The mood of the crowd was upbeat. And why not? Most wholesalers agreed that times have been good, and remain so...at least for now. The Big Easy was the site for the NorthAmerican Heating, Refrigeration and Airconditioning Wholesalers (NHRAW) annual convention in December. Snips was there to observe.

NEW ORLEANS - Just when you thought all the old questions about refrigerants had been cleared up¿ Equipment manufacturers and refrigerant suppliers continue to get phone calls from hvac service contractors asking if it is OK to replace the R-22 in a system with R-410A.

No, it is not. For several reasons, R-410A is not a drop-in replacement for R-22, although R-410A systems are rapidly displacing R-22 systems as the air conditioning technology of choice. But the fact that they are getting these calls means many contractors are still confused on this subject, and probably also means that many are making the direct, drop-in replacements without bothering to find out more.

Jim Rutz, Tecumseh Products Company, Tecumseh, Mich., was one of several panel members addressing the Refrigeration Systems Council and HVAC Systems & Equipment Council at NHRAW.

Rutz said, "It's easier to change technology than it is to change attitudes." He went on to call the present confusion "refrigeration soup." Where there were a handful of refrigerants before that covered everything from ultra-low temp refrigeration to home air conditioners, today there are more than 10 alternate refrigerant manufacturers, and 40-plus new candidates.

Rutz said some of the manufacturers are asking Tecumseh to begin supply complete refrigeration systems, rather than components, in part because of the increased liability if incompatible components come together. For contractors, there is more reluctance to work on "someone else's system," in other words, a system they did not specify, sell and/or install. How do you know the proper refrigerant was used? Refrigerant 410A, for instance, operates at much higher pressures than R-22. But can contractors ever afford to turn away new service business just because they didn't get the initial sales call?

The good news for compressor manufacturers, such as Tecumseh, is that they can design for virtually any refrigerant, depending on what an oem wants. The oems, of course, are in turn driven by government mandates and consumer demand.

Summing up, Rutz said that you can count on the following:

  • Costs will go up faster as economies of scale are lost and safeguards are designed in.

  • Service complexity will go up, leading to increased manufacturer involvement.

  • The need for technician recruitment and training will increase, and may be mandated.

Training will be a growth business.

Rutz also said, and he admits he isn't always popular for this remark, that potentially explosive hydrocarbon-based refrigerants (isobutane) will begin to be approved in the U.S. "Once again," he said, "attitude is the greatest challenge." He said their use could gain acceptance much the same way we have come to accept natural gas and propane in our homes and businesses.

He also noted that some contractors are already buying trailers to haul all of the different assorted refrigerant cylinders they will need for service work, now and in the future. As if all that wasn't enough, he offered the following unsettling thought: most of the tools in your tool kit will be obsolete.

Phaseout schedule for HCFCs including R-22:

January 1, 2004: The amount of all HCFCs that can be produced nationwide must be reduced by 35%.

January 1, 2010: After 2010, manufacturers may produce R-22 to service existing equipment, but not for use in new equipment. Only pre-existing supplies of R-22 can be used to produce new equipment, including R-22 recovered from existing equipment and recycled.

January 1, 2020: Manufacturers will no longer produce R-22. Use of existing supplies will be used to service air conditioners and heat pumps.

Alkyl benzene oil: A synthetic refrigeration oil similar to mineral oil; it offers better low-temperature mixing with HCFCs.

Azeotrope: A mixture of two or more refrigerants that acts as a single fluid; will not separate under normal operating conditions.

Blend: A mixture of two or more refrigerant components.

Ester oil: A general term referring to the family of polyolester lubricants. More compatible with HFC refrigerants.

Zeotrope: A blend that behaves normally as a mixture of refrigerants. The properties are a combination of the individual component properties, and the vapor composition is different from the liquid, which promotes fractionation and temperature glide effects.

Not-so-young executives forum

The first order of business for this new committee was to change its name.

The Young Executives Forum is now the Executive Development Forum. Begun just a few months ago, this was the first official meeting for this group. It started out with 23 attendees, then grew to 30-35. The idea was to make NHRAW more accessible and more approachable to young people, or at least those who do not have many years of experience either in the industry or to this association.

New management skills are necessary to keep ahead of the competition and to keep individual businesses thriving today, was the group's consensus. But, as chairperson Russ Geary said, the group is not trying to turn anyone away who might be uncomfortable with the term "young." After all, how young is young?

As NHRAW outgoing president James McNeil put it, "The answers on how to change this industry lie in this room." The group will continue to be a presence at future conventions, and will host speakers on a variety of subjects related to management skills and business strategies.