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PROPERTY VALUES / Ron Galperin

EPA Rules Will Mean Phaseout of Commercial Coolant

April 20, 1993|Ron Galperin

Summer is approaching, and now is the time of year people begin thinking about air conditioning.

Because of new environmental laws, there will soon be a shortage of the coolant used in most automobile and commercial building air conditioners. This coolant is most commonly known as Freon, the brand name for what are actually CFCs--chlorofluorocarbons, or HCFCs--hydro-chlorofluorocarbons.

Cars and commercial chillers typically run on CFCs, which are widely accused of depleting the Earth's protective ozone layer. Next year CFCs will start being phased out of production, and by the end of 1995 they'll be banned altogether by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. Thereafter, the only source of CFCs will be older CFC-based machinery that is recycled.

Residential homeowners don't have to worry too much because their air conditioners operate on less harmful HCFCs. The EPA plans to eventually phase out HCFCs too, but that's not expected until the year 2030.

Residents in the Valley and Ventura County, however, still have to fret over how to stay cool through a sweltering summer.

Property owners who get the work they want done now instead of in the midst of a heat wave can probably save themselves some money. Most contractors and technicians also haven't gotten busy yet, so there isn't too long a wait for new air-conditioner installations and for service calls.

The type of cooling system that you do or don't have may help the salability of a particular piece of real estate. And, as new environmental regulations are put into place, the cost of servicing existing air conditioners is expected to rise--especially for commercial building owners.

When the weather is cooler, "people don't think about air conditioning as much," said Harriet Clune, a realtor and branch manager at Jon Douglas Co. in Woodland Hills. When it gets warmer, she said, "a good air-conditioning system makes for an easier sale."

All this doesn't, however, mean that property owners get their money back when they install a new, energy-efficient air-conditioning system, Clune said. "I'm not certain that you get all your money back."

Besides, she said, "people fall in love with a home for many reasons--energy efficiency and air conditioning are not the biggest considerations." As for the cost of operating an air-conditioning system, she said, "I've never been asked about energy efficiency."

"It definitely hurts the value of your home if you don't have good air conditioning," said George Magnani, owner of George & Son Refrigeration Corp. in North Hollywood. "You get back at least 100% of your investment."

Magnani estimated that about half the homes in the Valley have central air conditioning. It would cost an average of $5,000 to retrofit most homes that have no air conditioning or rely on window units instead of a central cooling system. Add another $1,000 if the old duct work has asbestos that needs to be removed, he said. For several thousand dollars more, homeowners can get all sorts of extras such as zoned heating and cooling, electronic air filters, humidifiers, multiple thermostats and high energy efficiency.

(Another type of cooling system common to homes built in the '50s is the swamp cooler, or evaporative cooler. They are cooling systems that operate by pumping water to a unit on the roof, which then blows cool, humid air into the house.)

Property owners can save thousands of dollars during the life of their system by paying attention to a system's Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER). This designation is a lot like looking at miles-per-gallon comparisons when buying a car. The higher the SEER, the cheaper the operating cost.

"If you're planning to live in the same residence for a couple of years, it may pay to replace your current system and get a longer warranty plus energy efficiency savings," Magnani said. Plus, given the slow economy, most central air conditioners come with extended-term financing incentives.

For commercial building owners, air-conditioning-related issues are a lot more complicated because their chillers operate with the help of CFCs.

Auto makers have started selling a few cars with new air-conditioner systems free of CFCs, and many refrigerators now operate on less dangerous HCFCs. Commercial property owners, however, are still unsure about what to do with their massive chillers that leak CFCs into the atmosphere.

"A lot of us in the commercial real estate industry are not yet dealing with the issue," said Lyle Randles, president of Wilkins Randles Associates, an Encino property management and leasing firm. "This couldn't be hitting at a worse time for most of the commercial real estate industry. This is not a market where landlords can afford to reinvest in their projects."

"When you have a large unit in a commercial structure, you're talking about a major overhaul or a replacement of machinery," Randles said. Nobody is really sure what it will cost to convert the old machinery, he said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed that a satisfactory replacement will be found."

Readers seeking more information about air conditioning, CFCs or HCFCs can contact the following:

Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, Arlington, Va, (703) 524-8800. The institute has a directory of central air conditioners, plus buying and maintenance guides.

* Assn. of Home Appliance Manufacturers, Chicago, (312) 984-5800. "Consumer Selection Guide for Room Air Conditioners" lists 1992 air-conditioner models.

*U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Stratospheric Ozone Information Hotline, Washington, 1-(800) 296-1996.

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