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Keeping Cool May Become a Hot Topic


As the dog days of summer approach, motorists are due for a rude awakening if their car's air-conditioning system needs repairs.

Under federal law, production of Freon or R-12, used in virtually all automobile air-conditioning systems produced before 1994, ended in December 1995. Wholesale prices of the remaining inventories of R-12 have doubled so far this year.

Not surprisingly, when Congress outlawed production of R-12, a step aimed at protecting the Earth's ozone layer, the issue of how millions of motorists would deal with keeping their cool was left unanswered.

The U.S. inventory may be enough to supply the repair industry through this summer and possibly next summer, but after that forget it. If you have a leaky air-conditioning system--even one in a car built as recently as 1994--at some point in the future you will no longer be able to replenish the R-12.

If you have a problem with a system that uses R-12, you have essentially two choices: have the system repaired and recharged with R-12 or convert it to the new refrigerant, designated as R-134A, an inert gas in the same chemical family as R-12.

It still may be cheaper to buy R-12 as long as you don't have to perform a major repair on your system as well. R-12 costs range from $18 to $22 per pound; the typical car takes 2.5 to 3 pounds of R-12.

Under rules of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, repair shops are not allowed to simply recharge vehicles with R-12 without performing a test to determine that the system is not leaking. Such a test costs about $25 and up. If your air-conditioning system is working but simply performing weakly, then it is possible you could get a test and a recharge without repairs for under $100.

But if you need major repairs and you plan to keep your vehicle for more than a couple years, it should make sense to convert to R-134A now. The problem is that few experts agree on what's needed in a conversion. Frank Allison, executive director of the International Mobile Air Conditioning Assn., a trade group in Fort Worth, Texas, said a conversion there can be accomplished for as little as $200, involving a simple change out of seals, oil and refrigerant.

But the waters are muddied by some aftermarket conversion kits sold by auto manufacturers through dealers; these have been priced as high as $500 for the parts alone. The big unknown is how various makes and models of air-conditioning equipment, designed for R-12, will work with R-134A. Chances are your congressman couldn't help with that answer.

* Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W. #1100, Washington, DC 20006 or e-mail to

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