Freon is the trade name for a class of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) and hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) refrigerants commonly used in air conditioning and refrigeration systems until they reached planned phase-out periods, which started in the 1980s due to their ozone depletion potential. 

    Although the term Freon is commonly used interchangeably with refrigerant, Freon is actually a brand name (registered trademark) of Chemours company that encompasses several different refrigerants. Over the years, the most common Freon types in residential HVAC systems include R-12, R-22, and now R-410a.  

    With another EPA-mandated transition on the horizon for 2025, new HVAC systems in the U.S. won’t be operating with R-410a Freon for long, but parts and refrigerants for current home comfort systems will remain available for many years to come.

    A Brief History of Freon

    The history of Freon played a major part in the history of air conditioners in general. DuPont developed Freon refrigerants in the early 1930s as a safer alternative to refrigerants like ammonia, sulfur dioxide, and methyl chloride used in early mechanical cooling systems. These early air conditioner refrigerants were toxic and hazardous if leaked.

    Thomas Midgley Jr. — an industrial chemist at DuPont — led the effort to develop chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) compounds that were non-flammable, non-toxic, and chemically stable for refrigerants. R-12, marketed under Freon, was the first CFC refrigerant commercialized by DuPont in 1931 and was widely adopted for residential and commercial refrigeration and air conditioning systems over the following decades.

    To compete with Freon, other companies began manufacturing CFC/HCFC refrigerants under brand names like Genetron and Arcton. These chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants were ideal at the time because of their superior thermodynamic properties and chemical stability.

    Refrigerant Numbering System

    The refrigerants are identified by an R-number designation from ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers). The R-number indicates the molecular composition of the refrigerant. Some common examples are R-12 = dichlorodifluoromethane (CFC), R-22 = monochlorodifluoromethane (HCFC), and R-134a = tetrafluoroethane (HFC).

    Cylinders and labels use assigned colors for easy refrigerant identification. R-12 is white, R-22 is light green, and R-134a is light blue.

    The Phaseout of CFC and HCFC Refrigerants

    The ozone layer helps filter out harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Its depletion was a major environmental concern in the 1980s.

    While CFCs and HCFCs like R-12 and R-22 were once the dominant refrigerants, they have been phased out globally under the Montreal Protocol due to their ozone depletion potential. The Montreal Protocol, established in 1987, mandated the phaseout of ozone-depleting substances. Developed countries stopped producing CFCs by 1996. HCFCs are also being phased out on a scheduled timeline, with most uses prohibited in developed countries by 2020.

    As a result, CFC refrigerants like R-12 are no longer manufactured or imported in the U.S. — and existing supplies have dwindled. While some HCFCs are still available, their production is also being phased out. R-22 Freon’s cost per pound is extremely high — if you can even find it for sale since the U.S. supply is currently limited to recycled R-22 Freon.

    Replacements for Freon Refrigerants

    There are replacement refrigerants (sometimes called drop-ins) available for home AC systems that operate using R-22 Freon and R-410a Freon, but sometimes it’s most cost-effective just to replace the entire HVAC system.

    R-407c, R-438a (MO-99), and R-453a (RS-44b) are some R-22 Freon replacement options. One replacement option for R-410a includes R-470a (RS-53), but keep an eye out for additional options as the R-410a phase-out progresses. Some replacement refrigerants are true drop-in replacements, while others may require oil replacement and additional retrofit procedures. Your HVAC professional can advise the best alternative for your system type and location.

    Benefits of Newer Refrigerants

    While replacement refrigerants may require some system modifications, they offer environmental benefits like zero ozone depletion potential, lower global warming potential, similar cooling capacities as older refrigerants, and non-toxic and non-flammable traits for most blends. You should consult an HVAC technician to help you determine the optimal refrigerant option for your air conditioner or heat pump based on efficiency, cost, availability, and legal requirements.

    With the phaseout of certain Freon types now complete in developed countries, the industry continues innovating new, more climate-friendly replacement refrigerants. While drop-in refrigerants are available for some Freon types, new systems must now use ozone-friendly refrigerant options.

    Refrigerant Management and Regulations

    With the rise of environmental concerns, the management of refrigerants is now highly regulated. Rules include:

    • Disposal regulations: Proper refrigerant cylinder disposal and recycling refrigerant are mandatory.
    • Fines: Illegally releasing refrigerants can incur significant fines.
    • Labeling: Refrigeration equipment must be properly labeled with the type of refrigerant used.
    • Leak detection and repair: You’ll want to ensure leaks are repaired promptly in larger AC and refrigeration systems. Freon leaks in your home could be dangerous and hazardous to your health. 
    • Purchase regulations: Purchasing some HCFC refrigerants now requires EPA technician certification.
    • Record keeping: Usage records aid compliance with phaseout.

    These regulations help professional HVAC companies responsibly maintain, use, handle, recycle, and dispose of refrigerants. System owners and technicians must follow the latest rules.

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    So, Is Freon Still Used?

    To recap: R-12 Freon has been completely phased out, and R-22 Freon is now limited to what we recycle yearly. R-410a Freon is still currently used in residential home comfort systems but is scheduled for phase-out over the next few years.

    While Freon and other CFC refrigerants like R-12 can no longer legally be manufactured or imported in developed countries, existing supplies may still be in circulation. However, CFC refrigerant use is banned, and systems must be retired or converted to approved replacement refrigerants like R-134a.

    The era of ozone-harming refrigerants has ended. But it’s essential to responsibly maintain, repair, recover, and recycle any remaining supplies until all CFCs and HCFCs are out of service. Following regulations helps you responsibly manage the transition as these legacy refrigerants are phased out.

    FAQs About Freon

    What industries used Freon?

    Freon and other CFC/HCFC refrigerants were widely used in residential and commercial air conditioning, refrigeration, chillers, and transport cooling like refrigerated trucks and railroad cars before the phaseout.

    Can you get Freon recharged?

    Recharging home AC systems with Freon types that have been phased out, such as R-12 Freon, is prohibited. R-22 Freon is no longer being produced or imported but is available sparingly across the country, while R-410a Freon is still widely used (but scheduled for phase-out soon). Systems that operate with phased-out Freon types must be retrofitted to work with an alternative refrigerant.

    What was R-12 Freon used for?

    R-12 refrigerant was commonly used in older home air conditioning window units, vehicle AC systems, refrigerators, freezers, water coolers, and dehumidifiers before the phaseout.

    What replaced R-22 Freon?

    R-22 Freon in residential home comfort systems was replaced by R-410a, which is an HFC blend.

    Can Freon be recycled?

    Yes, it’s mandatory to properly recover and recycle existing supplies of CFC and HCFC refrigerants to prevent release into the atmosphere. Reclaiming used refrigerant is preferred.

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