The American love affair with automobiles is about to be tested again for the sake of the environment.
This time it's the air conditioner - one of life's mechanical pleasures on a sweltering day - that will be putting car owners to the test.
About 140 million autos and trucks have air conditioners that operate on a coolant best known by the Du Pont trademark Freon.
But because of concerns over destruction of atmospheric ozone, the Environmental Protection Agency has banned production of coolants such as Freon, also known as R-12, which contain ozone-destroying chemicals, as of Jan. 1, 1996. As a result, U.S. and foreign automakers are having to switch to new air conditioning technology.
What this means for motorists who now own cars with conventional air conditioners (about 90 percent of new cars have them) is that they may have to pay $200 every time they need to recharge their auto air conditioning system with conventional Freon, spend as much as $1,000 to have their auto air conditioner replaced with one containing a more environmentally friendly coolant, or simply do without air conditioning altogether.
In the meantime, to comply with the upcoming ban, American and foreign automakers are beginning to produce cars with air conditioners that use a coolant known as HFC-134a instead of Freon.
Freon, technically a chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC, was branded an environmental outlaw by the 1987 Montreal Protocol, signed by more
than 70 nations.
"Transitions are never easy, especially when there are 140 million air-conditioned cars in the United States," said Simon Oulouhojian, president of the Mobile Air Conditioning Society in Upper Darby, Pa.
"And it's all being driven by an international agreement," he added. "A lot of people don't understand that."
The international agreement called for phasing out CFCs by 1999. But ozone was disappearing so fast, according to scientific research, that the proposed ban was moved up to 1996, forcing automakers into a virtual crash program to find a substitute for Freon. The EPA said recent tests show that stratospheric ozone still is vanishing rapidly.
It remains to be seen how severe the pinch or how smooth the transition to a new generation of auto air conditioners will be. It's too soon to panic because many of the details are still being worked out.
David Ryan, a spokesman for the EPA in Washington, said it's important to keep a few things in mind.
"The proposed phaseout of CFC by Jan. 1, 1996, is still just a proposal and not final yet," said Ryan. "And it's not a ban on use (of Freon). They can continue using it if they have existing stocks. It is only a phaseout of domestic production and importing."
Car owners will likely encounter the change at their mechanic's shop. Coolant substitutes "are going to be very expensive," said Joe D'Agostino, a Chicago service station owner.
"Probably the average (coolant) recharge will be $200," said D'Agostino. "Last year it was about $50" using CFC.
Last year, the EPA issued a rule requiring service stations to capture and recycle CFC coolants while servicing auto air conditioners, instead of venting the refrigerant into the air.
"That machine cost me $3,000," said D'Agostino. With it, auto mechanics can recycle CFC coolants, but it is unclear how long it will be before such recharges become too expensive for the average car owner. Besides, Freon cannot be recycled indefinitely and at some point supplies will run out.
At that point, the car owner can forgo air conditioning, have the air conditioner retrofitted or replaced or buy a new car with an air conditioning system containing HFC-134a.
The next thing to consider is retrofitting your air conditioner to use HFC-134a.
Auto industry sources estimate the cost of retrofitting a late-model car ranges from $100 to $300. But for a car five years and older, it could cost $800 or $1,000, the price of air conditioners as a new-car option.
Car owners cannot put HFC-134a coolant into an air conditioning system designed for CFC because the refrigerants would destroy materials not designed for their use.
Ford, General Motors and Chrysler say they are moving rapidly to have all or most of their autos switched to HFC coolants by the end of next year.
Ozone-friendly 1993 models include Chrysler's Concorde, LHS and New Yorker; Ford's Lincoln Mark VIII and some Taurus models; and General Motors' Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird.
BMW, Mercedes, Nissan, SAAB, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo also are already making some cars with the new air conditioning technology.
Ford, GM and Chrysler say they or their dealers will use their discretion on whether to repair a malfunctioning Freon air conditioner or replace it with an HFC model. This will be done free as long as the car is covered by warranty.
Automakers say that HFC generally does not work as well as Freon. "We want to make sure our customers, past and present, are taken care of " said Chrysler spokesman Jason Vines. "And we want to make the transition as easy as possible." So, Chrysler began including air conditioner components that would make a switch to HFC-134a easier and less costly.
Similarly, GM began changing its 1986 and 1987 models to ease the transition.
"By the fall of 1994, as we go into 1995 production, all of General Motors' production will have been" switched to 134a coolant, said Gerald Stofflet, GM's assistant director of automotive emission control.