Consumer alert about AC contractors

HOUSTON – Houston has reached its peak summer heat and that means it's peak season for air conditioning companies too.
KPRC Channel 2 News has a consumer alert for anyone hiring an AC contractor to do repair work.

You want to be on the lookout for technicians using unapproved products to recharge AC units. They can damage your system or even cause a fire.

First, a quick history lesson. For more than 60 years, most home air conditioning systems have used a refrigerant known as R-22, commonly known as freon, but the Environmental Protection Agency is phasing that out in favor of a more efficient coolant, making R-22 harder to come by. But it's still in high demand, and the price is now soaring.

"One of the rules in our industry is you don't ever mix refrigerants; that's a big no-no," HVAC professional Charles Holden said.

But that's exactly what some service companies have been caught doing -- using alternative coolants that are easier to get and cheaper to buy. They're also much more dangerous.

"A lot of them have propane or butane in them, which obviously can create a fire hazard or an explosion hazard, so it's dangerous for homeowners to handle those refrigerants, and it's illegal to put them in your system," Holden said.

"If you have an air conditioning system that still requires R-22 refrigerant, you want to be sure that's actually what you're getting when you hire a repairman to do work on your house," Angie Hicks, Angie's List founder, said. "We're hearing trends of people getting R-22A instead, and that can actually damage your system or void your warranty." 

R-22 comes in a light green tank and is clearly marked. Ask your technician to show it to you before recharging your system.

"Most reputable contractors are not going to sacrifice their good standing in the industry for something like that. That being said, there's shady contractors and shady technicians everywhere," Holden said.

R-22 prices can vary wildly -- anywhere from $50 per pound to hundreds of dollars per pound, and that will likely increase as production dwindles. A typical home system needs four to 10 pounds of freon.

Industry experts said consumers might want to consider upgrading the system if the cost of service multiplied by the age of your AC unit is greater than $5,000.