What is Freon?
Freon is actually a brand name owned by DuPont Chemical. However, the word “Freon” is used to describe a variety of refrigerants responsible for cooling in appliances, automobiles, home air conditioning units, and other applications. Freon includes both chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs,) which are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.) These chemicals are a mixture of chlorine, fluorine, and carbon (CFC) or a mixture of these chemicals and hydrogen (HCFC,) which have been proven harmful to the Earth’s ozone layer.
The Clean Air Act of 1990
The Clean Air Act of 1990 banned the willful venting of refrigerant gases and chemicals into the atmosphere effective July 1, 1992. Section 608 of the Clean Air Act regulates proper evacuation procedures for Freon from automobiles, small appliances, and home air conditioning units. It also regulates how Freon is recycled, what processes must be used, and when it must be reclaimed rather than recycled. As understanding and scientific testing have evolved regarding refrigerants, the Clean Air Act has been modified accordingly, undergoing revisions in 1993, 1994, 1995, and in 2003.
Only approved technicians, using approved equipment are permitted to recycle or reclaim Freon and other similar refrigerants. Unlike other recyclable materials, the average citizen cannot recycle such refrigerants at home or at a drop-off location. In fact, landfill owners and sanitation companies are required, under Section 608, to certify the evacuation of such refrigerants when recycling appliances for scrap metal.
Recover, Recycle, or Reclaim
According to EPA standards, refrigerants such as Freon must be reclaimed, recovered, or recycled, with each option having its own regulations and proper procedures.
- To recover Freon (or another refrigerant) is to remove it from any appliance, automotive air conditioning system, or other equipment into a temporary storage system. Technicians and repair personnel remove the refrigerant to make repairs or test the equipment, then put the refrigerant back into the original equipment.
- To recycle Freon, the refrigerant is evacuated from the original equipment, then run through approved equipment to remove moisture and particles. Once recycled and cleaned, it can return to the original equipment or be stored for use in another unit. For example, refrigerant removed from one car, can be cleaned and recycled, then either put back into that car or stored for use in another car.
- To reclaim Freon, the refrigerant must be returned to a higher level of purity than simply recycling, as set forth in the ARI Standard 700-1993. This process is much more involved than recycling and requires annual government certification. Vendors must meet exacting standards for equipment, record keeping, and procedures as set forth by the EPA. Recycled freon can be sent on to a certified reclaimer for further processing.
The Recycling Process
So how is Freon recycled? The process is rather simple. Technicians use equipment fitted with a compressor to vacuum the refrigerant out of its existing system. Depending on the specific equipment used, the Freon may go for a single pass through the system, or multiple passes. Temperature is regulated using fans and oil to prevent the Freon from getting too cold and freezing or getting too hot and expanding.
Recycling equipment operates much the same as the original equipment or “donor’s” cooling system. However, recycling equipment has added features such as driers and filters. The driers separate any moisture in the refrigerant that can damage a cooling system or its components. The filters remove small particulates from the refrigerant that can create clogs in the system or otherwise cause damage. To look at such a setup, it usually includes one unit that houses the compressor, driers, and filters. That unit connects to a storage tank where clean, recycled refrigerant is stored for future use or transport to a reclaimer.
One of the most common places to find such Freon recycling equipment is an automotive repair shop. Mechanics who frequently work on car air conditioners will often invest in a charging station. These charging stations house recovery equipment as well as recycling equipment, depending on the model. However, since there are so many different types of Freon and refrigerants now on the market, separate systems or specially designed multipurpose systems must be used for different refrigerants to prevent cross-contamination.
References and Resources
The Environmental Protection Agency: https://www.epa.gov/ozone/title6/608/608fact.html
Refrigerant Recovery: https://www.aa1car.com/library/2003/ts30324.htm