Understanding Freon: What It Means To The Ozone And You

If you have been a homeowner for any period of time, you have probably had your air conditioning unit serviced. Many times, one of the things that the technician will tell you is that your unit just needs to be charged, or that they need to add a little bit of Freon. Have you ever stopped to wonder what Freon really is, why it is so important to your air conditioning system, or what it means to the ozone layer?

Chlorofluorocarbon By Another Name

When your technician charges your system, they may not be adding Freon at all. What they will add is probably chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), but unless it is a chemical that has been manufactured by DuPont, then it truly is not Freon. Freon is a brand name that has become so popular that most people refer to this type of organic compound by it.

Exactly what is CFC? It is an organic volatile gaseous compound which is made up of carbon, chlorine, and fluorine. It is very similar in nature to methane, ethane, and propane. It may also be called R-12, or Freon-12. CFC is most popularly used as a refrigerant, solvent, and can have propellant properties when it is used in an aerosol application.

How Does It Work?

When used as a refrigerant in your cooling system, CFCs are able to transition from a gas to a liquid and back, through the process of evaporation. Here is a simple explanation of a standard system; because all systems are manufactured differently, yours may slightly vary:

  • Your system starts by compressing a cold CFC gas.
  • Compression causes the gas pressure to rise which makes it very hot.
  • Hot gas moves through your unit's coils,
  • The movement lowers the heat and converts the gas to a liquid.
  • This liquid, then goes through your unit's expansion valve which causes it to evaporate and become a cold gas again.
  • This cold gas then moves further through your unit absorbing the heat from the air and replacing it with cooler air.

Without some type of CFC or refrigerant, your unit would be unable to function. Although CFCs have been in use for more than 50 years, recent studies have shown that they are contributing significantly to the destruction of the ozone layer. Due to this, many companies are phasing out the use of CFCs and replacing them with other types of chemical compounds.

Chlorofluorocarbon And The Ozone

When CFCs were developed over 50 years ago, there was little known about the effect that certain chemicals could have on the environment. As time has gone on, more research has been conducted. What was once seen as a relatively innocent chemical is now seen as a highly destructive chemical compound which is eating away at the ozone layer.

To put it simply: 

  • CFC is released through use into the environment.
  • The gas rises into the atmosphere, as most gases do.
  • The ultraviolet radiation in the atmosphere breaks down the chemical compound.
  • Chlorine which is part of the chemical compound, is released into the atmosphere destroying large amounts of ozone.

Scientists are now seeing and understanding this through studies of global warming, and harmful ultraviolet radiation. Without adequate ozone protection, harmful UVB waves of ultraviolet light are able to reach the earths surface. Unfortunately, it is estimated that ozone depletion is occurring at a rate of about 4% every decade.

What Is Being Done?

This damage is being taken very seriously. Many companies, as well as the federal government, have spent billions of dollars working to find safe solutions to replace CFCs. Older chemicals are being phased out, and new chemicals are being phased in. These new chemical compounds are being evaluated and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency through their Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP). Not only has this agency identified and published list of acceptable and unacceptable substitutes, they will continue to add to these lists as more compounds become available.

What Does This Mean To You?

As a consumer, you will see the availability of certain CFC become no longer available. These are already being phased out and new products are being put in their place. Do not be afraid to switch. The products that are now on the market have been proven to be fully compatible with the chemicals that you have used in the past. Always ensure that you are using an approved refrigerant in your cooling system. Do not listen to anyone who encourages you to use propane, methane, or any other dangerous chemical in your home air conditioning unit. While these are used as refrigerants in certain types of systems, these systems have safeguards in place to tolerate these volatile chemicals.

Talk to an HVAC contractor in your area for more information.