Dear Angie: I recently had a heating and cooling contractor inspect my air conditioner. He told me I was low on coolant and that it would cost more than $200 to add what I need. I had this done a few years ago, and the cost was significantly less. Am I being scammed? — Kathy B., Indianapolis.
Dear Kathy: The good news is that it's unlikely your heating and cooling specialist is trying to scam you. The bad news is that he's probably right about the significant cost increase for the coolant.
If your air conditioner was made before 2010, it probably uses a coolant known as R-22. The Environmental Protection Agency ordered this coolant to be phased out because of its ozone-depleting properties. In its place is a more environmentally friendly coolant called R-410A. The new coolant, though, won't work with units manufactured before 2010.
Because the old coolant no longer is being produced, it is being recycled from older units as they're replaced. But as it has become more scarce, the price has gone up and will continue to increase. Industry experts I've talked to say the price has jumped from about $30 for the first pound of coolant two years ago to about $175 now.
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Ninety percent of the coolant will be phased out by 2015, and it will be obsolete by 2020.
What this means for you and homeowners in similar situations is that you must decide how to proceed. Do you continue to invest high repair costs in your older unit, or do you replace it with a newer, more efficient unit?
I recommend having a conversation with a licensed heating and cooling technician with a good reputation to discuss your specific situation and examine all your options. You could get several more years out of your unit, or it could be more cost-effective now to replace it.
Be sure any technician you hire who handles refrigerant holds the required EPA certification before working with the fluid.