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EARTHWATCH : Vampire's Kiss : Freon leaking from car air conditioning eats the ozone layer. Servicing preserves AC and ozone.

November 29, 1990|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The weather is turning cool, so it's time to think about auto air conditioning. What? AC in a month ending in R? Exactly. By not thinking about it at this time of year we may be unwittingly letting Freon (the dreaded chlorofluorocarbon ozone-killer gas) leak out. Slowly, silently, unnoticed until the first spring scorcher. Then you get in, the kids howl "It's hot in here, we want air conditioning," you crank it up and . . . no cool.

So, to save yourself from two kinds of misery--a family in revolt and a bad conscience from enlarging the ozone hole--read on.

There was a time a few years ago when, like all of us, I wondered if I was bad for even having auto air conditioning. Those color photos of the growing ozone hole were scary. So I turned mine off. And in cold weather, when it was easy not to use it, I felt virtuous.

Wrong. I should have used it, moderately it seems, even to the point of cranking it up once a week on a warm day during the winter months to see if it does its thing, also lubricating it at the same time just by running it. By bailing out as I did, I wasn't doing myself--or anyone else--any good.

Although the saying goes "moderation in all things," it's difficult in practice because of one's conflicting needs and wants. I've had some consciousness-raising sessions about air conditioning with a nationally recognized auto-service expert, Simi Valley's Mitch Schneider.

We began with the premise that about a third of the CFCs we Californians are spewing into the air are from leaking auto air systems or from venting the compound during service. State, local and industry numbers agree. Because no one's going to give up auto air, especially in Southern California, we need to practice moderation. Go ahead and use it, but please then service it.

So what's to service? It either works or it doesn't. I'll bet you have been to a garage where were told, "You need refrigerant for your AC" and you said OK and the fellow did something with a little aerosol can. Push-pull-hiss-hiss. Finished. Well, that procedure was your contribution to the 30% of the ozone depletion.

You should have had the leak repaired before the refill and asked if the service center was going to put your AC system on a recovery machine during repairs to capture and reuse the CFCs.

Schneider compares these rigs to dialysis machines in hospitals. They remove, cleanse and reintroduce substances. In Berkeley, this machine is called "The Vampire." I suggest a cheerier analogy--the ghost-capturing chamber of "Ghost Busters."

In FYI today I have listed a few service centers in the county that are thoroughgoing about this matter. Call around before you drive around. Schneider says leaks are a problem. "People wait. But no leak ever gets better. It's less expensive to fix early--to fix anything early."

Some AC service center operators are caught in a quandary. In a few years, new cars will have AC equipment that uses non-ozone-hurting coolants (something called HFC123a is a prospect) and on-board computer monitoring lights to signal system leaks. That is good for the service centers because it will funnel more leak-repair business to them. In the meantime, if they buy a recovery machine, (at several grand) before '94 or '95 its economic life is limited.

I think the value attached to being public spirited ("We Fight Global Warming") will count hereabouts. But it works two ways. If you crank up your AC and it doesn't cool, make those calls now and word will get around that customers want a service center that doesn't make a mess of the ozone layer, and more centers will buy the machine. So do your bit for the planet. Be a vampire hunter.

FYI

AC Service Centers:

Adamson Automotive and Towing, Ojai 646-4494

Southern California Radiator and Auto Air Conditioning, Ventura 648-7405 and 656-2772

Schneider Automotive Repair, Simi Valley 527-6363

Phil's Auto Service, Ojai 646-6407 (equipment on order)

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