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As temperatures soar across the Valley, so is the cost of keeping aging heat pumps working for area homeowners.

Regardless of whether homeowners are trying to hang on to their existing heat pump till its last blast of cold air or are replacing it, they’re digging deeper into their wallets.

The choice: buying a new, more expensive heat pump or paying far more for a once-cheap refrigerant called R-22 to keep the old one hanging on.

A target in the war on climate change since the U.S. ratified the Montreal Protocol in 1988, the gas is being phased out because it depletes the ozone layer around Earth.

New heat pumps relying on it have not been manufactured since 2010 and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared that since a heat pump lasts an average 10 years, R-22 can no longer be produced at all starting Jan. 1, 2020.

The EPA has already ordered severe cutbacks in its production as part of the phase-out and a transition to new units that use the less offensive R-410 refrigerant, a chemical that depletes the ozone at a lesser rate.

Meanwhile, the law of supply and demand is driving up the price of R-22 for homeowners who are holding on to their older units.

While the R-22 is still widely available, the price has more than doubled, according to a Phoenix air conditioning contractor and the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, which represents the heat-pump industry.

The EPA ordered a steep, graduated step-down in R-22 production from 51 million pounds in 2014 to only 13 million pounds this year. Only 9 million pounds will be allowed to be produced in 2018, and less than half that amount during its final production year in 2019.

While the price of R-22 is rising, consumer advocates are urging homeowners to resist scare tactics some air-conditioning businesses are using by telling them that the gas is no longer available and that they need the new and costlier heat pumps that use R-410.

Francis Dietz, a spokesman for the Air Conditioning Heating and Refrigeration Institute, said the rising cost of R-22 can motivate some homeowners to consider a higher-efficiency, R-410 unit.

“I would say it’s not as plentiful as it used to be and more expensive,” he added.
Dietz said it might be possible for someone to keep an older, less- efficient heat pump operating “if it is running fine and all it needs is to be topped off with some refrigerant.”
But, he added, “It’s never a bad idea to at least get a quote on a new unit and the efficiency rating.

“There’s a lot of misinformation in the market. In some cases, they are telling people there is no refrigerant available,” said Mike Donley, president of Donley Service Center in Phoenix, which operates a Gilbert branch serving the East Valley.

“Most units out there have R-22 in them,” Donley added. “They are working fine. People don’t have to do anything. People will have R-22 units well into the future.”

But if an older R-22 requires an expensive repair, such as replacement of a compressor, the consumer should consider replacing it with a new R-410 model, Donley said.

Donley said the prices of repairs as well as new units varies substantially in the market, depending upon the details of an installation and the size of the house.

As a rule, he said, a new unit with installation can range from $5,000 to $8,000, with $7,500 an average.

“It depends on the efficiency level, the brand, who is putting it in,” Donley said. “The customer has a lot of options. We try to present the options.”

Donley said consumers need to make an informed decision on whether to repair an older heat pump, realizing that production of R-22 will be banned in three years and that they are looking at increasingly high repair bills in the event of a leak – a common repair issue with heat pumps.

The higher efficiency of new units and the promise of lower electricity bills also should be factored into the decision, he added.

The financial decision on whether to repair or replace a heat pump is not unlike the decision to pay higher maintenance bills to keep an older car running, instead of replacing it with a new or newer one, industry experts said.

Donley urged consumers to check out companies before hiring them, making sure they have a long track record in the business and a good rating from the Better Business Bureau.

“The most important thing is who you call, who is serving your home,” he said.

– Jim Walsh, East Valley Tribune / Edited for