Heat wave prompts concerns about Freon shortage, home cooling costs

Jason Sickles
The Lookout

Mother Nature is showing Atlanta no mercy. Friday's forecast high? 105. Followed by 105, then 104.

Atlanta homeowner Lee Becknell's air conditioner was kaput until a technician arrived a few days ago.

"AC just needed new Freon and does not need to be replaced. Phew." Becknell wrote in a tweet.

Well worth the $250 repair cost, she said.

"Yeah, it would have been awful if it wasn't working this weekend," Becknell told Yahoo News.

She likely got lucky on the service tab too. Across the country, air conditioner repair companies are sounding the alarm about skyrocketing maintenance costs.

"There are some big changes going on in the world of air conditioning," warns Davis Air Conditioning in Lawton, Okla.

[Related: Heat wave sweeps across U.S.]

"Air conditioning Freon prices have more than tripled since last year," Alexander Heating and Air Conditioning near Raleigh, N.C., writes on its website.

Not good news given that temperatures in the South, Ohio Valley and mid-Atlantic could reach or exceed all-time record highs in the days ahead. From Phoenix to Philly, forecasters are cautioning about the dangers of 100-plus degree heat.

Concerns about the cost of keeping cool are tied to the EPA's phasing out of Freon R-22, the gas refrigerant used in most air conditioners in the United States.

"Unfortunately for the environment, releases of R-22, such as those from leaks, contribute to ozone depletion," according to an EPA statement.

Newer air conditioning units use the more environmentally friendly R-410A coolant, but some estimate that 70 to 80 percent of units still take Freon R-22.

Under the Clean Air Act, the federal government ordered manufacturers to begin tapering the amount of R-22 they produce each year. But the agency has not made a determination on what the allocation should be for 2012, 2013 and 2014.

[Related: Triple-digit temperatures in Kentucky]

Lingering questions about the supply are pushing prices higher, said Charlie McCrudden, vice president for government relations with the Air Conditioning Contractors of America.

"There's a lot of speculation, there's a lot of rumor," he told Yahoo News. "All of that uncertainty though has caused, like I said, sort of a frenzy condition. Almost like a bank run."

Bob Enochs, owner of Wortman Central Air Conditioning Co. in Tulsa, Okla., has seen the problem firsthand.

"I can get a couple of bottles of Freon here and a couple of bottles there," he recently told the Tulsa World. "Last year, I could order three pallets of Freon, but this year we are all scrounging for it."

A pound of R-22 that was $30 in 2011 is now going for $70 to $100 or more.

"In general, what I'm hearing is consumers can expect to pay two to three to four times as much as they paid for the same servicing that occurred last year," McCrudden said.

An uncomfortable forecast for homeowners seeing earlier-than-usual dog days of summer.