Hydrofluorocarbons: the coolant with a sordid past. Environmentalists have long recognized this common AC refrigerant as a harmful contributor to climate change. In fact, the EPA has been calling for their removal from consumer air conditioners since the 1980s. In 2013, the United States’s Clean Air Action Plan sought to phase out hydrofluorocarbons—shortened to HFCs—domestically, but no international commitment stood in place to reduce greenhouse gases globally.
A plan signed last week seeks to correct that issue. Approved by 170 different countries across the globe, the agreement sets its sights on limiting HFC use by entirely phasing out its production by 2047. Experts predict that this will remove the equivalent of 70 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—about twice as much CO2 as we produce globally in a year.
So what does that mean for your home’s air conditioning? Well, if you purchase a new unit in the next two to three years, there’s a good chance your system will be doing a lot more to reduce greenhouse heat than the one you had before. Let’s take a look at the history of HFCs—and how you can get the greenest AC unit on the market.
What Exactly Makes HFCs So Bad For The Environment?
First, a little backstory on HFCs. They belong to a class of manmade chemicals known as fluorinated gases, which, in some cases, may linger in the atmosphere for thousands of years.
AC units and refrigeration systems by far contribute the most to HFC pollution. And while these gases make up just a tiny portion of greenhouse emissions, they do some of the most damage to the environment, proportionately. That’s because HFCs, in their current iteration, trap heat in the atmosphere. And that, in turn, speeds up global warming immensely.
While today’s HFCs are better than the ones that were around in the 80s (those also destroyed the ozone layer as well), global heat gain is a huge environmental concern. Keeping the atmospheric temperature below a catastrophic tipping point has been the main focus of climate change scientists and government environmental agencies in recent years.
And with air conditioning, that goal is a bit of a catch-22. As global temperatures rise, the world will only require more AC and refrigeration to keep us safe and cool. But running all those air conditioners increases the amount of HFCs in the atmosphere, which raises temperatures even more. As you can see, it’s sort of a vicious cycle.
That’s what makes this agreement so important. It puts pressure on manufacturers against the globe to create greener, HFC-free products to reduce your AC’s environmental impact.
How Does This Affect My Existing Air Conditioner?
In a word, it doesn’t. You can still use your older air conditioner until the end of its lifespan. But when you purchase your next system, it will likely rely on an alternative coolant, like CO2, hydrocarbons, hydrofluoroolefins, ammonia, or even water.
Still, finding an effective replacement for HFCs offers a bit of a challenge for manufacturers, since currently there’s no widely-used substitute on the market. However, the popular appliance brand Honeywell has been working with scientists for decades to develop an alternative, known as hydrofluoroolefin, or HFO. This refrigerant, patented as Solstice L-41, rates highly for energy efficiency, and cools just as effectively as HFCs. Meanwhile, it also breaks down rapidly—in a few days or less—so it’s less of a hazard for the environment.
Unfortunately, HFOs cost more to produce, since the manufacturing process is more complex than that used for HFCs. That means you might have to spend just a little bit more for your next unit.
How Can I Buy an HFC-Free AC Unit?
You’d have trouble locating an HFO unit if you looked right now. Manufacturers are still testing these coolants before they begin producing new HFC-free units. Keep your eye on the market, though—especially since this newest agreement should motivate air conditioning companies to move more rapidly.
Right now, if you want to buy an entirely emissions-free cooling unit, your best option is to go with an evaporative cooler. These devices don’t use a chemical refrigerant at all. Instead, they rely on the natural wind chill effect created by blowing air over water-saturated pads. That means they release zero greenhouse gases, and without any dangerous chemicals among their components, they’re safer and non-toxic, too.
But don’t bet on an evaporative cooler if you live in an area with very humid summers. The cooled air adds humidity to a home’s interiors, so they work best in dry regions, where a little humidity offers some welcome relief.
You can still make some changes in your home now to offset your energy use—like turning on the fan so you can keep the thermostat higher , buying a smart thermostat, or one of these other tips. It may not reduce your reliance on HFCs, but it will still lower your home’s carbon footprint. And anything you can do to reduce greenhouse emissions makes you an environmental hero!