By Keith N. Leonard, Esquire
Very few of us buy the car of our dreams as our first car. Instead, affordability is the principal concern. One of the many used cars that I have owned was a Ford Maverick. Air conditioning in a car is almost universal in the vehicles being manufactured now. However, that was certainly not the case in the 1970s, when the Maverick was my mode of transportation.
Back then, it was a case of “360 air conditioning” during the summer months; roll (not push a button for the window to go down electronically) three of the windows down and go sixty miles per hour to get some cool air flowing through the car. This was on top of such other great features such as a vinyl roof that peeled away from the metal frame after a few years and an AM radio (no FM radio or cassette player, and CDs and IPods were a still a long way off.)
Like many features available in the vehicles of 2011, air conditioning in a car was not a common standard feature as little as thirty years ago. In fact, air conditioning anywhere is still a relatively new idea. It was not until 1902 that Willis Carrier invented “an Apparatus for Treating Air.” The first automobile air conditioner was not introduced until 1940, in a Packard—one of many automotive manufacturers to have unfortunately faded from the industry.
There was no independent shut-off mechanism for the Packard’s air conditioner. In order to shut off the air conditioning, you had to shut off the car and the engine and then disconnect the belt for the air conditioning compressor under the hood of the vehicle. Following after Packard, Cadillac and then Chrysler began making automobiles with air conditioning systems built into them.
By 1954, air conditioning had become more widely available throughout the auto industry but it would not be until the 1970s that more than one-half of the automobiles being sold in the United States would have air conditioning. Chrysler, through its Airtemp Division, was able to introduce a fan control into the system in the mid-1950s. The Chrysler systems at that time used HCFC-22 (R-22) as the refrigerant for cooling.
By 1957, Chrysler’s Airtemp systems had switched to R-12, a chlorofluorocarbon halomethane (CFC) refrigerant. Of course, starting in 1987, the Montreal Protocol would, by international agreement, establish requirements for the start of the worldwide phase-out of CFCs. The 1992 amendments to the Montreal Protocol then extended the phase-out to HCFCs. In Chrysler cars, the air conditioning unit was first installed in the trunk, but by 1958, it had been moved to under the hood of the car.
The single-unit heating and air conditioning system, with controls on the dash, was first introduced as an option in the Nash automobiles of 1954. The first car to have air conditioning as a standard feature in it was the American Motors Corporation (AMC) Ambassador, and that did not happen until 1968. Even as late as 1971, only one in every five cars was manufactured with air conditioning.
Due to the ozone depleting effects of CFCs and HCFCs, the more recent focus with regard to air conditioning systems (both in motor vehicles and elsewhere) has been one of environmental concern and impact. The Clean Air Act was first adopted into law in the United States in 1970. However, regulating the emissions from motor vehicles did not come into effect until the Clean Air Act of 1990. The classification of CFCs as a hazardous substance followed from the provisions of (and subsequent regulations adopted pursuant to) that law. Thus, starting in January 1992, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) required that the refrigerant in all automotive air conditioning systems be recovered during any servicing of the system. During this period, R-134a replaced R-12 as the refrigerant gas used in automotive air conditioning systems.
Of course, having environmental concerns and focusing on climate protection is not limited to the motor vehicle industry in the United States. In September 2007, vehicle-makers in the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) agreed to use the natural refrigerant R-744 (CO2) in their vehicle air-conditioning systems.
Another refrigerant, R-1234yf, is being promoted as the refrigerant of choice to replace R-134a HFC among manufacturers in the United States and Asia, and Europe. However, thus far only General Motors has formally announced that it will be using that refrigerant in its vehicles beginning with the 2013 model year. Both refrigerants (R-744 and R-1234yf) have a significantly lower global warming potential (GWP) than R-134a HFC.
A related environmental concern is the impact of air conditioning on the fuel economy of a vehicle. A study done in 2000 by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory identified the impact as significant. According to that study, the power necessary to operate the air conditioning compressor in a motor vehicle is approximately the same as the power necessary to move a mid-sized vehicle at a constant speed of 35 mph.
Operating the air conditioning system can decrease the fuel economy of the vehicle by one mile per gallon. While that may not appear to be much, the study further indicated that the United States could save $6,000,000,000.00 a year if the fuel economy of all of the light-duty vehicles in this country could be increased by that same one mile per gallon.
So, is it more fuel efficient (particularly if you are a tree hugger or just plain thrifty) to drive with your air conditioner on or with your windows down? According to that renowned source MythBusters, it is more efficient to leave your windows down if you are driving at less than 50 mph, but if you are going faster than 50 mph it is more fuel efficient to use the vehicle’s air conditioning system.
When having your mobile A/C system professionally serviced, insist on proper repair procedures and quality replacement parts. Insist on recovery and recycling so that refrigerant can be reused and not released into the atmosphere.
If you’re a service professional and not a MACS member yet, you should be, click here for more information.
You can E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://bit.ly/cf7az8 to find a Mobile Air Conditioning Society member repair shop in your area. Visit http://bit.ly/9FxwTh to find out more about your car’s mobile A/C and engine cooling system.
The 32nd annual Mobile Air Conditioning Society (MACS) Worldwide Convention and Trade Show will take place January 18-20, 2012 at the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, NV.
Remember that laws are constantly changing and are often not uniform throughout the United States. Do not place unqualified reliance on the information in this article. Always contact legal counsel for detailed advice.
If you have a particular issue, law or problem you would like to see addressed in a future column, please contact me at KLeonard@LeonardSciolla.com, or Leonard, Sciolla, Hutchison, Leonard & Tinari, LLP, 215-567-1530.