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Weighing the A/C facts

Aftermarket Business/February 2010

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seems ready to inhibit retail sales of the soon-to-be-approved air-conditioning refrigerant expected to replace R-134a. The agency is about to publish a significant new use rule (SNUR) regarding HFO1234yf (R-1234), the R-134a replacement. The SNUR is half of a two-part regulatory approval process.

The other half is EPA approval of R-1234 within its significant new alternatives policy (SNAP) program. The SNAP proposed rule implied that the SNUR would restrict use of R-1234 by do-it-yourselfers (DIYers).

At the end of 2009, the EPA extended the comment period on the SNAP proposed rule to Feb. 1, 2010 because of a request from the Automotive Refrigerant Products Institute and the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA). Michael Conlon, a Washington attorney who represents the groups, asked for the delay because the aftermarket industry wants to be able to review the SNUR before commenting on SNAP requirements. At the time of publication, Conlon expected the SNUR to come out soon in the form of a direct final rule, meaning any DIYer restrictions would be a done deal, unless opponents raised their voices. “Procedurally, if someone objects to a direct final rule, EPA has to withdraw it and start over,” Conlon explains.

Margaret Sheppard, the EPA official heading the SNUR, did not respond to a request on that announcement’s timeline.

We already reported on the proposed SNAP, approving R-1234 as the “green” successor to R-134a, the current global auto air-conditioning refrigerant of choice, which is being phased out in Europe and is likely to disappear in the U.S. soon, in part because of the EPA’s vehicle emissions rulemaking, which aims to improve mileage and decrease GHG emissions from vehicle tailpipes.

SNAP and SNUR regulatory proceedings are “inextricably intertwined,” according to a letter sent to the EPA by the Automotive Refrigerant Products Institute (ARPI) and AAIA, because the SNAP proposed rule said: “Consumer exposure from filling, servicing or maintaining MVAC systems without professional training and the use of section CAA Section 609 certified equipment may cause serious health effects.” In their letter, the two trade groups argued that the EPA cannot regulate a new refrigerant under its new chemical program unless it finds that Section 609’s refrigerant regulations (within SNAP) are insufficient to the task. The stratospheric protection division, which has authority over Section 609, has done numerous previous rulemakings on alternative vehicle refrigerants, and has the technical expertise to decide whether R-1234 requires limitations on “do-it-yourselfer” (DIYer) use.

The EPA concern is that consumers who buy R-1234 and then work with their vehicle’s air-conditioning system might be overcome by the chemical’s toxicity, or its flammability. But DIYers would only be using a couple of cans to service their own auto. Moreover, a study done for the Society of Automotive Engineers by Gradient Corporation found that there was little if any risk of an explosion under the hood caused by R-1234. If there were flammability concerns, it would be with large quantities stored in a warehouse, or in a retailer’s backroom; but even that threat would be remote. EPA concern about toxicity seems a stretch, too, as an argument it leans on is that there is a danger when a refrigerant can is held upside down for a period, but not when it is right-side up.

Aside from DIYer use restrictions, which could be included in the upcoming SNUR, there is continuing concern with the proposed conditions of use in the SNAP proposal, which includes requiring automobile manufacturers to make changes to the design of air-conditioning systems to mitigate any potential leakages of R-1234. If those steps are finalized, that would mean that all the cars on the road today using R-134a COULD NOT be retrofitted to use R-1234 for reasons having to do with engineering complexity.