Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Learning how to be cool

I spent a lot of time over the last five days on our air conditioning system. My hope is that if you found this posting and are considering repairing or replacing a home central air unit, you might learn from my experience and save yourself time and aggravation. If this is helpful to you, please consider doing an act of kindness for a loved one or even a stranger. Here is my story.

CadMur Manor was built in October 1998 with everything we wanted: 2-car garage, front porch, aesthetically pleasing design, good insulation, and efficient appliances. Brand new everything.
All was wonderful until the first warm day of 1999, when the a/c didn't work in its inaugural test. The builder sent someone to charge the system with refrigerant. As it had been overlooked in the cool fall, the builder said, it was merely an oversight. A couple years later, same situation. No cooling. The builder was out of the picture, and so began our first service call on our dime. Probably a pin-hole leak, the fixing of which was cost-prohibitive, we were told. Charged once again, the refrigerant lasted a couple years. And then we repeated, every two or three years. Thus begins my long lesson in home HVAC.

Growing problem
After 10 years and three or four fresh loads of refrigerant (known to most of us by the brand name freon) something changed. A charge of refrigerant last summer was depleted by this spring. Was the "leak" growing? I asked the a/c guy about fixing the unit, as I did each of the other times. Same response: these leaks are small, almost impossible to detect, and by the time we pay someone to find and fix them we could have bought a new a/c unit. This time, the a/c guy du jour added something new: the builder hadn't put a protective pad under our outdoor unit, which led to its sinking into the soil and its coils and condenser coming into contact with excess moisture and corrosion, which explained the leak(s). The unit is as good as gone, he said. It might hold another charge through the summer, but we were going to need an entire new system. We opted to take our chances in 2009, crossing our fingers as we did so, and commit to doing what's necessary next spring. Ka-ching.

We've already depleted our wallet quite a bit on all these service calls. But the environment has suffered, too, because of our leaky central air conditioning, a well-respected Lennox system. The refrigerant in the system is harmless, so long as it stays where it's designed to stay. But if allowed to escape, the HCFCs in the freon contribute to damage to the ozone layer. (Federal laws require technicians to capture and recycle refrigerants. A/C professionals can't just release freon into the environment like one would by letting the air out of a tire.) Our failure to deal with this system effectively is antithetical to our commitment to being conscientious environmental stewards. Determined to rid ourselves of this cognitive dissonance, we would use this summer to research and look at an alternative that's most economical as well as energy efficient and environmentally friendly.

That was a cool plan that lasted almost two months. The system failed just hours before summer began last Saturday, June 20.

I put out a call for advice Sunday to my Facebook friends and the Twitterverse and got some recommendations for some reliable HVAC dealers. I followed up with several leads, called the last a/c guy I worked with and another guy who was recommended to Sophie by a co-worker.

The cool players
  • Vendor X was first on the scene Tuesday. He's the guy recommended by Sophie's friend at work. He said he could fix the current system or replace it. He disputed a number of things the last a/c guy had told us.
  • Vendor Y came Tuesday evening. Same story as with Vendor X. Repairing and fixing are both possible and recommended over purchasing a new system.
  • Vendor Z came Wednesday morning. He was the same a/c guy who charged the system a couple months ago. Our system is shot, beyond repair. Vendor Z recommended a Luxaire Acclimate 8T Series High Efficiency Central Air Conditioner, 18+ SEER Efficiency. Price: $6,000, more than double what either of the other vendors estimated for a new unit, if we even needed one. (The picture above is not the one Vendor Z recommended, but it may as well have been for the amount of money he quoted.)

  • The several vendors who had charged my unit were all doing so against standard protocol and perhaps violating federal clean air rules. By knowingly filling a unit with a leak, they likewise knew that the refrigerant they were using would not stay contained in the system. They should have advised me to find the leak, not nearly the impossible task I had been led to believe (see below)
  • The pad under the air conditioner isn't the culprit Vendor Z said it was. Pads are nice, but not necessary if the unit is placed properly, which they both said it was. The unit was level and secure, atop a bed of stones that drained water away effectively. Vendors X and Y said the unit had pretty much normal wear and tear and showed no signs of being obsolete.
  • Vendors X and Y were skeptical that the leak had grown worse since the last charge, only a couple months before. More likely, they said, the unit had not been fully charged
  • There might be good reason to replace my unit, but repairing it was recommended. Vendor Y quoted a price of $900 to repair. Vendor X gave an estimate that ranged from $200 to $600, although he acknowledged it is possible there might be damage in the condenser that might necessitate purchasing a new unit.
Finding and fixing the leak
  • I chose to work with Vendor X, who had the most knowledge and experience. He will be out Thursday afternoon, June 25, to look for any obvious leak, fix it if found or take additional steps to find the leak
  • If not found easily (by a "bubble test") Vendor X will fully charge my system with refrigerant and inject a dye pack. This is considered standard protocol and within clean-air guidelines; although the refrigerant will undoubtedly leak into the environment, it's being done in conjunction with a diagnostic test that will determine the place of the leak and lead to its repair
  • Vendor X will return in two weeks, July 9, with an infrared light to assess where the dye, and thus the refrigerant, is leaking. It could be in one or more of several places. The location of the leak(s) determines the cost of labor and materials
  • When the leak is found and the cost is better known, we will have the option of choosing to get a new unit if the cost warrants it
  • Vendor X's bottom line: the leak could be caused by a worn $2 valve or it could be much more complex. There are several other more serious but not-likely defects possible, but chances are they will find the leak and total cost of repair will be as quoted above
Repair costs, broken down
  • Known costs: $80 service call + $40 for the dye pack
  • Variables: Refrigerant (probably about $75) + labor + materials if required
  • Total: $200 to $600 (Vendor X's estimate)
Why buy a new unit?
Although I may not invest in a new system, I learned a lot during my discussions and research. Buying a new unit may actually be the best option. With rising energy costs and efficiency advances, the best reason to replace an existing system is to be green, both for the environment and for the pocketbook. An energy-star rated system today is about 50% more efficient than the 1998 Lennox system that came with our house.
To motivate sales of newer units, the Federal government is allowing 30 percent tax credits on qualifying purchases of new central air systems. (Many other energy-saving purchases qualify for existing homeowners as well, including windows and doors, insulation, roofs (metal and asphalt), water heaters, geothermal heat pumps, solar panels, solar water heaters, small wind energy systems and fuel cells. Some are limited up to $1,500, through 2010; some are available at 30 percent with no upper limit through 2016. Check the Department of Energy for more information.)

Refrigerants are cool
  • Freon is DuPont's trade name for its chlorofluorocarbon and hydrochlorofluorocarbon refrigerants, commonly used in air conditioners and refrigerators. It was developed in 1928 as a non-toxic refrigerant alternative for gases such as ammonia, methane and sulfur dioxide, which could be deadly if leaked from a refrigerator.
  • Freon is odorless, tasteless and nonflammable. Its known dangers to humans are that it can replace oxygen in a closed environment and the chlorine in the gas damages the ozone layer. Freon stays in the upper atmosphere for about 100 years
  • Venting freon or not using approved recovery equipment can result in substantial fines
  • Anyone working with freon must be licensed; failure to obtain licensure can result in substantial fines
  • Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) e.g., R-11, R-12 -- most damaging to the ozone layer, these refrigerants were phased out in the U.S. in 1996 and in the rest of the
  • Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), e.g., R-22 -- used in most home cooling systems today. Developed by Honeywell, R-22 will be phased out totally by 2030. On Jan. 1, 2010, manufacturers will not be allowed to produce R-22 for use in new refrigerators or air conditioners. In 2020, manufacturers must cease production of R-22 altogether. Homeowners must cease using R-22 by 2030
  • Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), e.g., R-410A -- the refrigerant used in all new systems. It contains only hydrogen, fluoride and carbon and no ozone-damaging chlorine. Allied Signal, now Honeywell, developed the refrigerant
Cost and efficiency considerations -- what I needed to learn about being cool
  • EER (Energy Efficiency Ratio) -- the higher the number the better. The formula for EER is BTUs / Watt Hours; an EER of 10 uses less energy than an EER of 5 to produce the same BTUs
  • SEER is EER adjusted for seasonality, since we don't use air conditioning every month. Our current Lennox system is a SEER 10. The systems we were presented are SEER 16 and SEER 18
  • "Split systems" (a condenser unit outside and an air handling unit inside at the furnace) that are older run at one speed. They're either on or off. When they're on, they run at full power. Most newer units can run on two speeds, low and high. By running on low, usually 80 percent to 90 percent of the time, the units are much more efficient than the single speed systems. Important: if selecting a variable speed air conditioner, the furnace blower must be able to vary its speed as well. Since we have an on/off furnace blower as well, selecting a variable speed air conditioner would not work any better than a single speed system. (Vendor Z's recommended system is a dual speed. He said he could make it work with our existing furnace up to specs and achieve dual-speed savings. Vendors X and Y both disputed his assertion.)
  • To qualify for a tax credit, the air conditioner must be at least SEER 14 or 16, depending on whether it's a split or package system
  • Energy-saving formula -- our energy savings with a SEER 16 unit is about 50 percent over the SEER 10 unit we have now. We estimate that our a/c costs us now about $75 a month, for four months a year, or $300 for the season. By saving 50 percent, we would save about $150 a year -- possibly much more as energy prices increase
  • Payback formula -- a newly installed SEER 10 Goodman brand a/c unit will cost $2,990 installed, including tax. (Vendor X will credit us for initial attempts to identify the leak if we choose to buy a new unit.) The difference between the cost of a new unit and fixing the old unit is about $2,500 ($2,990 - $490 approximate to repair). Our payback time is almost 17 years ($2,500 / $150 = 16.67).
  • Other factors: if the cost of repairs turns out to be $1,000, the payback formula turns out to be 13.3 years (($2,990 - $1,000) / $150 = 13.28 )
  • If the cost of energy goes doubles over the next 10 years, the payback period accelerates more dramatically. E.g., if the annual energy savings are $250, the payback period is 10 years ($2,500 / $250 = 10); Average energy savings of $375 yields 6.7 years ($2,500 / $375 = 6.67)
Tax credit effect
Our hypothetical 16 SEER unit qualifies for a 30 percent tax credit -- a dollar for dollar deduction from our total taxes paid to the Federal government (as opposed to a tax deduction). This changes all of the formulas above to our advantage, starting with our purchase pr
ice: $2,990 - 30 percent = $2,093
  • Payback period with the tax credit and current energy costs will range from 7.3 years to 10.7 years, depending on how much repair costs used in the formula
  • Payback period could accelerate to as little as 3 years by maximizing the repair cost and the energy savings (($2093 purchase - $1,000 comparable repair cost) / avg savings of $375 = 2.91 years)
Current Status, June 25, 2009
  • Try to find simple leaks
  • Charge unit today and inject dye pack
  • More research on energy savings, cost per year for a/c with current vs. new
  • Inspect July 9 and determine cost for repairs
  • Re-calculate
  • Repair or replace
Follow up post: I want my HVAC -- follow-up, July 20, 2009


Jeff Hershberger said...

Excellent detail, Steve. I did shudder a bit at the repeated recharging. These refrigerants cause hundreds of times the global warming effects compared to the same weight in carbon dioxide.

In our last house, an 1888 farmhouse near Chicago, we didn't have any air conditioning until we needed to sell it. Its first floor was five feet above grade, so we could open the windows wide without bugs coming in. (It leaked like a sieve even with the windows shut anyway.) But after a year of making two mortgage payments, we had to install AC because buyers expected it.

I'm sure your newer home is sealed tight as a drum, and you'll have a very efficient home when it's finished.

Thad Martinsen said...

Thanks for the detailed post.

Did the vendors say much about the price of R22 this summer? I paid out the nose for 10 gallons of R22--somewhere around $150. The tech said that the price is rising due to the phaseout. Wondering if it's as expensive in Ohio.

Good luck!

Steve Cadwell said...

Thad, I only know what I read on the Net. Conventional wisdom says that R-22 will get more expensive as time goes on. Makes sense, since production will be limited in 2010 to already-existing units and then eliminated altogether in 2020. Supply & demand.

Alternative refrigerants said...

Nothing gives one person so much advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances. Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.

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