Ostriches are the largest birds on earth. They’re renowned for their big necks, their inability to fly, and the incredible speeds at which they can run (sustained at an amazing 30 mph). When threatened, they do one of two things: they run away (very quickly), or they lie flat on the ground. In the latter case, from a distance, it can appear that this giant bird is burying its head in the sand.

From this observation was born the idea that to avoid danger (problems), you just have to bury your head in the sand. As we all know, there isn’t a grain of truth to this idea.

And yet, there are groups of people who do seem to subscribe to the notion that if you ignore something, it’ll just go away. In this scenario, the HVAC industry can be compared to an ostrich. As an industry, we can move very quickly to affect changes when danger is imminent. The 13-SEER mandate is certainly a case in point. But sometimes, when the danger seems far off, we tend to close our eyes and hope it goes away.

For example, let’s talk about refrigerant phaseouts. In less than two years, the most used, most familiar, and most trusted refrigerant — R-22 — will be banned from use in new HVAC equipment. And thanks to some recent revisions in the Montreal Protocol, in 2010, production of R-22 will drop to 25% of 1996 production levels, and then to 10% in 2015 — much more drastic reductions than originally mandated.

Why is this significant? In a word: shortfall. This means at the reduced production rates, shortages could begin occurring in 2015. There simply won’t be enough virgin R-22 available to service the existing installed base of air conditioning equipment in the U.S.

In a press event hosted by Emerson Climate Technologies during the 2008 Air-conditioning, Heating, and Refrigerating Exposition, Warren Beeton (vice president of engineering, refrigeration) and Karl Zellmer (vice president of sales, air conditioning) shared data that emphasized the severity of this issue.

Is this new news? Not really. The industry has known the day would come since the Montreal Protocol was first inked in 1987. But hey, we had time, right? Twentyone years later it looms over the industry like a predator ready to pounce. Even though we have the technology and the replacement refrigerants, we haven’t done what needs to be done.

I’m talking about recovering, recycling, and reclaiming refrigerants. That is the key method to ensure there is enough R-22 to service existing equipment once the shortfall is upon us.

Is it too late? Not yet. Here’s what you, as an HVAC contractor, can do. First, according to Beeton, stop selling R-22-based air conditioning equipment. Based on an Emerson study of HVAC contractors, 58% of respondents say that systems using R-410A account for less than 15% of all sales. That has to change.

You should specify HFC-based refrigerants in all new equipment installations. For air conditioning applications, that is R-410A. For refrigeration equipment, that is R-404A, R-507, or R-134A.

Karl Zellmer shared a slide that showed how today, end-users are still predominantly buying R-22 systems. Part of your response to customers who object to the higher priced R-410A systems is that costs for R-22 will actually surpass that of R-410A sometime before 2015, that its availability will dwindle, and the cost for replacement compressors that work with R-22 will skyrocket as time goes on. It makes sense to switch from a cost, efficiency, and environmental standpoint.

Second: Fix leaks in existing R-22 systems. Beeton says this will reduce service refrigerant use and can help you steer clear of regulatory fines and problems. In addition, you should also minimize leaks in both HCFC and HFC systems.

And third: Recover, recycle, and reclaim. The refrigerant shortfall will become very real if we don’t seriously begin doing this now. For more information, read the article, R-22 Recovery Frozen in Time, by Senior Editor Terry McIver (CB, January 2008, pg. 64). You can also read it online. Just go to www.contractingbusiness.com and search for the phrase, “frozen in time.”

It’s time to get our heads out of the sand and take action.