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It will not be business as usual much longer for companies in the air conditioning and refrigeration field. At least it shouldn't be.

Thanks to the Clean Air Act of 1990, ever since July 1, 1992, it has been illegal to vent refrigerant gases into the atmosphere during repair, service or disposal of air conditioning and refrigeration equipment. The EPA, charged with enforcing the Clean Air Act, also requires owners of certain commercial and industrial cooling equipment to repair "substantial" leaks when detected or else develop concrete plans to replace it.

Under the next phase of this legislation, by November 14, 1994, all technicians employed by air conditioning and refrigeration service companies must be certified by EPA-approved training to recover and recycle refrigerant gases. Many companies already have complied, but an alarming number have not. Many will have to scramble to meet the November 14 deadline.

Recovery is accomplished simply by storing the extracted gases in an external container. The service technician then has two alternatives:

1.) He or she may choose to clean up the captured refrigerant gas by passing it through special "cleansing" equipment and then recycle it back into the system. This gets done right at the job site.

2.) Alternatively, the technician may decide to put new refrigerant in the system and send the recovered gas to a reclamation center (usually a manufacturing facility) for reprocessing. This decision is based on safety and environmental considerations, the purity of the recovered refrigerant and time involved at the job site.

The training mandated by November 14 is intended to help contractors make these decisions wisely. It is up to their employers to pay for the training, and some technicians also will receive special instruction on retrofitting systems that now use the environmentally suspect CFC gases to run on safer alternatives.

The contracting firm further will be required to have at least one recovery machine on hand. As a practical matter, many of them will end up buying one for each service vehicle to effectively serve their customers. Contractors who use reclamation services will have to pay for special containers, shipping, chemical analysis and reprocessing.

These actions are all part of the efforts by the United States to comply with the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, a landmark international agreement among 22 of the world's leading industrial nations. In addition, the U.S. government is committed to phasing out all production of CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) and HCFC (hydrochlorofluorocarbon) gases by the year 2030.

HCFCs contain highly reactive hydrogen, which causes them to break up quickly in the lower atmosphere, thus causing less ozone depletion than their CFC cousins. However, that timetable may be moved up because of recent studies indicating that they may be more harmful to the ozone layer than originally believed.

Environmentally safe alternatives to these gases are already in production. Meantime, recycling and reclamation are being used as a "bridge" to keep existing equipment running.

All of this has two major ramifications for home and small business owners:

1.) Firms that abide by the regulations will have to charge more in order to cover all these extra expenses. These price increases will be pretty steep.

2.) Many operators will choose to break the law instead.

The EPA has levied hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines against businesses and individuals caught violating the 1992 ban on venting refrigerant gases. However, these are a very small fraction of the violations that occur. Just as our society does not have the resources to put a cop on every street corner, there cannot be an EPA inspector at every job site.

Refrigerants are invisible, odorless gases. The average lay person is not even aware of the regulations and some don't care. Thus, it is very easy and very tempting to try to gain a competitive edge by violating the law. The only way violators are likely to be caught is if someone reports them to the local EPA office.

So the question that every home or small business owner needs to ask is whether you wish to do business with law-abiding companies or those that jeopardize the environment.

Follow-up questions you may wish to ask - If a business cuts corners by ignoring this regulation, how many other shortcuts might they take on the job, including those that put the customer's health and safety at risk?

For those of you who wish to contribute to a healthier environment, here are some ways to help:

*Ask your a/c or refrigeration contractor to explain the type of system operating in your building and which refrigerants are being used with the equipment.

*Contract for regular service and maintenance that will detect and repair leaks.

* Make sure your contractor uses recovery machines and doesn't just let the refrigerant gases escape like in the bad old days.

*Ask the contractor to recommend possible equipment modification or replacements that may allow your system to use one of the safer refrigerants, such as HCFC-22, HCFC-123, or HFC-134A. Those numbers don't mean much to the average person, but they should to a competent cooling professional.

For further information, call the EPA's Stratospheric Ozone Information Hotline. It is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time (except federal holidays). The number is (800)296-1996.



Noritz: Your tankless water heater specialist

Noritz: Your tankless water heater specialist

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