Another refrigerant



Cars built after about 1993 use a refrigerant that is not a CFC. This is called R134a and saves using a name that is about as long as a certain Welsh railway station. There should be a sticker in the engine bay telling you if you have R134a. This is an HFC.
There are many other refrigerants, many of which are heavily based on inflammable gases but some of these cannot be used in a moving vehicle for safety reasons. The west is now considering the slightly safer of these inflammable refrigerants as they are both very effective and do not pose too much extra risk of fire - nothing has been decided yet but I would not be too surprised if there is a move that way in the future. Both R12 and R134a are not flammable. Although R12 is no longer fitted into new cars those built before about 1993 will still need to be recharged with it, or with a substitute, say every three years.
A fact not always appreciated is that R12 is so efficient that it needs lower pressures to achieve the same result and thus creates fewer greenhouse gases than R134a.

R134a systems are becoming more and more efficient as developments occur so are becoming smaller, contain less refrigerant, use even less fuel to run and have lower losses. Nevertheless the powers that be in the UK and Europe are legislating that the use of R134a be phased out in the next few years to be replaced by a new refrigerant. Europe originally decided that we would use R744 which is actually Carbon Dioxide, CO2, used as a refrigerant at very high pressures. The technology to achieve this in test vehicles is already here, indeed I saw a demonstration vehicle in Frankfurt in September 2004, but there were problems with this technology, particularly with HGV's and other vehicles which live a hard life. Unfortunately it also did not work very effectively at high ambient temperatures, as in the desert, just when you really need good AC. The final nail in the coffin was that it cost quite a lot more than existing systems, just at a time that motor manufacturers were fighting for their existence in the aftermath of the banker's fiasco.

A newly developed refrigerant which ticked virtually all the right boxes and is obviously going to make loads of money for the chemical companies concerned arrived in the nick of time. Admittedly it is very slightly flammable but a lot less so than that big tank of petrol under the car and in tests has been very difficult to ignite, thank goodness. The deadline for new models was January 2011 but most new models were brought forward to miss this deadline so we have seen the first models to use this refrigerant in 2012. All new models must use this new refrigerant and by 2017 every new car must use it. This new refrigerant is called HFO1234yf or sometimes simply R1234yf.

Cars that currently use R134a can continue to use that refrigerant, there are no plans to make the use of R134a illegal as was the case with R12. It is already illegal for a vehicle designed for use with HFO1234yf to be retrofitted to use R134a. As you may have probably already guessed from the need for that bit of legislation - this new refrigerant is likely to be much more expensive than R134a.

There were some interesting new developments on the implementation of this new refrigerant in the last quarter of 2012. Although mandated by EU law for all newly designed cars, some manufacturers, led by Daimler-Benz (Mercedes), stated that they were not going to comply with this legislation as they had evidence that to utilise this new refrigerant (HFO1234yf) may be dangerous. They were presumably willing to pay a fine for all cars which break this EU law but at the moment the German government seems to be siding with their car manufacturers so the EU is starting to stamp its foot. It is difficult to imagine EU politicians accepting that they might have taken the wrong decision. Even Toyota seems to be in some doubt as to whether it wishes to obey EU rules as it is supplying some cars charged with R134a although EU regulations state that these should be charged with HFO1234yf. Watch this space.

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