Ozone-Friendlier Cars Will Let Everyone Breathe a Little Easier

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

LOOKING for a new car, and want to do as little damage to the earth's ozone layer as possible? The auto industry has some good news - finally.

As many as 90 percent of 1994's new cars are using non-ozone-depleting air-conditioner refrigerant two years before it will be required by international agreement. The trend started in 1992, says Ward Atkinson, chairman of the Interior Climate Control Standards Committee of the Society of Automotive Engineers and technical adviser to the Mobile Air Conditioning Society (MACS). All models are expected to use the new refrigerants by the end of 1994, Mr. Atkinson says. In brochures for the models that already use the new ``green'' refrigerant, carmakers are hyping the new technology.

Even with environmental awareness at the highest it's ever been, however, the hype surrounding these green air-conditioner refrigerants has not affected car sales, according to a number of Boston dealers. The trend is so new and so widespread that no statistics exist to compare how the environmental marketing has affected sales.

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``It's some consideration'' for customers, says John Herra, a Toyota salesman in Watertown, Mass. ``I've gotten a few questions about [the air conditioners], but it's not a big factor.''

But car buyers have reason to be concerned. Although the use of ozone-depleting CFC-12 refrigerants is not illegal, manufacturing the chemicals was banned Jan. 1 under the international Montreal Protocol agreement on saving the ozone layer. As drivers of cars that use chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants need to recharge their air conditioners, the old refrigerants, commonly known as Freon, will run short. These shortages are expected sometime in 1995, Atkinson says.

AFTER that, owners of cars with the old refrigerants will have to do without their air conditioners or convert them to use the replacement hydrofluorocarbon-134 refrigerant (HFC-134). The retrofit will cost about $200 more than the regular bill to repair and recharge the car's air conditioner, Atkinson says. The retrofit should include a higher-powered compressor and new hose fittings to prevent the new refrigerant from being contaminated with CFC-12.

Under the US Clean Air Act, air-conditioning refrigerants will no longer be allowed to be vented (or leak) into the atmosphere, according to a MACS brochure, and the new HFC-134 refrigerants will be taxed so that it will not be economical just to recharge the systems when they develop leaks; the leaks will have to be fixed.

Atkinson estimates that there are 140 million vehicles using CFC air conditioners in the US that will be affected by the new regulations, which don't go into effect until 1996.

In the meantime, automakers have gotten a head start on compliance by converting to HFCs, which Atkinson says do not damage the atmosphere because they do not contain chlorine atoms. It is the chlorine atoms in CFCs that react with ozone under sunlight to break down the earth's protective ozone layer. One chlorine molecule can destroy 100,000 ozone molecules, Atkinson notes.

Unlike some replacement refrigerants, such as those in ``big chiller'' office-building air conditioners, the new HFCs have been approved under the US Environmental Protection Agency's Safe Substitutes Rule passed Feb. 15. (The big chillers have been criticized for using HCFCs, hydrochlorofluorocarbons, to replace CFCs. HCFCs still contain chlorine, but have a shorter life span in the upper atmosphere than CFCs and are not scheduled to be eliminated until 2025.)

The Montreal Protocol begins by banning the most destructive ozone-depleting chemicals, Halon and Freon at the end of 1995, then progressively limits other ozone-depleting chemicals. If production of all the chemicals were halted tomorrow, Atkinson says, it would take 75 years for the ozone layer to heal.

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