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Five things you should know that are central to air conditioning

CHICAGO — It’s nearing time to consider the matter of air conditioning, lest you wish to find your sweaty old self hot and sticky come the first blast from the tropics.

Spring is the season to start thinking AC, or at least to put in a call and have the gizmos looked over. What you really need to think about this year is the fact that the inner workings of cooling systems in this country are due for a big change come Jan. 1, 2010 — in an effort to comply with an international green treaty and spare the ever-depleting ozone layer. This spring there are at least five things you should know in the cooling department.

1. What’s the Montreal Protocol got to do with my summer sweatin’? There’s an international treaty — The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, its official name; or just plain Montreal Protocol for short — that, if adhered to, could actually lead to the recovery of the ozone layer by 2050. The treaty, which dates to 1987 and has been amended seven times since, is a prescription to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of a number of substances believed to be responsible for ozone depletion.

One of the culprits that pocks holes in the ozone is chlorine gas. Well, at least since back in the 1970s, the coolant that whirls through nearly all air-conditioning systems, residential or commercial, has been something called R-22, which emits plenty of chlorine gas.

2. Ditch the chlorine, patch up the ozone. As of Jan. 1, 2010, ol’ R-22 will be a thing of the past. The new industry standard is a chlorine-free coolant that goes by the catchy name of R-410A, which happens to be a zero-ozone depleter.

All you need to know is that if you’re thinking of updating your air-conditioner, you might want to make the switch now. According to John Schneider, division vice president for Emerson Climate Technologies, you’ll save cash in the long haul and do good for the universe. Since R-22 won’t be produced any longer, the supplies will dwindle and costs for all R-22-dependent systems or parts will increase. If the Environmental Protection Agency has its way, it’ll be illegal to sell any R-22 systems once 2009 comes to a close.

3. How much energy efficiency can you afford? Because energy costs have bumped up 50 percent in the past five years, you’ll want to pay attention to energy consumption. Switching to the updated coolant systems could boost your energy efficiency by as much as 45 percent. What you want to look for here is the SEER (seasonal energy efficiency ratio) rating; the higher, the better. Minimum efficiency today is 13, and you can buy up to 20 SEER. Where you live in the country, though, might affect your rationale here.

“In Minnesota, it would pay back in 10 to 12 years,” says Emerson’s Schneider, who’s a chemical engineer and knows this stuff backward and forward. “In Florida, it’d pay back in two or three years.” In Chicago, you could save about $250 a year in energy costs with a 20 SEER system.

4. Money back for making a difference. Pay attention to rebates and tax incentives when it comes to upgrading your environmentally friendly factor. One Web site that shows what’s available in your locale is the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency; you can find a link to it at chicagotribune.com/incentives.

The recently passed economic stimulus package, for instance, could provide a $1,500 tax credit. It pays to check what economic stimuli are swirling about, as it all adds up in making this rather pricey home improvement easier to swallow.

5. Don’t skimp when it comes to installation and maintenance. Be sure technicians are NATE (North American Technician Excellence) certified. That’s one way to ensure you’re getting the most efficiency out of your cooling system. And the best times to schedule your air-conditioner check up is early spring, after the long winter’s nap. If you bring out the snow boots, that signals it’s time to put the AC to bed for the winter. All you need here is to switch over to heat, but you’ll want to make sure, with another seasonal check-up, that your heating system is in good working order.

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