Your Next Air Conditioner Is Going to Be Different — and Better — Than Your Old One

Your Next Air Conditioner Is Going to Be Different — and Better — Than Your Old One
Photo: Jenny Kane, AP

Your next window unit air conditioner is in for some big changes over the next decade. The Environmental Protection Agency finalised a rule last week to largely phase out the chemicals in air conditioners that keep your room cool but damage the climate.

Hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, are the basis for most cooling technology. In addition to air conditioners, they’re also found in everything from fridges to car engines. The chemicals came into widespread use decades ago after the world recognised the need to phase out a different type of chemical — chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which were wreaking havoc on the ozone layer.

Unfortunately, HFCs have up to 11,700 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, and the United Nations has warned that not addressing HFC use could mean “we essentially cook ourselves.” Enter the new EPA rule, which could spur widespread innovation in cooling technology. If past rules around refrigerants are any indication, it could even cut the costs on future air conditioner models.

What the EPA’s HFC Rule Mandates

The world came together to sign an agreement called the Kigali Amendment to phase out HFCs and each signatory country is responsible for its own plan. The U.S. has been mulling one for a while, and it’s finally ready.

This new rule, the EPA said, could help the U.S. avoid the equivalent emissions of 4.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide over the course of the next three decades; that number is about the same as three whole years of emissions from the power sector, which is a lot.

The EPA’s new rule oversees the phase-out of HFCs over the next 15 years, giving manufacturers increasingly smaller allowances each year. (There’s also lots of safeguards in place to make sure that manufacturers don’t illegally import HFCs beyond the limits allotted to them, which was a big problem in the EU, where HFC targets are already in place.) The requirement will kick in next year, when the industry is allowed to use 90% of its current allotment of HFCs in producing new appliances and maintaining old ones.

“Ninety per cent does sound like a lot,” said Shanika Whitehurst, the associate director of product sustainability, research, and testing at Consumer Reports, who formerly worked as the environmental justice coordinator at the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. “But think about all the things that refrigerant goes into. We’re not just talking residential refrigeration and cooling, we’re talking about grocery stores, we’re talking about HVAC systems in schools and buildings, all of that plays into it.” (Grocery store refrigeration and freezing, investigations have found, is a major issue in the industry when it comes to HFC emissions.)

Between 2023 and 2028, the regulation says, the allotment will be ratcheted up to 60% of the current baseline, with further cuts through 2034. That means that those of us who might be in the market for an air conditioner in the next few will still see HFC-based units on the shelves. But options will begin to open up.

“The ratcheting down effect is to be able to say, ‘OK, we’re giving [manufacturers] leeway here because there’s window units that have already been manufactured,’” Whitehurst said. “[The EPA] isn’t going to say, ‘OK, take those all and burn them.’ What they will say is that the production of that particular kind is going away. That’s going to spur next-generation technologies.”

What Future Air Conditioners Could Use Instead of HFCs

We’ve already got precedent for the kinds of positive side effects that can follow regulation. In 2010, household cooling systems were required to switch from using a chemical known as R-22, which damaged the ozone, to R-407c. As it turns out, R-407c is more efficient than the chemical it was replacing, meaning manufacturers could make units smaller and use less coolant — and cheaper. R-407c is an HFC, meaning it will still require an eventual phaseout, but big names in the industry have already been at work finding a replacement in anticipation of regulations like these.

Researchers have also been making major strides involving new chemicals, including hydrofluoroolefins, ammonia, and propane. Some studies have also focused on new materials that transfer heat as a possible solution.

Figuring out next-generation technologies, though, isn’t just limited to creating a chemical to replace HFCs that’s slightly less bad for the environment. It’s also about innovating new methods of keeping us cool that don’t involve chemicals at all. Whitehurst pointed out that evaporative coolers have become increasingly popular in Europe following that region’s HFC regulations. Heat pumps and designs for cooler buildings, like rooftop gardens, could also become more and more common as both temperatures rise and older, polluting methods of cooling slowly get phased out.

“Once those systems go kaput, there should be newer technologies on the market,” Whitehurst said. “Innovation does not happen overnight. We’ve been looking at this HFC issue since the early 2000s. You have the Department of Energy providing grants to industry to figure out what technologies we can put in place that don’t do these things. You’re spurring technology in the development of other techniques, and you’re spurring the development of other chemicals.”

The world has its work cut out for it, though. Global levels of HFC-23, a type of chemical used in refrigerators and air conditioners, hit a new peak high in 2018. The success of the new EPA rule will be instrumental in ensuring that peak comes down — and that we still have access to cooling because we’re going to need it.