For a long time, apartment owners have been wary of the effects of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decision that would phase out R-22 condensers and replace them with R-410A condensers, which are more environmentally friendly. “For 20 years, they were preparing everyone for this,” says Joe Perez, facilities manager for San Francisco-based REIT BRE Properties. “This was going to be the big changeout, like it was for car air conditioning.”
It doesn’t sound like a big deal on the surface, but if you dig a little deeper, the requirement could have broad implications. To produce an air conditioning system to work with R-410A could be pricey. Everything that works with the system would also need to be replaced. “In the worst-case scenario, you had to replace the line set, you had to replace the air handler, and you had to replace the actual condensing unit,” Perez says. “Each [apartment] unit would have a minimum cost of $6,000 from ripping out the stucco, putting it back, and repainting it. Or you go in and disturb the resident and put them into a hotel.”
None of those choices was good. “The nightmare was, 'How we do that?'” Perez says. “Do we rip out the stucco or the drywall? Do we re-pipe all of this back in? Do we put a smaller pipe through the existing pipe? What is it? Or worst of all, do we run these pies outside the building and call it a day?”
That’s why an idea concocted by Tim Shelly, owner of Aero Fresh Heating and Air Conditioning in Bloomington, Calif., has been so appealing. Shelly thought he could replace the condenser, keep the evaporator, and purge the copper line, and the system would operate just fine within the new requirements (because it can handle the pressure of the R-22). Meanwhile, this solution only costs about $1,000 per unit, according to Perez.
Shelly tested the existing copper lines at his house and then on the property of the local Pacific Properties. He found that those copper pipes could withstand the R-410A pressure. “We played with and experimented with gas,” he says. “We replaced condensers and left the expansion devices, did testing on them, and came to find out they were perfectly fine. The copper lines and coils didn't burst.”
Since then, Shelly has spread the word to companies like BRE and Malibu, Calif.-based Sirius Property Management. So far, they’ve been pleased. “We’re using the exact same lines,” says Paolo Pedrazzoli, president of Siruis. “We’re not changing anything. We’re bleeding out the lines, and we’re putting a new condenser on the roof that is more efficient. It’s a much more stable gas, friendly to the environment. It works, and it works more efficiently.”
Perez studied Shelly’s method, and now his team is doing the changeout of the condensers. “Now the system is running 75 percent of the time instead of 100 percent of the time because of the efficiency of coils and gas being used,” he says.
So far, the units have tested out fine. That being said, many contractors still recommend taking out the entire system.