Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2001   by Jim Anderton

Will Cooler Heads Prevail?

It's midsummer, and by the time you read this, chances are, you've already done your share of air conditioning service. If you do a significant amount of A/C work, you're also familiar with R-134a ret...

It’s midsummer, and by the time you read this, chances are, you’ve already done your share of air conditioning service. If you do a significant amount of A/C work, you’re also familiar with R-134a retrofits, contamination, warranty returns and other profit-harming issues. Put simply, it’s expensive, yet the non-critical nature of A/C seems to lead the driving public to believe that it should be cheaper than brakes or ride control. After all, the car runs without it, right? That attitude, combined with the ability to defer the service if the price isn’t acceptable, has driven many shops to either get out of the segment, or conversely, to invest in the technology and training needed to perform A/C service efficiently. Among the latter group, a significant number have called and E-mailed me to comment on the use of “drop-in” and “alternative” refrigerants to R-134a. There is a tremendous amount of mis-information out there, and with different regulations in each province and territory, it’s not getting any clearer for me, either.

I’ve seen videotape of a vehicle blown up by the use of iso-butane as a refrigerant, and I’ve also seen evidence that carefully engineered hydrocarbon products are perfectly safe in automotive A/C applications. I’ve heard rumors about the motivations behind some manufacturers and vendors of refrigerant products that are too scandalous, and incredible, to repeat. The common thread is the high level of emotion that the issue seems to generate, combined with the annoyance of bay-level technicians who must endure licensing, recycling, paperwork, and consumer frustration. Add to the mix installers who declare that aftermarket replacement parts are poor in quality, and aftermarket vendors, who report that too many installers damage the parts, then demand warranty action, and you have a volatile combination.

I propose a possible solution: Shops willing to offer A/C service should be prepared to handle R-12, R-134a, hydrocarbons, or anything else that can find it’s way into a system, and should buy and use a refrigerant identifier. Yes, it’s expensive, and so is the training and paperwork. If you can’t justify it, farm the work out to a business that can. Vendors of A/C components must accept that “curbsiders” and less sophisticated shops won’t flush and correctly fill every system, and design products and systems accordingly. One example is the practice of some manufacturers to ship compressors pre-charged with oil, while others ship dry. In many cases the warning labels look the same, but many shops have reported that mistakes do happen. Can every technician read and understand English? Not always, and certainly not everywhere.

Among refrigerants, a form of independent, real-world test to determine the flammability, toxicity and effectiveness of different refrigerant types, including hydrocarbons, should be funded and performed by a Canadian regulatory agency such as Transport Canada to draw definitive conclusions. Then with a national “approved list”, manufacturers can simplify warranty claim issues, technicians can recharge with confidence, and government agencies and insurers can streamline procedures. There are probably many other ideas out there, and I’m sure that many of you are thinking on similar lines. The main objective, however, is to keep A/C service affordable, and profitable, because this isn’t Arizona, and if the complexity and cost gets out of hand, many Canadian motorists will simply say “No”. Then, we all lose.

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