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How-To Guide for Freon Disposal

How-To Guide for Freon Disposal

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Most people in the United States depend on air conditioners to keep cool and comfortable during the summer. In fact, according to the U.S. government’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey, over 90% of American households have air conditioning,[1] and of course, everyone needs a refrigerator and a freezer in their home. AC units often depend on a cooling refrigerant to produce cold air. The most commonly used refrigerant is Freon, in the form of R-22 and R-410a compounds.

What is Freon?

Freon is the trademarked name of a mixture of several different chemicals. It’s found in AC units, refrigerators, and freezers. It works by undergoing cycles of pressure heating, cooling, and then evaporation to cool air which is then circulated by fans.

Since the cooling units are sealed, Freon gas usually stays in the unit and is reused over and over. However, sometimes these units develop a leak. In that case, to continue to function, the leak would need to be sealed and additional Freon added back in.

Seems like a straightforward process, right? The Freon gets recharged and away you go.

However, on January 1, 2020, new regulations were enacted that restrict the production and sale of R-22 Freon refrigerant in the United States. Thus, newer AC units are not filled with R-22 Freon. But this type of Freon was used for decades in AC and refrigerator units. There are still millions of operating units filled with R-22 Freon refrigerant.

Homeowners and business owners who have leaks in their AC units now have to have repairs done using what remaining R-22 Freon is left, which is getting harder to find and is significantly increasing in price. While there is a next-generation replacement, Freon R-410a, using this would require a retrofitting of the cooling equipment or a complete replacement of the existing AC system. Typically, consumers will need to swap out their existing AC units rather than just repairing them if this new Freon is used. [2]

Freon Effects on the Environment

Why the push to replace the use of Freon R-22? What are Freon’s effects on the environment? Is Freon really that bad for the environment? Freon is a hydrochlorofluorocarbon, which has been shown to be an ozone-depleting substance (ODS). The ozone layer protects the earth and humans from UV radiation. Without a healthy ozone layer, UV radiation can harm people, plants, marine ecosystems, and even affect substances such as plastics and paint. [3]

Environmental scientists describe Freon as one of the most significant environmental pollutants today. [4] It has negative effects on the atmospheric environment and human health. Because of the impact of Freon on the environment, countries around the world, including the U.S., agree that it is important to phase out the use of Freon, especially R-22.

How to Handle Air Conditioner Leaks

If your AC unit or appliance is still in good working order with no leaking of Freon R-22, there is no need to get a replacement. Keep it in good working order with proper maintenance and you can still get many years out of your appliance.

But what happens if you have an older unit that contains this type of Freon and needs repair?

First, determine the type of refrigerant is in your appliance or AC unit. There’s usually a manufacturer’s nameplate or product information sticker on your AC unit, refrigerator, or freezer. It lists information like safety certifications, energy usage, electrical ratings, and serial number. Typically, manufacturers include the type of refrigerant as well. If there is no nameplate, you can check your owner’s manual or contact the manufacturer’s customer line or website. If it has HCFC-22 or R-22 listed, your unit contains the restricted Freon type.

liquid coming out of hose surrounded by orange cones
Photo by Daan Mooij on Unsplash

If your unit is not working correctly due to a Freon leak, you may not be able to simply recharge it. The only available Freon R-22 at this time is from reclaimed sources; the dwindling supply is becoming more expensive. Scott MacFarlane, Vice President of MacFarlane Energy, cautions, “It’s very, very expensive. It’s almost like gold. It is very price prohibitive now.” [5] It’s becoming more cost effective to simply replace your AC unit or old refrigerator than trying to get an expensive repair.

If a leak develops, you may need a replacement. It pays to have a certified professional take a look. Mike Donley of Phoenix-based Donley AC & Plumbing says, “Consumers should be cautious about ads that imply you must have a new AC unit. You need to weigh the costs of repairing and replacing.” [6] Options for consumers include a blend of Freon type, conversion to a newer type of Freon, or buying a new unit. A qualified certified technician can offer you the best option for your budget and needs.

Be sure to consider the cost savings of a new unit. They run more efficiently and cost less in the long run.

Proper Disposal of a Freon AC Unit or Appliance

If you choose to dispose of your AC unit or old appliance and replace it with a new one, it is important to dispose of it properly. Freon could escape during the removal and disposal process. Tyler Kornelis, KANA Project Manager in Kodiak, Alaska, advises, “To remove Freon from a refrigerator, it’s incredibly illegal and it’s not responsible to just release that gas into the environment, but rather you need to be trained to capture the refrigerant with the proper processes and tools.” [7] Do not cut refrigerant lines or remove a compressor yourself. It could lead to Freon discharge into the environment.

Not only is it dangerous for the environment, but human exposure to Freon can be painful and harmful. Freon on your hands can cause a freezing burn. Inhaling Freon gas can damage bodily organs and cause permanent damage or even death. [8]

Freon must be removed from old household appliances and air conditioning units before tossing them. While it may be tempting to handle this yourself, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires a certified professional handle Freon removal. [9] When buying a new replacement unit, most retailers offer removal of the unit or appliance for free with delivery of the new unit.

Most municipal waste handling authorities offer guidance for the proper disposal of Freon-containing units and appliances in their communities. You can usually get information through the public works or environmental safety department. Some offer incentives such as rebates or credits for the purchase of new environmentally safe replacement appliances only if the old unit is disposed of properly.

A man outside of his upper level apartment looking down. There are two air conditioning units and clothes drying on a clothesline
Photo by Michu Đăng Quang on Unsplash

The EPA offers resources for disposal through its Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) partner programs. When you drop off your AC unit or appliance at a RAD partner site, they work with recycling facilities to properly dispose of these units.[10] You can find partner sites using the EPA map tool at Find RAD Partner Programs.

While AC units, refrigerators, and freezers in general are prohibited in rental dumpsters, if you have had the Freon in your unit or appliance removed by a certified professional, you may be able to place it in a roll off dumpster. It is important you check with your rental dumpster company to ascertain if it’s an option.

Dumpster companies are not able to accept appliances that still contain Freon. Haulers are required to abide by all regulations pertaining to the disposal of Freon, so it may not be an option in your area for you to handle any part of the removal and disposal process for these types of appliances. If disposal is an option, you may be required to provide proof of proper Freon removal by a certified professional before placing it in a dumpster container.

Is It Time to Replace Your Freon AC Unit?

Although the environmental benefits of eliminating the use of Freon are clear, there are some things to consider for the average American when deciding between repair and replacement. As R-22 becomes less available due to production and import freezes, homeowners with older AC units or refrigerators should plan for the inevitable need to replace these units in the future.

There won’t just be the additional cost involved. There may also be a wait. As consumer need for replacement increases in the next several years, technicians find the demand sometimes outstrips their available slots for work. Homeowners could wait weeks for a slot during busy season. If you know you need a new AC unit, consider avoiding summer months when demand for repair and replacement services is high and the wait can be long.

The good news -- a replacement AC unit will run more efficiently. You’ll save money and cut your energy use. Newer units provide quieter operation, remove humidity more efficiently, and offer a higher level of performance. [11] Moving to an ozone-friendly product will decrease any future repair costs as well; newer units are more reliable and provide more efficient cooling than older systems.

The Future of Freon and Impacts on the Environment

Freon R-22 is restricted from import or production. R-410a has taken its place. R-410a is known by brand names such as GENETRON AZ-20®, SUVA 410A®, Forane® 410A, and Puron®.  There are other types of Freon and refrigerants in research and production including R-134a that further reduce the negative environmental effects of Freon. In addition, a new family of refrigerants collectively referred to as hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) are in development. They rapidly break down in the atmosphere and reduce the ozone depletion potential of these substances.[12] 

Next-gen refrigerants offer the opportunity to reduce ozone-depleting substances in our atmosphere. Along with the increased efficiency of newer units and the elimination of old leaking systems, these are good steps as the industry moves toward reducing the harmful effects of refrigerants on the environment through the use of Freon. While there may never be a perfect refrigerant, new innovations help contribute to a healthier future for the earth and all of us.

[1] Residential Energy Consumption Survey, U.S. Energy Information Administration 

[2] It’s Like Gold: Freon Ban Could Cost Homeowners Big Bucks to Cool Down, Boston25 News

[3]  Homeowners and Consumers: Frequently Asked Questions, EPA

[4] Effects of Freon Exposure, Militsa Danova 

[5] It’s Like Gold: Freon Ban Could Cost Homeowners Big Bucks to Cool Down, Boston25 News

[6] Mike Donley, Donley AC & Plumbing

[7] Villages conduct massive scrap metal and hazardous waste removal, Kayla Desroches 

Kodiak Area Native Association Environmental Programs and Projects

[8] What is Refrigerant Poisoning?  Elea Carey 

[9] Stationary Refrigeration and Air Conditioning, EPA

[10] Responsible Appliance Disposal Partner Programs, EPA

[11] R22 Freon Phaseout: Do I Need a New Air Conditioner in 2020?, Broadley’s

[12] Homeowners and Consumers: Frequently Asked Questions, EPA 

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