Air conditioner units can be tricky to recycle due to the gas in their refrigerant lines, but programs do exist.
Air conditioners don’t exactly have a reputation as the most eco-friendly contraptions. But, if you need one to make it through the summer, two members of Heating Airconditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International
(HARDI), a trade association for HVAC wholesalers, share a few things you can do to get the greenest system possible. They also share advice for how best to recycle machines that are beyond repair.
The greenest air conditioners available today are geothermal
HVAC systems. Geothermal technology
takes advantage of ground-source water, which stays at a relatively consistent temperature year-round and requires less energy to heat and cool.
“These systems typically have the highest initial installed cost, but lowest ongoing energy costs,” says Randy Roberson, Vice President of Indianapolis-based Duncan Supply Company
and Chairman of the HARDI HVAC Ducted Systems Sub-Committee.
If geothermal isn’t a possibility, eco-minded consumers should ask their retailer about the SEER (seasonal energy-efficiency ratio) and HSPF (heating season performance factor) values of machines. New air conditioners must have a minimum SEER rating of 13 and a minimum HSPF of 7.7, according to Brent James, Executive Vice President of Johnson Air Products
in Portland and Chairman of HARDI’s Sustainable Building Committee. The SEER for residential A/C units goes up to 26.
Air conditioners with a high SEER are typically more expensive. But, like geothermal systems, machines with a high rating will save more energy in the long run, so it may be worth the investment. Many cities, states or utility companies offer rebates
for highly energy-efficient equipment, which can generate additional savings.
Still using an older machine? Keep it going for as long as possible by having it serviced by a licensed technician every year, Roberson says. Replacing indoor air filters
regularly will also help it function correctly.
If the outdoor unit of an existing air conditioner needs to be replaced, make sure the installer does not use a “dry charge unit,” or a unit intended to run with refrigerants that are no longer legal. These units may say they have a high SEER level, but if the indoor unit does not have the equivalent SEER, the system will operate inefficiently.
“HARDI highly recommends that homeowners spend the extra money to get a new matched outdoor unit and indoor coil using the newer and more environmentally friendly R410A refrigerant,” Roberson says. “This will assure the system operates at the SEER level the consumer intended to purchase.” Hiring a certified technician will help consumers avoid this problem.
When that old air conditioner finally reaches the end of its usable life, make sure it goes to a company that is committed to environmental sustainability and responsible recycling. An air conditioner is basically a hunk of steel, copper and aluminum with some refrigerant in it. Old machines contain a refrigerant called R22, which happens to be an ozone-depleting gas. That gas can be removed for recycling or destruction, but there are plenty of dodgy folks out there who will simply cut into the refrigerant lines and release the gas into the atmosphere so they can recycle the metal. (This practice is not only illegal, but also carries a hefty fine.)
To find a company that will capture the refrigerant and dispose of it properly, James recommends using a licensed contractor and asking how they dispose of the refrigerant. If they don’t do it themselves, find out who does and what their policies on disposal are. Also: “Check the company’s website to see if they have an environmental focus,” James says.