Price of Vehicle Refrigerant is Overheated

If the rising price of gasoline has people steamed, just wait until they see what it costs to have their vehicle's air conditioner recharged.

If the rising price of gasoline has people steamed, just wait until they see what it costs to have their vehicle's air conditioner recharged. The price of HFC-134a refrigerant, used in automotive air conditioning systems in the United States since 1992, has nearly quintupled since September. A combination of factors -- a shortage of 134a, plants being switched over to produce alternate refrigerants and increased demand worldwide -- have caught the industry off guard, said Ward Atkinson, technical adviser for the Mobile Air Conditioning Society Worldwide.

It means the repair shop that was charging about $6 a pound for 134a last season will be charging $30 to $35 this season, and that doesn't include the cost of the system check and any repairs. The good news is that most newer air conditioners won't need more than a pound or two to bring back the cold air. Several issues have collided to heat up the price of 134a. DuPont, a major manufacturer of the refrigerant, announced in September that there would be a supply shortfall through the end of 2004. And since the government ordered a change from R-12 Freon to the less environmentally damaging 134a in the mid-1990s, there hasn't been much of an increase in production facilities, Atkinson said. "And we've had more and more use of 134a worldwide," he said.

South America, China and India are switching from R-12 to 134a. On top of that, a proposed ban of 134a by the European Union in favor of a refrigerant that is even more environmentally friendly is compounding production schedules as plants prepare to make the switch. Even so, there is no reason for the radical price increase, said John Wolsey, owner of Import Autoworks in Escondido. "It is incredible that no one was informed of this shortfall and that it occurred over the winter when we're not doing too much air conditioning work," he said.

DuPont said it has never had a shortfall like this before.

Its plant in Corpus Christi, Texas, is the world's largest for making 134a. It had "several unexpected process upsets in 2004 that negatively impacted our global inventories and our ability to supply our customers," said Martin Drigotas, DuPont's manager of automotive refrigerants. That was reported to the Mobile Air Conditioning Society Worldwide in September.

DuPont has addressed the plant's technical problems and production is running ahead of schedule, Drigotas said. "Our intention is to run it continuously through 2005," he said.

If everything goes well, this year's production will be greater than it was in 2004. But demand for 134a is growing faster than the plants to manufacture it.

There are several makers of 134a, including Ineos, Honeywell and Arkema, but except for one small plant in China, no new plants have been built in some time, Drigotas said.

He said that even at current prices DuPont doesn't think it would profitable enough to add a facility to meet the demand.

There is no alternative refrigerant to 134a, which has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for use in new cars since 1992. And using a noncertified replacement refrigerant -- including R-12 Freon -- will cause the hoses, seals and shafts to fail, said Atkinson of the Mobile Air Conditioning Society.

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