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Understanding your options with HVAC 14 SEER regulations

By Curtis M. VanNess
General Manager, Donan HVAC Forensics

Over the past several years, there has been a clear trend of phasing out “dry-charge” air conditioners and heat pumps. What happened, why are some contractors still selling them, and what are the current common repair/replace options?  Read this insightful article for everything you need to know on the topic.

What is a dry-charge air conditioner?

 A “dry-charge” air conditioner is a 13 SEER, R-22 outdoor HVAC unit that is shipped and sold with no refrigerant installed in the factory. Instead, a technician comes to the home and field installs the R-22 refrigerant into the system.

R-22 has been commonly used in air conditioners and heat pumps for a long time and it is being phased out as the industry moves to refrigerants that have been proven to be safer for the environment.

The phase-out: background & implications

In 2011, the US Department of Energy (DOE) revised the energy consumption rules and raised the minimum standard for the residential HVAC system to a 14 SEER unit.  This meant that manufacturers had to phase out production and storage of “dry-charge” units. The DOE allowed an 18 month grace period for manufacturers and distributors to sell their inventory and after July 1, 2016, there have been very few “dry-charge” units left in the market.  The 14 SEER minimum regulation is not a mandate against repairing the system.  It is important to note that a homeowner can choose to repair an existing unit by replacing the faulty component, and that R-22 is not illegal but it is being phased out of production in 2020, and its price is slowly going up.

Common Repair Dilemmas

Today, 13 SEER, R-22 “dry-charge” air conditioners and heat pumps are no longer repair options, and the consumer is typically sold a matching outdoor and indoor 14 SEER unit regardless of the cause of failure or which component has failed.

The consumer will now have to pay more upfront for a complete system replacement because they no longer have the option to replace with a “dry-charge” unit. Homeowners need to be educated about this regulation so they may be confident about their decision when their system fails.

Traditionally, for the HVAC contractor, any type of HVAC component failure can be an opportunity to sell a complete system.  Now, this means that the contractor will be able to reference this new regulation.  They will argue that the consumer must be in compliance by getting their system up to the 14 SEER standard.  But the fact remains that HVAC systems, and particularly R-22 systems, can still be repaired.  Parts are available for these existing systems across the country. The conclusion is clear: HVAC systems do not have to be fully replaced just because a contractor makes that recommendation.

Understanding Repair Options & Component Failures

To understand the HVAC repair options, one must first properly identify which component failed. In our experience at Donan HVAC Forensics, we have seen the compressor as the most common component to fail, and ultimately the most expensive to replace. A contractor will usually recommend replacing the outdoor unit if the compressor has failed. But the consumer should be able to weigh the cost to replace the compressor, age of the unit, and other factors help make that final choice.

Prior to the 2015 regulations, a common repair choice was to install a new “dry-charge” unit. Now that this option is no longer available and as R-22 market prices increase, we are seeing most repairs switching to using the R-410A refrigerant.

R-410A refrigerant is considered by many to be more earth-friendly and provide higher efficiency. The issue with this replacement is that R-22 and R-410A equipment are not compatible. So when making the switch, one must ensure that the indoor coil is compatible with the new refrigerant, or else it will need to be replaced. This can add to the cost of the repair. However, if the indoor coil is compatible with R-410A then it can be cleaned and used with an R-410A outdoor unit. Thus, the new repair option is an R-410A outdoor unit with a new metering device installed at the existing indoor coil.

Below is a summary of the best repair options:

  1. Replace the component. The option is least popular for contractors because it does not give them the highest profit margin.
  2. Replace with a 14 SEER, R-410A outdoor unit with metering device. This is similar to the old “dry-charge” repair option because the contractor does not have to remove any indoor equipment or change any ductwork. The contractor can quickly return the system back to its pre-loss condition with minimal cost and less downtime.
  3. Replace with a 14 SEER, R-410A outdoor unit with coil. A very popular repair option because a contractor may not want or have the time to replace the furnace or air handler during the peak season. And with any R-410A conversion or new install, one must take care to clean and evacuate the system properly.
  4. Replace with a 14 SEER, R-410A outdoor unit and indoor unit (complete system replacement). This is the most expensive for the consumer or the paying party.

Understanding all of the above repair options is critical for consumers looking to make the best economical solution for their home and for insurance providers inspecting the validity of HVAC claims. Not every system will need the same repairs and not every customer will fall upon the same issues, but there is always an option that can benefit both parties with a proper diagnostic analysis.

DONAN HVAC Forensics Division

Donan’s full-time HVAC Technicians are trained and certified using a program developed by mechanical and electrical engineers to diagnose the cause of failure in heating and cooling systems. Our technicians have the expertise and equipment to investigate units in residential, commercial and industrial environments. All of our reports indicate which component failed, the cause of failure and a cost estimate for repair or replacement. They are peer reviewed for technical accuracy and delivered to your inbox within 24 hours of the site visit. Learn more here.