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Should I Retrofit to R134a?

I have a 91 Chrysler New Yorker which I will keep for 1 more year.  My ac is blowing
hot air, and I was told I had to be changed over to use the new freon, and my undestanding
changing over is expensive. Can't I just get it recharged with the old freon instead
of changing it over or should I spend the money? I have 65,555 miles on it and it's
still is a decent car.

The production of Freon (R-12) in the United States ended in 1995.  This caused the price of that refrigerant to skyrocket.  R-134a, the common replacement for Freon is a less expensive refrigerant.  It is widely available, whereas R-12 is getting harder to find.  Small twelve ounce cans of Freon which once were available at nearly every auto parts store are almost extinct.  This means service shops that plan on topping-off or refilling R12 equipped vehicles will have to purchase larger 30 pound containers.  An investment some are not willing to make.  Many shops now have an ďR-134a onlyĒ approach. 

Retrofitting, or converting to R-134a does not always require great expense.  Sometimes, service port adapters and synthetic refrigerant oil are the only extra expense.  Not all cars are created equal though.  Some vehicles will require additional high side pressure switches, and other vehicles may require condenser replacement - or - condenser fan upgrade.  Since R-134a is less efficient, sometimes these changes are necessary.  This largely depends on how the vehicle was originally designed.  A system that performed marginally with R-12 will probably require the most retrofit associated cost.  Also, if the system didnít work at all with R-12, it certainly wonít work with R-134a.    

One advantage of retrofitting is the potential long term savings.  Once the vehicle is converted, and itís done correctly, any future service or recharge should cost less since youíve already retrofitted.  For example; letís assume you have your 1991 Chrysler New Yorker in to have the A/C checked.  You plan on keeping that car for at least one more year, maybe two.  The technician checking the A/C doesnít find any leaks, and believes the system should perform well with R-134a, utilizing many of the existing components.  He plans on replacing the refrigerant oil, receiver-drier, pressure relief valve, high pressure cut off switch, and adapting the service ports with conversion fittings.  The total cost to you is a hypothetical $330.  He has plenty of R12 too, and gives you a second estimate so you can make an informed decision.  His second estimate consists only of evacuating and recharging you car with R-12.  That estimate is a hypothetical $220.  Nearly half that estimate is refrigerant alone.  You compare the two estimates and figure retrofitting will cost $110 over the R-12 service.  Now, hereís where the savings can kick in.  Letís assume our technician doesnít find any leaks, but you know from experience that each year you need to get the system recharged.  Otherwise, it works fine.  Based on that, letís assume if you keep the car two years youíll probably have to get it charged twice.  If itís already been retrofitted, you might be able to get that evacuation and recharge done at any shop in about one hour for roughly $100.  Total cost for two recharges including the retrofit, $430.   Letís assume you donít retrofit and keep charging it with R-12.  In two years that should cost $440, based on $220 per recharge times two.  Hey, whatís ten dollars over two years?  Besides, R12 works better and keeps you slightly more comfortable.  Ah, but what if you have that first R-12 recharge done and it only lasts one month.  With an A/C system that old, it could spring leaks at any given moment.  After all, those old components wonít hold forever.  Thatís where R-134a could save you.  After one month, Mr. Shop owner may even re-check that system and quite possibly recharge your car with R-134a as a goodwill gesture.  Who knows?  Maybe he wants to do his part to make things right.  He explains that he found a minor leak, maybe a loose connection or a leaky Schrader valve.  He tightens it up, and sends you on your way.  Now, letís assume weíre talking R-12.  You know, Freon, that jug they keep locked up in the office.  Are we likely to get any goodwill gestures out of the jug they refer to as liquid gold?  In this case, youíll most likely be on your own.   One month later, youíll not only be faced with a leak repair, youíll need to shell out another $220, again, largely due the cost of refrigerant.

Hereís something few people consider.  Since our hypothetical shop owner may be reluctant to give away his remaining stock of R-12 for warranty concern, he could become overly cautious in his leak repair estimates.  In other words, he might price suspect parts as insurance against future leaks.  Now, that car you plan on keeping for two years will cost much more to repair.  Not necessarily because your mechanic is a crook, but because itís important that he contain this expensive gas.

While Chrysler recommends retrofitting as an option should R-12 become unavailable, we think from a cost perspective it may be the right choice to retrofit now.

Additional Resources / External Links


It's Your Choice: Retrofitting Your Car's A/C System

U.S. EPA: Guidance on Retrofitting to HFC-134a

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