammable Refrigerant in American Homes

July 21, 2015

R441A

Even those Americans staunchly in favor of fighting global warming may find themselves balking at the idea of having the latest low-GWP (low global warming potential) refrigerant coursing through their walls. Hailed for its Zero Global Warming and Ozone Depletion Potential, R441A is considered the ideal upcoming refrigerant for use in U.S. homes. There’s just one small catch. Composed of ethane, propane, butane, and isobutane, R441 is flammable.

For now the EPA’s Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) has approved the use of R441A for refrigerators, freezers, and vending machines. However there is a push to have it approved for use in air conditioning compressors. Many Americans are just now getting accustomed to having R410A (Puron) charged air conditioners cool their homes. Others have yet to make the change from traditional R22 (Freon) systems to R410A. While R410A is more efficient and less damaging to the environment than R22, it operates under much higher pressure than its predecessor. Consequently, it takes more skill and more time for a technician to charge an R410 air conditioning system than it took to charge one that used R22. Furthermore, because of the extra pressure exerted on its coils, R410A charged equipment is not expected to last as long as the old R22 units.

Homeowners and air conditioning technicians have been learning, sometimes reluctantly, to live with this change. However, it’s unlikely that they will adapt as readily to the implementation of R441A. As Steven Mella (CEO for ComStar International) has put it, “Existing systems are not designed for flammable refrigerants. You need systems with explosion-proof components, such as switches that won’t create a spark.” Before the regular use of R441A can be implemented, there is the little matter of engineering cylinders and valves for recovering flammable refrigerant. And, of course, the air conditioning equipment itself must be redesigned.

If global warming is, indeed, looked upon as an environmental ill, low-GWP refrigerant may be one of those treatments which proves far worse than the disease it sets out to cure.

Blogger Terry Portillo owns and operates ACU Air Heating and Air Conditioning in The Woodlands, Texas.


New Hoop for Builders to Jump Through – Zero Energy Buildings

July 21, 2015
Zero Energy Building

This pre-fabricated house in Germany is a near-zero energy building

ZEB is one of the latest acronyms to hit the fields of Air Conditioning and Heating and of Building Sciences. It stands for Zero Energy Building. In theory a Zero-Energy Building eliminates the use of non-renewable energy sources in favor of on-site and locally available renewable sources such as wind, solar power, and hydro-energy. An energy efficient design and educating the building’s occupants in managing their energy usage are also critical to achieving a zero-energy or near zero-energy goal. The obvious benefits of this goal are increased energy efficiency and improved energy sustainability. These buildings may be more secure in the event of a terrorist attack on traditional utility infrastructure.

The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) are currently working together to develop a common definition for zero-energy buildings. The European Union (EU) has actually been pursing this goal for years. A 2010 Directive requires EU member states to ensure that, after December 31, 2018, all “new buildings occupied and owned by public authorities” be near zero-energy buildings.

Pictured above is pre-fabricated near-zero-energy home in Germany. Not bad! However the real testing ground for zero energy buildings would be the successful design and implementation of such structures here in southeast Texas where the greatest battle would be keeping the interior cool and comfortable.

Blogger Terry Portillo owns and operates ACU Air Heating and Air Conditioning in The Woodlands, TX.


Smart Thermostats Vulnerable to Hackers

July 20, 2015

nest

Your smart thermostat may be smarter than you think. In order to do its job properly it stores your zip code, your Wi-Fi network name, and your Wi-Fi password and detects whether or not you are home. It uses this information to communicate with your provider’s cloud, to learn and follow your energy usage habits , and to switch your heater or air conditioner into low energy-mode when you are out of the house. That, in and of itself, is not a problem. In fact, it’s what you paid for. The catch is that these thermostats can be hacked so that they share this information with outsiders. They can also be pirated and then utilized to generate spam or malware from inside your home or place of business.

The problem does not lie with their Wi-Fi capabilities: their wireless communication is heavily secured. It’s their USB port which makes them vulnerable. The purpose of this port is to allow manual updates of the software they utilize, in the event that cloud-generated updates prove unsuccessful. According to indepdent research Daniel Buentello, this port can be readily compromised. All one has to do is hold down a NEST thermostat’s power button for ten seconds, then plug a USB device into the port. Doing so overrides the thermostat’s security features and enables the hacker to infect it with a not-so-friendly program of his own.

Unless you make it a habit of inviting hackers over for dinner, this scenario is not likely to take place in your home. The greater risk is that hackers may buy these thermostats in bulk, infect them with remotely controlled malware, repackage, and then resell them. Under no circumstance should you purchase a second-hand smart thermostat or order one from a random individual online.

In fact, if you really want to maintain your privacy, you may want to make due with one of those old-fashioned not-so-smart thermostats. To save energy, bump up the temperature (if you’re running the ac) or nudge it down (if you’re using the heater) when you leave the house, then set it back to the desired temperature as soon as you get home. (Do not shut it off altogether or your system may use more energy bringing your home back to the optimum temperature than it saved by being off while you were away). Sure, it may take your air conditioner or your heater ten or fifteen minutes to restore your home to the desired temperature, but that is actually easier on your body than stepping straight into a perfectly chilled house on a stifling hot day or into a nice warm house from the freezing cold. And without your thermostat broadcasting your comings and goings, your jewelry and electronics are more likely to be right where you left them.

Blogger Terry Portillo owns and operates ACU Air Heating and Air Conditioning in The Woodlands, TX.


Cool Tips for Keeping Your Air Conditioning Happy

September 23, 2010

Condenser Unit

Of course, where keeping your cool matters the most is at home, especially if you want to sleep comfortably at night. Here are a few tips for keeping your air conditioner healthy and happy:

Change your return air filter once a month. Clogged filters restrict air flow which can keep your air conditioner from cooling properly.

Cut back any shrubs or tall grass which have grown around your outside condenser unit. Vegetation can restrict the airflow around the unit and reduce its cooling ability.

Eradicate any ant mounds close to your outside condenser unit. Ants can infiltrate your unit and cause it to shut down.

Avoid piling boxes around the furnace or air handler in your attic. Your equipment needs unrestricted airflow to function at its best.

Make sure your attic is well ventilated and consider having an attic fan installed. The less heat your air conditioner has to fight in your attic, the more effectively and efficiently it can cool your house.

If your outside condenser unit is exposed to full sunlight most of the day, plant a shade tree nearby. Your unit will not have to work as hard. Avoid pine trees and deciduous trees which will clutter up the condenser with pine needles or leaves.

In the winter, pick a warm afternoon once or twice a month and turn the thermostat down so that your air conditioner runs for about fifteen minutes. Running your system periodically helps maintain the viscosity of the lubricants it uses.

Have your air conditioner inspected each spring by a qualified technician to reduce the risk of your system breaking down at the height of the summer. Ask the technician to treat your ac drains with an algaecide to keep algae from clogging your drainlines.

Blogger Terry Portillo owns and operates ACU Air Heating and Air Conditioning in The Woodlands, TX.


Thanks but no Thanks for the Memory

September 13, 2010

We recently shopped for a new mattress and given how comfortable the memory foam European pillow top mattress was when we stretched out on it in the showroom, the sales clerk had little trouble talking us into a purchase. The first night slept on it, we were hot, and I don’t mean hot in the adult funhouse sense of the word. We tossed, we turned, we sweated, we cast off the comforter and, lying beneath nothing more than a thin, Egyptian cotton sheet, we tossed and turned and sweated some more. Either I had fast forwarded into menopause complete with night sweats and my husband was suffering from sympathetic symptoms or our new mattress was smokin’.

The next morning I did a bit of research and, lo and behold, there was something the sales clerk had not told us. Memory foam operates through heat; your body heats up the foam which, in turn, molds to your body so that there are no uncomfortable pressure points. The catch is these beds ‘sleep hot’. That could be a benefit if you live next door to Sarah Palin and have to shoo Russians out of your yard now and then, but down here in the greater Houston area it’s more of a curse.

Even if your sheets’ thread count is in the quadruple digits, they will never feel crisp and cool if you’re sleeping on memory foam. And if you like to sleep cool, you may soon find yourself cranking the ac down, down, down, while your energy bill goes up up up.

We pawned our brand new bed off on a teenage daughter who loves its vast height and comfiness. She sleeps directly under an ac supply air vent and a ceiling fan and we still have to keep the ac 2 degrees lower than we used to so that she can sleep at night. In the meantime, we dragged our old mattress out of the guestroom, flipped it over – something we had neglected to do the first ten years – found it perfectly cool (yes!) and comfortable and I now look forward to climbing into bed each night .

Thanks, but no thanks, for the memory.


Rasberry Ants Have an Appetite for Electronics

September 8, 2010

Their appetite for electronics exceeds that of the average American teenage boy. They have already launched one attack NASA. Stories about them read more like science fiction than credible journalism. Who, or rather, what are they? Paratrechina species near puben, better known as Crazy Rasberry Ants.

Named after Tom Rasberry, the exterminator who first identified the species (hence the spelling), the rasberry ant invades and devours the electronic components of air conditioning units, security alarms, pool pumps, gas meters, and computers.

Scarcely larger than a flea, the rasberry ant makes up in numbers what it lacks in size. Rasberry ant colonies have multiple queens, with each queen laying up to one million eggs per ant hill per day. According to the Texas Department of Agriculture, infestations can reach fifty million ants per acre during their peak season (June through September). When an infested areas is treated with pesticides, the initial wave of rasberry ants die; then the remaining ants use their dead comrades as a bridge to safely cross the pesticide treated ground.

If your home has suffered an attack from these minute creatures and you’ve found a way to fend them off, let us know. You might want to let the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Department of Agriculture know while you’re at it! They’re still researching the answer to the question, “How do we get rid of these things?”


Land Ho! The Pros and Cons of Dropping Your Landline

August 10, 2009

If only the Middle East, Africa, and Asia were stamping out landmines as quickly as we Americans are stamping out our landlines, Princess Di would rest easier in her grave and the third world would be a safer place for children, farmers, and their animals .

I’m all for ridding the world of landmines but I would encourage you to think twice about getting rid of your landline. While reviewing our household budget, recently, we considered this move. After all, we no longer need a landline to access the Internet; every member of our family now has his or her own cell phone; and getting rid of our landline would rid us of all those annoying telemarketers who ignore the Do Not Call list and all those computerized calls from candidates the week before election. (When I am otherwise undecided on which candidate to vote for, I vote for the one who has not had a computer dial my home).

Those were our pros for ridding ourselves of the landline. Now for the cons.

1. In an emergency, if you dial 9-1-1 from your landline, a screen will display your address and a map at the dispatcher’s end. The obvious benefit of this is that if you’re choking on a piece of beef jerky and can’t speak, or you pass out, mid-stroke, or a home invader snatches the phone out of your hand, the dispatcher will send someone to your home to check on you. If you call from a cell phone, they may not be able to pinpoint your location.

2. If you have keep one of those old-fashioned home phones (one that is not cordless), you will never have to worry about a battery going dead or about not being able to find a phone in the event of an emergency. I don’t know about you, but I have been known to leave my cell phone and, less often, my cordless home phone, in some strange places – the back pocket of my jeans in the laundry hamper, under the cushion of the couch where I dozed off during Saturday Night Live, out on my deck, beneath the seat of my car, in the refrigerator, and wherever that one cell phone I lost five years ago (and have since replaced) is still hiding.

3. Unlike a cordless phone, when your power goes out, an old-fashioned corded phone connected to your landline will still work. We had purchased an old-fashioned phone for this very reason several years ago, plugged it into a backroom phone jack, and all but forgot about it. After Hurricane Ike, when we were without electricity for a full week and without cell phone service for a couple of days, our landline only went out for two hours. Once it returned, the landline and that old-fashioned phone together served as our one link to the outside world. Out of state relatives were able to check on us and we were able to call out. Later, when our cell phones worked but before power had been restored, we conserved batteries by using the landline as much as possible.

Weighing these pros and cons, we asked ourselves whether the benefits of maintaining a landline was worth the monthly expense. To determine exactly how much money were talking about, I called the phone company and had them strip our account of every single feature, including a long distance plan, down to a barebones line. The landline was still going to cost of over thirty-dollars a month – thirteen dollars a month for the line and eighteen something for surcharges and taxes. With the surcharges and taxes amounting to over a hundred-percent of the cost of the line itself, I was ready to cancel the line on principle alone.

Only when I uttered the secret password “Cancel” did the customer service representative reveal to me a closely guarded secret of the phone company. They actually offer what they called a “restricted” or “measured” phone line. For eight dollars a month plus some five dollars in surcharges and taxes (ah, we were down to a mere sixty-two percent), we could receive unlimited in-coming calls and make up to twenty-five outgoing calls per month. Those twenty-five calls should more than cover any 9-1-1 we ever have to make. It will also cover most, if not all, of the phone calls we will make if another storm ever takes down the local cell tower. If we go over our twenty-five call quota or make any long distance calls, we just pay a small additional stipend per call.

So, in the end, we were able to stamp out the goldmine the phone company had been excavating at our expense all these years without stamping out our landline.

If you are facing the same dilemma, whether to keep or cancel your landline service, give the phone company a call, whisper the secret password “Cancel”, and ask whether they offer a restricted phone service at a steeply reduced rate.

Now if only we landlubbers could stamp out those phone calls from pesky politicians, telemarketers, and charlatans masquerading as charities.