5 On Your Side

Older AC systems can drain your wallet as refrigerant prices soar

Posted July 10, 2013 6:20 p.m. EDT
Updated July 11, 2013 11:35 a.m. EDT

When it's boiling hot outside, it's time to turn down the temperature inside. But anyone who has called an air conditioning repairman lately for a freon boost knows prices are up after the federal government banned production of the popular R-22 refrigerant.

— When it's boiling hot outside, it's time to turn down the temperature inside. But anyone who has called an air conditioning repairman lately for a refrigerant boost knows prices are up after the federal government banned production of the popular R-22 freon.

John Mazzuchelli had a refrigerant leak in one unit of his home.

"(It) was no longer cooling the upstairs," he said.

Mazzuchelli didn't want to spend thousands of dollars on a new system, so he called Weather Master Heating & Air Conditioning in Knightdale. He needed four pounds of refrigerant.

"When I got home, I got ... a bill for $743.06," he said. "I was pretty shocked to see that."

The R-22 freon alone cost $664, or $166 a pound.

"Right now, R-22 is one of the most expensive gasses on the market," said Corky Street with the state Board of Refrigeration Examiners.

Because of its impact on the ozone, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered all production of R-22 to stop by 2020. It's already been cut back significantly, sending prices way up. 

"As we get closer to the 2020 mandate, where R-22 will never be made again, it's going to become probably the most expensive gas in our industry," Street said.

So, what does refrigerant cost now? The 5 On Your Side team called AC repair companies and found the prices vary widely. Most charge one amount for the first pound of refrigerant and less for additional pounds. The price for four pounds of refrigerant ranged from a low of $38 a pound to a high of $114 from Weather Master.

That's still much lower than the $166 per pound that Mazzuchelli paid, so 5 On Your Side called the company's service manager, Brian Boysen. He said the $114 price we were quoted over the phone was inaccurate, and that it's "against company policy" to provide that information over the phone.

However, he added that there was a "definite math error by the technician" and agreed to give Mazzuchelli a 50-percent refund of $332.

The refrigerant still cost him $83 a pound.

The alert for all of us: The next time the AC won't cool down without the help of a refrigerant boost, prepare to pay.

And keep in mind: beyond the varying prices for refrigerant, repair companies have different prices for their initial trip charge and leak search, so it can really pay to call around. Get as many prices as possible and do the math – sometimes it's better to just bite the bullet and replace an old system.

Street said online research can also turn up some alternative refrigerants that can work with older HVAC systems that use R-22.